A More Humane The Mikado

Classic Arts Features   A More Humane The Mikado
Does it really matter if The Mikado is set in Japan?

When you see Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado at New York City Opera this season, don't expect to see kimonos or fans. You'll see "Gentlemen of Japan," but they won't be Japanese, and our heroes Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo will look as English as English can be. That this does not matter a whit has been borne out by dozens of glowing reviews, critical commentaries, and, most importantly, by audiences over time. Yet the question of why, exactly, this is so is perhaps worth exploring. So here, at last, are the top four-and-one-half reasons why it doesn't matter if The Mikado has a Japanese look to it or not.

1. "So please you sir, with much regret…." Doing the show in English dress avoids at least some of the criticism The Mikado has gotten over the years for disrespecting and even mocking Japanese traditions. Librettist William S. Gilbert opened his mouth once too often on the subject, referring to Japanese customs as " barbarous." Fashions come and fashions go, and the days when official protests flew from nation to nation are probably past, but contemporary discourse on post-colonialism, etc., looks askance at such slurs. Of course, G&S has never, thank goodness, been the subject of trendy academic study, so maybe this last point is irrelevant.

2. "If you want to know who we are…." Well "we're" exotic, is what we are. One of the points of The Mikado is, of course, to set contemporary concerns in a distant land where the frisson of "them and us" animates the sights and sounds of the piece. Lose Japan if you will, but setting The Mikado in a British seaside resort during the 1920s may arguably be as exotic to us as were the Japanese to the original audiences. In our dizzying scurry for more technology, more comfort, more money, and in general, more, the days of a straw-bowlered, white-suited holiday seem closer to the Elizabethans than to us. So to our eyes and ears, the "three little maids" are at once contemporary and antiquated. What probably matters more for us, though, is the way (through the most cunning rhythmic displacement) the maids's initial innocence is transformed‹by moving the accent from second to first beat‹into a rollicking chorus line number, or the way the artless Yum-Yum, in "The sun whose rays…," becomes a steely-eyed potentate in the second half of each verse.

3. "Our great Mikado, virtuous man…." Perhaps, if Japanese elements were present in each of The Mikado's numbers and sprinkled conspicuously like origami throughout the score, it could be disquieting to see the characters in English dress. But in constructing The Mikado, Gilbert, and especially the composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan, understood the trick of framing. Thus, musical elements intended to suggest Japan‹five-note scales, repeated notes, narrow melodic range‹are concentrated at the beginning of each act, with the main concentration at the very opening of each act. In fact, the overture, with its open fifths and almost childlike repetition, is the most exotic part of the show. Following this with the chorus "If you want to know who we are" creates a sort of Japanese "scrim" for the work. But by the time we've gotten to "A wand'ring minstrel I," we've left the Land of the Rising Sun far behind and entered the world of the late-Victorian pathetic ballad. While Act II begins with the almost verismo "Braid the raven hair"‹an odd foreshadowing of the "Flower Duet" from Madama Butterfly‹the next number, "The sun whose rays…" is bathed in exotic gestures including sinuous trills and pentatonic scales. A few numbers later, it's "Miya Sama," the only portion of The Mikado based on an actual Japanese tune (and it respects the original tune as much as Hollywood films respect the "true stories" from which they're adapted). Incidentally, the differences between Sullivan's version of "Miya sama" and the original are the key (Sullivan sticks it in C major) and the addition of repeated notes to make it sound like a child's conception of Asian music (an English or American child's anyway). After "Miya sama" concludes, it's essentially "Sayonara Japan." For the rest of the opera, there is no Japanese musical sound world to distract us, and often no subject matter remotely Japanese.

4. "See how the Fates their gifts allot…." But the main reason it doesn't matter if the setting of The Mikado is Japanese or not is at once subtle and completely obvious. Gilbert and Sullivan did not select a Japanese locale because they wanted to say something about the Japanese. And though some would disagree, they did not choose their musical and literary colors to say something about the English. They chose their subject because it gave them a chance to explore their craft in an especially exciting way. This is especially so in Sullivan's music. After all, what does Sullivan get if he pushes a "Japanese" button? He gets to work with a wonderfully restricted palette of sound, as we've said: simple tunes, repeated notes, five-note scales. They are his template for the show. As well as a kind of general "topsy-turvyness," as has been noted. So much of the fun of The Mikado consists of observing the composer figure out ways to insert various tricks and turns and make them work in contexts decidedly non-Asian. For example, nothing could sound more English than "Here's a How-de-do." But let's listen again: It opens with the same first three notes as "Miya sama," the leading tune in the overture. Furthermore, it repeats the same musical idea almost to distraction. In fact, the only way the number avoids monotony is through exceedingly clever movements to different keys. That it proceeds in the "circular" harmonic route that is a Western framing of the musical Orient does not make it sound in the least exotic‹it just makes it a vibrant and fascinating piece of music. And it is this light-hearted, Japanese-inflected whimsy, heard against the sometimes dangerous implications of the texts, that give The Mikado its unshakable identity.

In short, then, this implies the final pair of reasons it doesn't matter whether or not the costumes and sets are drenched in "Japaneserie." On the one hand, the Japanese-ness has penetrated the core of The Mikado's musical personality, and it is there, as G&S might have said, will he, nil he. We can hear it in the three little maids' mincing steps, the manic small-scale reiterations in "The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring," and even in the five repeated notes at the beginning of "Brightly Dawns our Wedding Day." That this madrigal eventually totally forsakes this world, in an almost shocking efflorescence of counterpoint, is part of the work's astonishing charm. Finally, though, since the Japanese color was merely an invitation to work with a particular constellation of musical materials, it is like a molted skin. Gilbert and Sullivan used it to strut their stuff, ply their craft, and as a supreme pretext for creating marvelous theater. Once the work is built, the Japanese scaffolding may remain, or be taken down. "Tit Willow" is a fine example of this, a jewel. Turn it one way, and you can hear the Japanese origins, in a moment at the beginning like "a little Tom Tit." Look at it from another angle, and it is neither Japanese nor English, but a ballad that if not universal (Mars is close, but not that close) at least speaks to us with emotional suggestions unrestrained by place, exotic or otherwise.

Michael Beckerman, Professor of Music at New York University, is the author of New Worlds of Dvorák, published by W.W. Norton, and Janácek and His World (Princeton University Press). His articles on The Mikado have appeared in The Musical Quarterly and Sullivan's Haddon Hall in Contemporary Drama. He has served as musical commentator on PBS' Live From Lincoln Center, and is currently writing a book on idyllic music.

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