Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu

(UK, 1987)

I am on record as favoring reinterpretations of classic works. I enjoy it in music, where it has a long tradition. Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, for instance, was originally a piano piece, but it is now far more well known as Ravel’s later orchestration. I was a big fan of Walter Carlos’s performances of Switched-On Bach on the Moog synthesizer.
In drama, reinterpretation can be a radical restructuring, retaining only the plot, the most famous example being West Side Story. Or it can be as little as a change of setting, retaining the original dialogue and/or songs. There are countless examples of this. I think it sometimes allows one to see a classic piece with new eyes, and if it’s done right, does no violence to the original. I see no reason, for instance, for Hamlet to be set in Denmark. Shakespeare never went to Denmark, and I doubt he knew very much about the place. King Lear works just as well in feudal Japan (Kurosawa’s Ran) as it does in ancient England.

I’ve seen half a dozen performances of The Mikado (including one set in Texas called The Mikado, Y’all) and this one by the English Opera is my favorite. It was designed by Jonathan Miller, a self-taught opera producer, who decided to set it in an English seaside resort in the 1920s. Your first reaction is probably something like “But The Mikado is all about Japan!” But it’s not, actually. Miller pointed that out, in what became an aha! moment for me. “The Mikado is not about Japan,” he said. “It’s about Englishmen being silly.” Which, when you think about it, is what all Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are about. I realized that there is absolutely nothing Japanese about The Mikado except the title itself. Not one Japanese name, location, or custom. There is no reason it could not have been set in Venice, Denmark, or the streets of London, for that matter. G&S wrote it to take advantage of a faddish fascination with all things Japanese. Traditionally, it has been a great excuse to dress the cast in those wonderful Japanese costumes. But it sure doesn’t have to be that way …

Here we get a production that is almost black and white. All the sets are white, as are most of the costumes. The men’s suits are shades of gray, or sometimes black. When we see a splash of color, as in Yum-Yum’s red hair or Pish-Tush’s ‘orrible toupee, it is almost shocking. The cast here is all first-rate. Traditionally the role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, is played by a Big Name, and here it is Eric Idle, whose voice doesn’t measure up to the trained opera singers around him, but who doesn’t disgrace himself, either. Another tradition is that the lyrics of “As some day it may happen,” (better known as “I’ve got a little list”) is updated with a new, topical reference here and there. In this production all the lyrics are new, and I suspect were written by Idle, and they are very funny. If you are a Savoyard, as I am, and not a purist, as I am not, you should see this.