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The Mikado controversy: Does opera have a race problem?

Journalist Gwynn Guilford on the controversy surrounding Seattle's production of The Mikado opera.
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Sharon Pian Chan, associate opinions editor for The Seattle Times, joins guest host  Stephen Quinn to discuss the  controversy  surrounding Seattle's production of  The Mikado opera. Chan's recent opinion piece --   The yellowface of "The Mikado" in your face  -- helped spark a critical discussion about the production's use of yellowface and stereotypes about Japanese people. 

He also speaks with journalist Gwynn Guilford about what she calls opera's "race problem".

Guilford says that those who defend  The Mikado rely heavily on the fact that the opera is set on a fictional Japanese island and is meant to poke fun at British culture, but she counters that such reasoning is no longer an adequate defence in modern times.


"There are still many stereotypes that seep in -- the barbarity, execution, and just the rendering of the names, Titipu and Nanki-Poo -- and things like that is borrowing someone else's culture as this gauze of strangeness," Guilford tells Stephen, "It's using it as this device, it's exploiting it."

Why does it need to be set in Japan?

To put the focus back on satirizing British society, Chan suggests setting the opera elsewhere.

"If the idea is to set it in a place that nobody knows about, why not set it somewhere people really don't know anything about? Why not set it in Westeros, the fantasy kingdom of  Game of Thrones? Why not set it in the Marvel kingdom of Thor? That would actually be a way to interpret and make what Gilbert intended, relevant for today," Chan says.


Ultimately, both Chan and Guilford argue that the goal is to move away from a sense of tradition in the opera that has made it possible for white actors to play ethnic roles -- both in blackface, like in  Otello, and yellowface -- since we wouldn't accept such portrayals in more mainstream forms of entertainment. 

"Operas are still very, very often performed in mostly the same way they would've been in the 1800s or early 1900s. And yet, audiences are still expected to see this as exotic, instead of as trading in racial clichés," Guilford says.


Beyond the offence such stereotypes create, Chan sees a deeper, more systemic problem arise when white actors are cast as non-white characters.

"Are actors and singers of colour being actively recruited, encouraged, and fostered to pursue these careers? Are there enough roles for people to see that as a way to make a living? Just look on television, look on Broadway, look in the movie theatres - do you actually see people of colour up there?"

Here's a glimpse at Opera Australia's 2011 production of The Mikado -- featuring some contemporary updates, like references Wikileaks and Britney Spears, but also some of the tropes Chan and Guilford find problematic.



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