This Summer, UMGASS will produce The CEO, a modern adaptation of The Mikado, written by David Andrews, a long-time member of UMGASS. In the article below, David describes his thoughts on the production. The article will appear in the next edition of The GASBAG. For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org
A new adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado: The Whys and Wherefores
W.S. Gilbert’s libretto for The Mikado, or the Town of Titipu (1885) has always been problematic, not only because it is an inauthentic representation of Japanese culture, written by an Englishman with no ties to Japan, but also because it traditionally has been performed by white actors dressed up – and made up – to look Japanese. Even during Gilbert’s lifetime the piece was recognized as potentially offensive; the license for a 1907 revival was withdrawn by the Lord Chamberlain when it was discovered that its run would coincide with the visit to England of a member of the Japanese Imperial Family.
If The Mikado was a mediocre or indifferently popular piece, the controversy regarding its setting and performance traditions would be academic, and it would be allowed to gather the dust of obscurity on a few stray bookshelves and CD racks. It is, however, considered by many opera enthusiasts to be the best-written work in its genre, and it has consistently proved to be among the most popular satiric/comic operas in existence. Thus the question remains as to whether new versions should be attempted, and if attempted, what considerations should be taken to minimize the issues associated with its complicated derivation and its troubling performance traditions.
Since the latter part of the 20th century, directors have occasionally presented versions designed to reduce the cultural appropriation of the original by setting the opera elsewhere, or by making the audience’s potential concerns about its cultural issues part of the meta-narrative of the piece. One recent and prominent production in San Francisco moved the storyline to Italy during the Renaissance. Another version done in New York framed the adapted narrative as Gilbert’s dream. These alternative productions have grown more frequent in the last several years as the issue of cultural appropriation has been better recognized and understood.
For a company like the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society (UMGASS), the problems associated with The Mikado are doubly difficult. The university community is particularly sensitive to the justifiable criticisms directed at the piece, but it is also historically the Society’s best attended G&S work. Its marketability is of particular importance to UMGASS since the Society (essentially) produces only the works of Gilbert & Sullivan, and since it makes a point to feature full-scale productions of all of their works, most of which do not recover their full production costs.
Based on all these areas of concern, I decided to adapt The Mikado in a way that would eliminate issues of cultural appropriation while also infusing new elements of particular appeal to the UMGASS audience. Since I faulted Gilbert for choosing to represent a culture with which he was not at all familiar, I vowed not to make the same mistake myself, and after a few false starts and adjustments of focus, I set the adaptation in my own back yard; the narrative unfolds exactly when and where it was written – on and around the campus of the University of Michigan.
The result is The C.E.O., or The Widget Company (2019) which moves the location of the story to Ann Arbor in the modern day – or, at least, the modern day pre-pandemic. It also adjusts the framework of the piece from a political setting, with characters representing an emperor and local
government officials, to a corporate setting, with highly paid executives and salaried minions; this proved a much better parallel to the original script than did a context centered on the political institutions of a democratic republic. The world of private offices surrounded by a sea of cubicles is one with which I am intimately familiar, and one which required no cultural or institutional appropriation.
In this adaptation, Gilbert’s words were retained and repurposed whenever possible, as was nearly all of Sullivan’s music (minus a few Japanese-influenced exceptions). Most importantly, every effort was made to capture the spirited sense of satirical good humor that infuses The Mikado’s script and score, in the hope that everyone who reads the revised libretto, or who attends a live production, will find that this new version hits exactly the right tone, in perfect harmony with what made the original so successful.