Friday, July 18, 2014

The "Mikado" Controversy in Seattle

I wanted to share some thoughts about the controversy that has erupted in Seattle over the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s 60th anniversary production of “The Mikado.”  They had barely opened the show when a Seattle Times reporter – Sharon Pian Chan – penned an editorial entitled “Yellow-Face in Your Face.”  In this article she essentially ripped apart the company, accused them of being racist, accused them of racist casting and condemned the work itself as racist.  And once her article hit many internet trollers came out of the woodwork to join in the attacks and condemnation – much of it in harsh and hateful ways.  For its part the company seems to be in shock.  They have not responded well – IMHO.
I have not seen the production – and neither had Ms. Chan before she felt qualified on the basis of her own presumptions to trash the piece and production – so I cannot and will not speak to this specific production.  But I can speak about the piece that I know very, very well.  This then brings up a very important point. There is a difference between the piece and the production.  A much more thoughtful review of the piece by a journalist who actually took the time to see the show pointed this out (Walter Ryce): (Read the piece here)  He stated that there were some elements of the production that were over the line and advised dialing them back.  Of course that is right.  The piece itself is set in a stylized and fantasy Japan that never has really existed, but to over-Japan it with stereotypes – in make-up, costuming, bowing and high pitch nasal voices or even (God forbid) with a fake Japanese accent IS racist.  I don’t know which of these Seattle is guilty of, but this criticism is well-taken and should be carefully considered.  I have seen productions where eye make-up and lots of bowing and Ninja poses were a part of the show.  The time for this kind of thing is gone.  Directors and performers need to approach this work with more sensitivity to these kinds of things.
This reviewer also suggested that it was possible to completely remove all of the faux Japanese setting from the work.  I am a little more skeptical of this.  The productions he cited in the review drew groans from my friends on Savoynet as the general consensus was those particular productions were really badly done and consequently not really good examples.  There is an example however of a very well done production which has managed to successfully move away from the “traditional” Japanese stereotypes.  This is the English National Opera production from the 1990’s starring Monty Python’s Eric Idle as Ko-Ko.  It is worth a look.
I have to say at this point however, that for me one of the most troubling parts of this whole controversy is the fact that Ms. Chan did not bother to see the show, to read the show, to listen to the music or do any research about the history of the show before she felt compelled to write about it.  She saw a photo – one from a previous production years ago – and drew her conclusions based on this.  How in the world is this appropriate?  How can she claim to be a professional journalist when she shoots from the hip based on her own preconceptions and does no background work.  At the very least she should have gone to see the show, and she can still do this and I hope she does. 
But this seems to be a trend in our current times. The days when journalists and others actually researched their subjects before issuing judgments seems to have passed.  A similar thing happened recently at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  Peter Gelb, the General Director of the Met, announced that the HD broadcast of John Adam’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” would be cancelled because the Anti-Defamation League and others (probably wealthy donors) felt the piece was anti-semitic.  This is a serious charge.  What proof did they offer?  Well, none.  None of them had bothered to actually watch the opera (it is available on DVD and there are clips on Youtube) or to read the libretto (which is also available).  The ADL executive director actually admitted that he had not seen the show before drawing his conclusions.  I am sorry, but as far as I am concerned Ms. Chan and the anti-Klinghoffer crowd have no credibility if they cannot find a little time to actually experience a work before condemning it.  I find it an incredible disappointment that Mr. Gelb caved to this.  If it had been me, I would have invited the critics to meet me in my office and we would have screened the work with the librettist and composer present and engaged in a discussion.  Had Mr. Gelb done that and then decided to cancel I could have been more supportive of the decision.  The same situation is repeated here in Seattle – shoot from the hip about something you know nothing about.  Ms. Chan – you have no credibility.  Go see the show and then write about it.
(A couple articles about the Met decision worth reading:
But is the “Mikado” itself racist?  CK Chesterton once pointed out that "not one barb or criticism in the Mikado is aimed at the Japanese. All its satire fits the English." I believe that the work itself is not racist as it stands.  The piece was written and composed in the late 19th century.  That is a different world from ours.  Gilbert created a stylized setting in which he could satirize and make fun of late 19th century British culture and politics.  The chorus tells us as much in the opening chorus – “on vase, on jar, on screen, on fan.”  The names of the characters themselves are not Japanese.  They are derived from English slang.  Gilbert had no intention of mocking Japanese culture.  In fact, he went out of his way to try to respectfully include Japanese elements in the first production.  But at the same time, Gilbert was a man of his time and at the height of the British Empire he like many of his contemporaries had a strong and even arrogant sense of cultural superiority.  He was British nationalist to be sure.  His fascination with Japan was as a well-establish English man of means.  His respect of things Japanese would have probably also included a strong element of being patronizing.  It is fair to review the work with this in mind when preparing a production.  It is also instructive to note that in the early 20th century after Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D’Oyly Carte had died and Bridget D’Oyly Carte was running the company the British government banned productions of the “Mikado” for a time out of fears of embarrassing and insulting a Japanese diplomatic delegation.  Bridget took it upon herself to invite a Japanese journalist to a private performance.  His response was that he loved the show, he laughed throughout and stated that the piece was not about Japan, it was about England.  And that is the point.
I also think we need to be very careful about superimposing 21st century sensibilities and categories upon previous times.  Our 21st century understanding of racism has come about through a painful history of 20th century events.  Racism in America is a serious and pervasive problem.  To accuse Gilbert or Dickens or Shakespeare of racism is simply unfair and uninformed.  They were men of their times and we cannot retroactively apply our own understandings upon them.  However, it would be irresponsible for us not to be sensitive to present day concerns about racism.  The “yellow-face” staging traditions are offensive to many, and not necessary to the piece; Gilbert used the “N” word in two places in Mikado, this has been rightly changed.  Despite what Gilbert’s understanding of that word was then, it is completely inappropriate now.
Ms. Chan complains about the casting.  Surely there are Asian actors who could play these parts.  Well (sigh) these comments show a complete lack of understanding of the process of casting.  First, the piece (as stated above) is actually about England and British institutions.  The characters are all British.  2nd, it is not enough to find a good actor, one needs an actor who can sing and dance in a 19th century operetta.  Undoubtedly there are many who qualify and I know that Seattle like most groups have an open audition system and any and all who are interested are welcome to apply.  Should Asian actors be given preference – cast as Nanki-Poo or Yum-Yum when they are clearly not qualified or capable or doing the roles, or not the best candidates?  If so, how would that be better?  In fact the Seattle company is multi-racial – a fact she would have noted had she attended a performance.
Should only Asian artists perform Asian roles?  Should only black artists perform black roles?  George Gershwin specified in his will that “Porgy and Bess” was only to be performed by black singers.  What about “South Pacific?”  The recent Broadway production did use Asian performers for Bloody Mary and Liat.  But should a community group not do the piece if there are no Asian performers available or interested?  I don’t think so.  Some have brought up the operas “Turandot,” or “Butterfly?”  And we could create a long, long list.  It would be a poorer world if performances of these great works were curtailed because it was not possible to fill the roles with qualified ethnic singers.  And this in not an easy proposition: take the opera “Otello” for example.  The vocal demands for the lead role are extreme.  There are few tenors who can sing this role.  Perhaps the greatest Otello of the 20th century was the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo.  He was always made up so that his skin looked darker.  Is this racist?  I do not think so.  The piece is a piece that needs to be performed and the number of tenors in general (not to mention black tenors in particular) who can sing the role are few and far between.
Finally, I have to wonder why Ms. Chan felt this little 19th century operetta required so much time and scrutiny.  We have currently in this world a war in Iraq, a war in Gaza, a war in Ukraine and a war in Afganistan.  Currently there is an influx of children flooding our borders from Central America that has been met with a decidedly racist response by people in Texas.  We have a terrible problem with gun violence, no reasonable restrictions on guns, a prison structure that is very racist and yet Ms. Chan is writing about a 19th century operetta she doesn’t even know.  It makes no sense to me.  Racism is prevalent and real – just watch the news and the see the images of the people screaming at the children in the buses; look at the attacks on President Obama – we need to address this issue seriously.  For me the saddest part of this entire affair is that Ms. Chan could have used her position to prompt an intelligent discussion and dialog.  But instead she chose to simply write an uninformed angry piece of condemnation about which she knows little to nothing.  The people of Seattle and of our nation deserve better.