Moving The Mikado to Montana, opera creators satirize Bozeman and confront show’s complicated past
The Mikado’s original music and witty satire has charmed audiences since it debuted in London in 1885, but more recently the opera has faced criticism for the way it appropriates Japanese culture and perpetuates stereotypes.
Over the years, opera organizations have adapted it. And with The Montana Mikado, Intermountain Opera Bozeman is staging perhaps the most dramatic update yet.
In The Montana Mikado’s first song a group of Bozemanites describes the town’s laid back vibes and laments the high real estate prices before the main character, Bridger, comes on stage.
Soren Kisiel, who wrote The Montana Mikado, describes the main character as a “funemployed, wandering sprinter van musician.
"I think he’ll be fairly familiar to Bozeman," Kisiel said.
Kisiel adapted original satirical opera written and composed by Gilbert and Sullivan in the late 19th century. In it, the emperor’s wandering son gets a chance at love when his beloved’s fiance is sentenced to death for flirting.
“What Gilbert and Sullivan were trying to do was to satirize the British aristocracy and parliament and royalty and class system there," Kisiel said, "and in order to get away with that, basically, they set it in this imagined Japan."
But over the decades, as audiences became more aware of problematic depictions of race in The Mikado, Kisiel says opera companies tried everything from changing the setting to updating the cast.
“But of course what you’re doing then is asking Japanese American people to perform a fake version of their culture that has nothing to do with the actual Japanese culture, so that’s sticky,” he said.
Intermountain Opera Bozeman Board Member Sarah Allen had an idea: Remove all of the references to Japan entirely and update the dialogue and setting to modern day Montana.
“What if we just made fun of ourselves?" Allen said. "There’s so many fantastic tropes in Bozeman! We can get into the ski culture, the ranching culture, cowboy culture, all of these really fun elements of Bozeman."
The Montana Mikado was born. Allen, who organized a companion webinar series called “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mikado?”, says updating the show also needed to be paired with a critical look at its past.
Montana Mikado cast member Kimberly Sogioka says in many past productions of The Mikado there were performers in costume kimonos prancing around on stage as if they are geishas. She says this is an unwanted trope.
“There’s usually the hands over your mouth while you giggle," she said. "It's a childish look at females especially too because a lot of times when you think of Asian women you tend to infantilize them a bit, and that tends to happen in shows like The Mikado as well."
This was often seen during performances of the “Three Little Maids from School Are We” song from the original opera. In The Montana Mikado, the song is now “Three Little Maids From Instagram.” It has the same tune as before, but totally different lyrics.
Three little maids from Instagram,
Twelve thousand followers, hot damn! They all love me for who I a-am!
Maids from Instagram.
I practice radical self-care!
I share tips about my hair!
I always leave my midriff bare!
Sogioka says removing stereotypes shifts the opera from a museum piece to a modern social commentary that's relevant for today’s audiences.
“It’s better I think than having pieces like this disappear completely. It’s a way to keep this alive, and it’s a way to have these conversations that we’re having even while updating the score we can still have the conversation about appropriation, about racial identity, and how can we move past this?” she said.
In the weeks leading up to the show’s premiere, conductor Dean Williamson, who identifies as Eurasian, spoke with Asian American musicians and opera professionals about what cultural appropriation in the arts looks like.
“You approach cultural appropriation when you’re borrowing from another culture without respect, without education, without sensitivity, and it really goes over the line when it becomes a caricature or insulting to the culture,” he said.
Williamson shared his views on this topic with the Bozeman community in Sarah Allen’s webinar series. She says looking at the problematic aspects of The Mikado helps bring awareness to the discrimination and stereotypes Asian Americans continue to face today.
“We’re trying to lean into difficult conversations, have honest and vulnerable conversations, about really important pressing topics; and as we learn how to do that and talk about it more, we just become more open and compassionate and that has impacts for our community health and well being,” she said.
And the conversation will continue at pre-show lectures with the creators and post-show discussions with the cast. Masks are required. The show premieres on Friday, Feb. 4, at the Ellen Theatre in Bozeman.