Since 1885, "The Mikado," set in Japan, has been one of the most performed musical-theater masterworks. To modern audiences, though, it can carry racist connotations. Fueled by social-media critiques, the witty, melodic Gilbert and Sullivan operetta has come under fire from some in the Asian-American community. They've called it cultural appropriation, "yellow face in our face" and a historical relic that needs to be retired.
When Lamplighters Music Theatre announced its new season, the company heard the same rumbles that led to canceled New York performances and picketed ones in Seattle. Heeding the alarm bells, Lamplighters sought a solution rather than confrontation. That effort goes forth at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts the weekend of Aug. 14-15.
Dubbed "The New Mikado," the work moves the action to Renaissance Italy, where Milan stands in for Japan and Il Ducato rules over his territory and holds all of the life-and-death powers his counterpart in Japan possessed. And he's still got "a Little List" of societal offenders, which has always been updated to be topical ever since the earliest "Mikado" performances.
As stage director Ellen Brooks explained it, "the early Renaissance was a period of great artistic advance and inventiveness. Transported 8,000 miles westward, it provides a wide colorful canvas enabling us to view this familiar work through an exotic new lens."
The move didn't alter a note in the score marked by a dozen beloved songs. Character names, however, were Italianized: Nanki Poo became Niccolu and Yum Yum is renamed Amiam.
A typically complicated plot involves a penniless wandering minstrel with a fine tenor voice, Niccolu, who falls in love with the fiancee of the Lord High Executioner. There is non-stop chaos, comic mayhem and desperation with lots of memorable tunes. A series of impromptu marriages, near-miss beheadings, and forged death certificates end with the discovery that Niccolu is really a nobleman and son of the duke.
The singers, many of whom are longtime veterans with the company, are double-cast because of many dates with matinee and evening shows. Tenors Mason Gates and Patrick Hagen, for example, share tenor duties as Niccolu while the Amiam soprano role is shared by Erin O'Meally and Patricia Westley. There is a 30-voice chorus and full orchestra conducted by Baker Peeples.
"The Mikado" is actually a satire on British Victorian society and its foibles. Early in its life, the Japanese ambassador complained that a divine emperor was being ridiculed. The Queen shrugged off the objection. It remains by far the most popular of the Gilbert and Sullivan works.
The relocation of operatic works has become a frequent event as stage directors want to emphasize new aspects of familiar works. Peter Sellers took "Rigoletto" to the Little Italy neighborhood in Prohibition-era Manhattan. Verdi switched his "Masked Ball" from Stockholm, where a king had been assassinated, to colonial Boston and the zapping of the governor. It's a familiar way to foil censors as well as pickets and protesters.
Brooks, who directed the traditional Mikado in 2012, sees this version as a "major milestone" for Lamplighters. In the new approach, she's capturing some of the early Commedia dell'Arte and other touches of the setting and period where many Shakespeare works were based.
Costume designer Miriam Lewis uses the richness of colorful textiles of that era as well. This will not be the Mikado of obis, kimonos and fans. Instead there will be richly embroidered robes, tights and codpieces.
Lamplighters board member F. Lawrence Ewing, who sings Co-Co, said he's proud of Lamplighters for taking on this challenge.
"This version preserves the integrity of this masterpiece of musical theater. It also provides stimulus and opportunity to adapt new gestures and postures in keeping with the different time and place," he said. As to the potential of following New York's G&S Players lead in canceling in the face of pressure, "we never considered that an option," he said. "This is a work of unequaled wit and magical melodies. It must be performed."
What: "The New Mikado,"sung in English with English supertitles
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Saturday, Aug. 13, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 14, at 2 p.m.