AS a practicing Asian-American theater artist, I have long held “The Mikado” to be one of the worst actors in our American theater tradition.
So imagine my surprise in 2012 when I was asked (as the artistic director of Mu Performing Arts at the time) by Skylark Opera to collaborate on a production of this operetta in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minn.
“The Mikado,” which just ended a run produced by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, has been getting a negative reaction from the Asian-American community for a number of reasons. “The Mikado” has long been the bane of Asian Americans. It embodies so many of the stereotypes of Asians as “exotic Orientals” and the practice of yellowface — white actors playing Asian roles.
For example, the names of the two main characters, male lead Nanki-Poo and female lead Yum Yum, ridicule Asian men and objectify Asian women as some kind of treat.
In the plot, flirting of any kind is punished by beheading. It makes the Japanese appear as bloodthirsty people. In her book, “The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado,” Josephine Lee, a University of Minnesota professor, examines the history of this operetta and dissects these stereotypes.
After I recovered from the shock of Skylark Opera’s offer, I realized that if Mu Performing Arts rejected the proposal, Skylark would simply go ahead and do the piece anyway. So I made a counterproposal to Skylark: Mu would collaborate if I would be allowed to create some alternative interpretation of it. To its credit, Skylark agreed.
Some believe that this operetta was meant to be a critique of Victorian England with Gilbert and Sullivan only using the Japanese setting as a cover. There was an Orientalism craze in Europe in the late 1800s when the opera was written, so things that were considered Japanese would have been seen as attractively exotic and an appropriately alien setting to criticize British class society.
I came up with the idea of dealing with both the stereotyping and the yellowface acting in one fell swoop. I proposed to reset the story in Edwardian England rather than medieval Japan so we could remove all the references to Japanese things as “oriental” and “exotic.”
To start with, I proposed to change the lovers’ names to Franki-Poo and Tum Tum — because she makes our hearts go tum tum. Because “The Mikado” is now in the public domain, I proposed to adjust some of the dialogue, such as referring to the titular role of the emperor, The Mikado, as “his majesty” and changing the name of the town from Ti-Ti-Pu to Ti-Tea-Pu.
Interestingly enough, one of the characters, Poo Bah, a local official, refers to one of his positions as the “archbishop of Ti-Tea-Pu,” which seems to fit more with the English setting than Japan. And of course, the Tower of London is notoriously known for its grisly executions, so all of that fit neatly in the new geography.
I proposed casting Asian-American performers in several of the leads — Co-Co, short for Coleman Coe, Franki-Poo, Tum Tum, among others — so Asian Americans would play British characters. To be sure, this casting change would not have been possible if Mu Performing Arts had not emerged as a significant resource in developing Asian-American musical-theater talent in the Twin Cities over the past dozen years.
It was a huge risk. But again, to its credit, Skylark Opera agreed to my interpretation and we went ahead with the production with myself as the director and dramaturge.
Our joint production in June 2013 proved to be a major hit with great critical reviews and standing ovations from packed houses.
We had offered a way for audiences, Asian American and white, to enjoy the true musical beauty and humor of this operetta, without the demeaning stereotypes and yellowface acting.
With some artistic imagination and the resource of Asian-American performers, we were able to create an exciting and entertaining version of this old chestnut.
I’ve come to think of it as “The Mu Mikado.” It may be the only version of this type. Our production must be weighed against the probably hundreds of thousands of productions done in the old-fashioned way, but it’s a start.
A Minneapolis-based playwright and director, Rick Shiomi has been a leader in Asian-American theater since the 1980s. He received the Ivey Award for lifetime achievement in 2012.