THE Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society is an amateur community-based theater group dedicated to the production of the 19th century comic operas of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. We are a club to which all are invited to join and to which many contribute their talents as performers, musicians, set builders and all the other essential positions required to produce good theater. Over the past 60 years, we have annually produced at least one full-scale comic opera.
The society has recently been called to task for our current production of “The Mikado.” Some people feel that this piece of Victorian fluff contains racist elements that should not be perpetuated in the theater of today. This comic opera was written about 130 years ago, enjoyed an initial run of 672 performances in London’s West End and then went on to become perhaps the most often-performed comic opera in history.
It was written at the height of the British Empire when jingoism abounded. Gilbert, the author, was writing for an English audience of his day and felt no need to consider others’ feelings. He is well-known for aiming some pretty sharp satire at British institutions while avoiding censorship by setting his pieces in far-off places so that audiences would still get the point but could also pretend it wasn’t about them. Thus, he poked fun at officials in Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary, the South Seas and, yes, Japan.
We are very sorry if some people have been offended by the setting of this opera. We certainly intended no slight of anyone. The ethnicity of our cast varies from year to year and from show to show. While we work hard to attract the best singers and actors and have paid no attention to ethnicity, maybe we should try harder to attract non-Caucasian performers. Of course, our performers must be willing to dedicate most of their free time for four months with no pay.
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Whether intentional or not, racism has spilled over to many theatrical art forms, particular those written more than 50 years ago. Popular operas such as “Turandot” and “Madama Butterfly” suffer from this but are still regularly performed by major opera companies. Even “West Side Story” is viewed as racist by many.
Gene Ma, a board member of the society who also happens to be an Asian American, had auditioned and had been cast in previous shows because of his baritone voice and acting ability.
In productions here and around the Puget Sound, he has played an Italian gondolier, a Scottish boatswain, an Irish judge, an English pirate, an Elvis pharaoh and even the voice of a man-eating plant. Not once has he been challenged for not having the “right” ethnic heritage of the role. The ethnicity of the actor or the production is only an issue if one is looking for issues.
Perhaps the storm has been brewing for decades and this summer our production became the lightning rod. The society received no mention that some people were deeply bothered by it when it produced “The Mikado” in 2008 nor when this year’s production was announced a year ago.
Seattle Public Theater in conjunction with Seattle Opera will present a youth program featuring “The Mikado” performed in manga style opening on Aug. 1. We recommend that you see that as well as our version.
Racial stereotyping in theater and motion pictures is a much bigger topic than “The Mikado.” It is worth examining and discussing in a forum in which we intend to participate in the very near future.
“The Mikado” is a great work of art. It’s funny, clever and challenging, and has beautiful and memorable music. It is worth performing and preserving, and can be a catalyst for better understanding.
Mike Storie has been the producer for the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society for 18 years. Gene Ma grew up in Hawaii and has a 30-year engineering career at Boeing.