Commentary

The heated debate over a comic opera that’s delighted audiences around the world for over a century, and is appearing on stage in Seattle, has been both illuminating— and disappointing.

The furor was triggered by a July 13 opinion piece in which Seattle Times editorial columnist Sharon Pian Chan strongly expressed her objections to a Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of “The Mikado.” (It closes on July 26 at the Bagley Wright Theatre.)

Among her objections was there were no performers of Asian heritage playing a Japanese cast of characters in W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s greatest hit —a practice she decried as “yellow face in your face.” (Yellow face is a term for offensive portrayals of Asians by whites.)

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Reaction to her column was swift, and profuse. There have been more than 700 online comments about the story — along with radio debates, much Twitter and Facebook chatter, and national media coverage.

Many G & S fans stress “The Mikado” is clearly a satire of British society set in an imaginary Japan-like realm called Titipu. They tout the show’s charms (great music, witty libretto) and reject claims the opera is socially irresponsible and should be banned.

Some Asian-Americans shoot back that casting Anglos as Japanese is at best insensitive, at worst tantamount to whites playing African-Americans in blackface. By conjuring an alien, exotic Japan, they assert, the opera is an imperialist fantasy that bears little relation to reality — 100 years ago, or today.

The “Mikado” critics make some valid points. So do the opera’s defenders.

I just wish the civic conversation was less accusatory, more informed and productive. “The Mikado” isn’t going anywhere; it is hugely popular. But is it possible to produce it with more sensitivity in our contemporary Zeitgeist?

Let’s also widen the discussion with more historical context.

1) “The Mikado” was conceived in 1885 as a frothy romantic romp that lampoons British foibles, in governments, society and the military. The sharp satire was placed in relief, by ironically setting it in an absurd fantasy of a decorous faraway land neither the librettist-director Gilbert nor the composer Sullivan had visited or sought to replicate.

Gilbert said the opera was “laid in Japan” because it “afforded scope for picturesque treatment, scenery and costume,” and amusing characters.

2) While creating the piece, Gilbert grew fascinated with Japanese culture (closed off to the British, before Japan allowed trade between the countries in the 1850s). During “Mikado” rehearsals, he visited a London exhibit designed as a traditional Japanese village, with 100 artisans demonstrating their skills. He invited some of them to tutor his cast in traditional tea-serving, kimono-wearing and other customs.

Did this have the ring of imperialistic “Orientalism”? Perhaps. But for Gilbert, it was also a sincere homage to the aesthetic genius of Japan.

3) Objections to “The Mikado” as a vehicle for “yellow face” arose in earnest a century after its 1885 London debut. Asian Americans were understandably wary about white actors’ impersonations of the Japanese, given the long history of insensitive cross-racial caricatures in movies and plays. For some, the opera also awakens memories of the scapegoating and internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II — a grievous wound that hasn’t yet healed.

4) There have been many modern critiques of “The Mikado” — in Josephine Lee’s polemical book, “The Japan of Pure Invention,” academia and the media, in campus protests of college productions.

But the opera is not static. Some modern stagings have tilted the show’s focus or deconstructed its racial representations — like the play and film “The Mikado Project,” which follows an Asian American theater’s attempt to stage its own version. And director Jonathan Miller’s famous “Mikado” in Britain, set on the English seaside with Anglo-fied characters.

There have been jazzed up (“The Hot Mikado,” a 1930s hit with a black cast), and pop-rock adaptations. Long-banned in Japan, a 2003 Tokyo version with a Japanese cast was a hit. (A woman involved with it commented, ‘’Now we can make fun of ourselves. The Japanese people have grown up.”)

But we’re talking about America, and amateur G & S troupes which take a more traditional, dated approach to the material. This is Seattle G & S’s 11th “Mikado,” and with only minor updates. But classics are not set in stone: you can bring a modern consciousness to a classic, as often happens with Shakespeare productions.

So who ultimately is right? Should “The Mikado” be expunged from the G & S canon? Should it only be performed by Asians, or in interpretations inoffensive to them? Should stage artists be free to present it however they choose, without such backlash?

Certainly Seattle G & S could actively recruit Asian performers for their next “Mikado.” And more vociferous critics of the show might refrain from branding its presenters and defenders as racists — a nuclear term that can escalate and polarize a debate.

Frank but mutually respectful, well-informed dialogue could lead to a more constructive exchange. And those involved are certainly more credible if they’ve seen the opera, and can talk in specifics.

Seattle Repertory Theatre is offering a chance for such a discourse in a public forum on “The Mikado.” It will take place at the Bagley Wright, sometime in August.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.