Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody

August 8th, 2011

By Carolyn Williams
New York: Columbia University Press, 2010
454 pages, including illustrations and index

carolyn_williams_book.jpgW. S. Gilbert doesn’t rate highly in academic literary criticism. The English universities hardly credit him at all. Gilbert’s standing is better in American academia, but never before to the extent of a book-length study. That’s what we have here, a book of impressive depth by Carolyn Williams, professor of English at Rutgers University. Her specialty there is Victorian literature, theater, and culture.

I don’t want to suggest that studies of Gilbert by non-academics have failed to make a useful contribution to the field. But most of those studies are by G&S specialists, whose broader knowledge of Victorian culture is, like Gilbert’s Utopia, limited. As the theatrical precursors on which Gilbert was reared — burlesques, pantomimes, and extravaganzas — have disappeared from the modern stage, it takes real effort to hunt them down. This is what Williams has done.

After “discovering” G&S in graduate school, she spent ten years researching Victorian theater, to try to understand precisely what W. S. Gilbert was parodying. Williams puts Gilbert’s libretti in the context of the theatrical genres he lampooned. As she points out, a successful parody depends on the listener being able to recognize the prototype that is being imitated. It also extends the life of its model: thus, Gilbert’s Patience, for example, is practically the only artifact of aestheticism that has survived on the modern stage. If it wasn’t for Gilbert, we might not know of it at all.

Posterity remembers Gilbert because his works remain funny even if you don’t recognize the models they are based on. The universality of his libretti is what separates them from the mine run of burlesques that were a dime a dozen on the Victorian stage. Thus, audiences can and do laugh at Patience even if they have never encountered aestheticism.

Williams goes farther than anyone to find Gilbert’s antecedents. That F. C. Burnand wrote an aesthetic play, The Colonel, at around the time of Patience, is well known. Less known is the source both of them relied on, Morris Barnett’s three-act comedy The Serious Family (1849), or Barnett’s source, Jean-François Bayard’s Le mari à la campagne (The Husband in the Country, 1844).

While the Patience chapter is especially good (she devotes one to each opera), every one is full of fresh insights and a deep understanding of the theatrical and cultural currency that Gilbert had inherited.

Gender, along with Genre and Parody, is the third prong of Williams’s argument. It is also the weakest. Her thesis is that Gilbert’s characters “perform” their genders, and that while Gilbert seems to affirm traditional gender roles, he also subjects them to critique. She falls very much in the camp that Gilbert’s old ladies are parodies of the traditional pantomime dame, and thus they should not be seen as evidence of misogyny.

As the proverb tells, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Gender is Prof. Williams’s hammer, and some of her arguments are force-fit. She plainly concedes that Yeomen is less useful to her, because it is “less centrally dedicated to gender issues,” and this leads her to underrate the work. She appears to overrate The Grand Duke because it happens to be congenial to her agenda.

She is a bit over-fond of the word “meditation,” as in, “Barataria is well cast as the setting for a farcical meditation on republicanism”; or, “marriage comes into this meditation on corporate entities formed from the hypothetical union of individuals”; or, “this opening scene of marriage [can be] recognized as part of the opera’s meditation on identity.” I never realized Gilbert was meditating so much. (He “meditates” in other chapters too, but in The Gondoliers chapter he does it three times within five pages.)

Notwithstanding this verbal tic, the book is fully accessible to a non-academic. It is written in an approachable style that any educated reader can easily grasp. Williams rigorously cites her sources, as any academic should. She is fully up-to-date on recent G&S scholarship, and has consulted every previous book I’m aware of that is at all relevant. The endnotes alone take up 50 pages. I would have preferred that those with substantive content (as opposed to mere source citations) had appeared as footnotes. It becomes tedious (and I finally gave up) checking each note, to see if she was actually adding to her argument, or just giving credit.

The book is reasonably free of factual error. I encountered a slip or two, but nothing serious. Contrast this with Gayden Wren, who despite a lifetime in G&S performing and directing, wrote a similar (but less sophisticated) book with errors by the bucketful.

The book is lavishly illustrated, with 21 color plates and dozens more in black & white. Consider it essential.

Created In Our Own

August 8th, 2011

W. S. Gilbert’s Pygmalion & Galatea
An introduction to the art, ethics and science of cloning
Edited by Fred M. Sander, M.D.
New York: International Psychoanalytic Books, 2010, 189pp.

sanderbook6press.jpgThis rather bizarre book uses W. S. Gilbert’s Pygmalion and Galatea as a “hook” to explore the ethics and science of cloning. As the editor, Fred Sander, puts it:

Why did I pick this forgotten though once very popular play? Gilbert’s drama not only anticipates psychoanalysis in the 20th century, but also, written a hundred years before the discovery of stem cells, it metaphorically resonates with the 21st century of genomic medicine. In Gilbert’s play, written eighteen centuries after Ovid, Pygmalion creates many copies (i.e., clones) of his wife, Cynisca. One of these copies, Galatea, spontaneously comes to life. . . .

In the play, the character of Galatea—an innocent born into an adult woman’s body—falls in love with her creator, Pygmalion. A moral crisis ensues when Pygmalion finds himself in the untenable position of having two almost identical wives. Moreover, he faces blindness if he breaks his vow of fidelity to Cynisca. Reading Gilbert’s comedy today points to new biological, psychological, social, and ethical issues raised by the recent sequencing of the genome and the explosion of stem cell research.

Fifty-eight of the book’s 189 pages are taken up with the text of the play itself, “with minimal revisions and a supplemental ending” by Sander.

There are seven essays by different writers, but most of them are drawn from pre-existing sources and make no mention of the Gilbert play at all. A new essay by Carolyn Williams discusses gender roles in Victorian England, but does not touch upon the topic of cloning at all. Hence, it is really up to Sander to make the tenuous connection that links these disparate subjects, and he isn’t quite up to the task. Had all seven of his contributors, or at least a few more of them, subscribed to the book’s theme, perhaps the book would seem more coherent.

Most of the essays make enjoyable reading on their own terms, even if the mooted connection between art and science never really comes together. For Gilbert fans, I cannot make the case that the book is worth spending $25 on. For more information, or to order a copy, visit the book’s website,

The Zoo in Full Score

November 7th, 2010

zoo_clyde.pngAfter many years in gestation, R. Clyde has published the full score of The Zoo (editor, Roger Harris). This is the same firm that has produced excellent full scores of Haddon Hall, Cox and Box, The Golden Legend, and other Sullivan works.

The volume is quaintly captioned Operas Without Gilbert, Vol. 5. For the life of me, I can’t count four operas without Gilbert before The Zoo; to get to three, one needs to count The Sapphire Necklace, which probably won’t have an R. Clyde edition unless a whole bunch of hitherto lost material resurfaces.

Like the others from R. Clyde, this is a critical edition, with a detailed introduction and editorial commentary. It is a professional job, likely to suffice for decades to come.

There are no new discoveries of consequence. The deleted song for Laetitia, No. 4, is printed with the same conjectural lyrics that the same publisher printed in its 1991 vocal score (“Laetitia waits for her belov’d”). The original lyrics have not survived.

Marked in Sullivan’s autograph score, there are a number of cuts, apparently dating to the original production, and these are noted as optional in the new score. For instance, bars 54–84 of the Finale are marked “cut” in the autograph. This is the passage in which Brown tells Eliza that he has bought the zoo and its contents as a wedding gift, which I suspect no modern producer would dream of cutting: it is one of the best jokes in the piece. There is an even more drastically cut-down finale, which is represented only by a surviving leader violin part, from which Harris reconstructs the remaining elements.

Harris notes that performers and audiences have not found The Zoo in need of compression, so these newly documented cuts are mostly of academic interest.

Harris did the typesetting himself, and it is conspicuously a home-made effort, not quite on the same level of professionalism as his excellent scholarship. However, it is certainly good enough to use in performance. The edition comes in either softback (£50) or hardback (£75).

Christopher Browne now distributes all of the R. Clyde editions. Unlike the past (when Harris did it himself), Browne takes credit cards and can accept payment in other currencies. To order, visit For information on R. Clyde Editions, visit

Book Review: The Song of a Merryman

November 7th, 2010

menzies.pngThe Song of a Merryman (London: Grosvenor Books, 1976) is Cliff & Edna Magor’s biography of the D’Oyly Carte and J. C. Williamson principal comedian, J. Ivan (“Jimmy”) Menzies (1896–1985). The book is obviously not new, but it is new to me.

Although I knew of Menzies, I had never read anything about him. His D’Oyly Carte career was a minor one. He played mostly small parts and went on occasionally as an understudy. Then, he was promoted to the New Company in 1925, where he was the lead comedian for two years. When that company disbanded, he left D’Oyly Carte, eventually going to Australia to play the comedy parts for J. C. Williamson, starting in 1931.

Menzies was a major star for Williamson, joining them regularly for tours throughout the depression and World War II, and making his final tour in 1951. He also made a brief return to D’Oyly Carte in 1939 at the beginning of the war, sharing the comedy parts briefly with Grahame Clifford.

Early in his D’Oyly Carte career, he began courting Elsie Griffin, the company’s leading soprano at the time. This took quite a bit of gumption on his part, given that she was a star, and he merely a chorister and bit-part player. However, he was finally able to persuade her to marry him, over her parents’ objection. He was a terrible husband. He undertook his first tour with Williamson with little regard for Griffin and their infant daughter, Mahala, whom he left behind.

While away, Menzies partied and womanized wantonly, boasting of his conquests in letters back home to Elsie, which she passed along to her solicitor, intending to file for divorce. He was an ungenerous performer, frequently hogging the stage and making extravagant demands upon management, betting (correctly) that he was too big a star to be fired.

In 1934, he met a woman named Peggy Williams from the Oxford Group, later known as the Moral Re-Armament, a Christian movement founded at Oxford in the 1920s. Somehow, Williams recruited Menzies into the fold. He resolved to change his life completely, adopting aggressively the group’s so-called “four absolutes”: honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.

Now wearing his newly-born Christianity on his sleeve, he spent virtually every waking moment proselytizing, except when he was onstage. Supposedly a gripping public speaker (at least as told here), he claimed many converts among his successes. However, he frequently did so by belittling, humiliating, and patronizing those whom he found less pious than himself.

It is perhaps telling of his insufferable priggishness, that when he returned to Australia for another tour with Williamson, he “felt it was a call from God to pioneer in a country that had never known a major spiritual awakening.” Now, Australia wasn’t exactly the bushland in the 1920s. It was a civilized nation. The notion that Menzies was going to rouse it from a spiritual slumber, all by himself, is more than faintly nauseating.

That he continued to believe this to the end of his life is clear from the quote with which the book ends: “God called me to remake men and nations . . . and that task is never finished.”

The words “As Told To” do not precede the authors’ names on the title page, but they might as well. It is an understatement to say they are sympathetic to the subject. A good deal of the material could have come from no one but Menzies himself, and they do not question any of it.

There isn’t really much about Menzies as a performer. The authors’ main purpose is to write about Menzies the evangelist, not Menzies the actor. In their opinion, he was the definitive star of his era, at least in Australia and New Zealand. Williamson kept hiring him, so they must have considered him a success, but if one is looking for a balanced assessment of his stagecraft, you won’t find it here.

By the way, Menzies did save his marriage to Elsie Griffin, although the couple must have spent at least half of their years apart, given the many lengthy tours he undertook without her. The book was published in 1976, nine years before his death (and thirteen before hers), but by then the pair were no longer traveling or performing, owing to ill-health.

The authors, or perhaps I should call them the hagiographers, clearly intend to to put Menzies in a favorable light. For my part, I don’t much like either version of him, pre- or post-conversion. One of the movement’s so-called absolutes was unselfishness, and it seems to me Menzies’ life was always all about himself. Earlier in life, he was at least honest about that.

Josephine Lee: “The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado”

October 11th, 2010

Josephine LeeIn 2004, a contributor to an Asian American theater listserv noted that the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players would soon be performing The Mikado, and asked:

is this yellowface production offensive or not? if so, any plans of attack? where are the starving asian actors instead of using yellowface?

The mooted protest, or “attack,” never happened. But it was this post that prompted Josephine Lee’s new book, The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

The title is a feint: Lee’s real aim is to portray The Mikado as a racist tract. I am quite sure she could have devised a title that made her mission explicit, but she would have risked losing the reader before she had even begun. Once she is finished there is no doubt where her sympathies lie:

Though The Mikado harbors political sentiments of all kinds, it consistently escapes the charge that it means any of them. This shifty quality is ingrained in the nature of its yellowface: seemingly light, it can easily disavow any mean intention. . . . The very flippancy of these gestures further intensifies their effect, reminding us simultaneously how easy it is to demean nonwhite bodies and denying that such careless actions might impact real people (p. 191).

Lee admits that while she was writing the book, she was “asked many times whether my real objective is to prevent the opera from ever having another production” (p. xxi). She is not so foolish as to embark on a fool’s errand. That the question would be asked speaks volumes about where she is coming from.

It would be much easier to write this review if Lee were an unschooled quack. One could then dismiss her agenda as a simplistic exercise in racial politics, and be done with it. Lee, an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota, cannot be so readily ignored. This is a serious piece of scholarship, copiously researched. Lee offers a deep and thorough study of the production and reception history of The Mikado, albeit from a singular perspective that I find profoundly offensive and fundamentally flawed. For all its faults, the book commands attention.

To call a work racist is not quite the same thing as calling the sky blue, or sunflowers yellow. It’s a word freighted with social and political implications, most of them overwhelmingly unacceptable. It may not be Lee’s aim to see the opera banned, but if it were widely accepted as racist—as that word is usually defined—there is a good chance that it would be.

“Racism” has multiple definitions (Wikipedia offers a good overview), and Lee never states which one she is using. It could be that she hasn’t thought deeply about the matter, or that she is sold on a rhetorical flourish that entered racial studies in about the 1970s—namely, that “racism” is whatever one finds it politically useful to be, and that to admit of other possibilities is a needless show of weakness.

There emerged a school of thought at around that time, that racism is something that whites (defined as those of European descent, with Hispanics sometimes excluded) do to nonwhites. Taken to its extreme, every white baby is a born racist. It’s an ossified view of racism that locks the human race permanently into two non-intersecting categories—whites and everyone else. This seems to be Lee’s view:

On Western stages dominated by white actors, the practice of yellowface—the playing of oriental characters by non-Asian actors—marks the privilege to represent. Whiteness has traditionally been granted the power of racial transformation: white actors could successfully enact a variety of colored others, whereas nonwhite performers, as we have seen with the black performances of The Mikado, were invariably marked by what was seen to be the indelible and natural features of their race. Even when allowed more artistic freedom than as a quaint curiosity or display of brute primitivism, the nonwhite performer was rarely credited with the ability to transform into a full range of characterizations (169–70).

I was struck that “yellowface” is the accepted scholarly term for “the playing of oriental characters by non-Asian actors.” There are many ironies here that Lee does not comment upon. For one thing, it presupposes the old stereotype that Asians have yellow skin—which they do not. Now, I could well imagine a bigoted writer calling Asians “yellow,” but why would someone who is Asian herself acquiesce in that description? The term is also founded on the presumption that Asians are all one race, an assertion I believe the Japanese themselves would dispute.

Of course, yellowface is just one of many possible combinations in which people of one nationality impersonate another on stage. There are abundant examples (Gilbert wrote some of them; so did Monty Python) where English actors impersonate characters from France or Scotland, adopt exaggerated versions of real French or Scottish accents, and mimic well known stereotypes of those two nations for comic effect. Why has the scholarship of racial politics devised no shorthand word for that? I don’t know if Lee has been to Scotland, but I can assure her that many Scots are thoroughly convinced they are a different race from the English. And it must be noted that when Gilbert puts the French or Scots onstage, no one says (as they have about The Mikado) that Gilbert is really poking fun at England. To the extent his portrayal of those nations is offensive, Gilbert’s intention is exactly what it appears to be.

Lee never articulates clearly whether the charge of racism inheres in the author, the work, the performer, or the audience. Her discussion ricochets between the text, the actors who put it on, and the attitudes of those who watch and listen. In one particularly telling passage, she critiques Peter Sellars’s 1983 production for Lyric Opera of Chicago, but as evidence of “complex fears behind the modern version of the yellow peril” (153) that allegedly inhabit the production, the best she can muster is a quote from a British writer who lived in Japan—in 1904! Attitudes towards Japan might have changed in eighty years, and if she cannot produce anything more current, it could be that the Sellars production simply doesn’t have the racial overtones she attributes to it.

At times, she writes as if The Mikado were a living thing with actions and intentions of its own:

The Mikado has also defined what is Japanese in a variety of ways and to a multitude of audiences. Though it bills itself as a fanciful invention and source of innocent merriment, it also represents Japan both metaphorically and metonymically through its creation of Titipu and its characters and through the prominent display of Japanese objects and costumes onstage (141).

However compellingly light the touch of the opera, it still carries the weight of having to stand for Japanese people and Japanese culture. . . . it operates not only as a harmless divertissement but also as a touchstone of racial sensitivity (142).

As these modern versions all suggest, the revitalization of Gilbert and Sullivan lies in innovative restaging, youthful performers, and energetic performances. Unfortunately, in the case of The Mikado, this also entails a revisiting of stereotypes—the foreign invader or the immigrant coolie—that hammer home an overtly hostile and racist message. These moments reveal how The Mikado can never really disguise its own power to represent Japan and its connections to a political orientalism that exists within its patrician fantasy (164).

As we have seen, the opera disclaims any responsibility for racial representations even while visions of racial difference are at its very heart (180).

Lee seems to hold The Mikado responsible for events long past the period when it was written: “At the heart of Asian American discontent with orientalist images and practices, such as have been amply demonstrated in The Mikado, is a desire for stage representation to reflect some offstage authenticity, usually imagined as the laboring bodies of the disenfranchised” (171). How The Mikado could be held to stand in for Asian American discontent that no one had imagined in 1885, is not explained. (In the preceding quote, as in many, Lee refers to Asians as “bodies,” rather than “people.” I do not know why.)

There is no doubt that Asians have long been subject to ugly, vicious, and unconscionable bigotry. Lee traces this history, and while the hard evidence of Gilbert’s views is thin on the ground, she produces an abundance of repugnant cultural references from his own time that he cannot have been unaware of. For those who would hold Gilbert wholly innocent, it is tough but enlightening reading. She argues that Ko-Ko and Katisha are derived from stock characters of blackface minstrelsy. If there is a blackface antecedent for a joke, rest assured Lee will seek it out. I am not entirely convinced, but her argument is not without merit.

Yet, she gives Gilbert no credit for his attempt (unprecedented at the time) to make the original production at least visually authentic, down to hiring Japanese artists from the village at Knightsbridge to coach the cast. If Gilbert had never been to Japan himself, neither had his audience; had he wished to caricature the Japanese, rather than to portray them accurately, he surely could have gotten away with it. To Lee, Gilbert’s mimicry is just “commodity racism”—a fetishism of fabrics and objects that never strives to find real people underneath the clothing and make-up they wear:

The pleasure of The Mikado’s yellowface is in a racial transformation unencumbered by the real, a version of playacting that could be easily adopted and just as easily dispensed with (191).

Lee struggles, but never actually manages to find, much evidence that The Mikado is considered offensive by the Japanese themselves. It is true that the work was banned briefly in 1907 at the request of the Japanese embassy. Yet, when a correspondent of the Tokyo newspaper Asahi went to see the opera, he took no offense and concluded the ban was unnecessary. She seems almost disappointed in the reporter’s failure to be insulted (144–5).

The opera was not produced in Japan until the American occupation at the end of World War II. However, the lack of performances was not because of its specific content, but because it was illegal to put a comic portrayal of the emperor on stage. This would have been true, in other words, no matter what the opera had said, and no matter who had written it. The first productions there were mounted by (or for) the American occupying forces. Lee is full of sympathy for what she assumes the occupied country might have felt about “the superiority of American democracy over an imagined backward Japan” (196), without pausing to acknowledge what that country had done to become occupied in the first place. Some Japanese were troubled to find their emperor the object of comic satire—something they had never before been allowed to see—but there were no full-throated objections to the opera, though Lee tries desperately to find them. Most Japanese seem to have recognized the opera for the English fantasy that it was.

In 1956, Fujiwara Opera toured the United States with a production of The Mikado in English. Critics were respectful, but complained that non-native speakers struggled to enunciate Gilbert’s words. To Lee, “These reviews remind us that . . . the characterizations of The Mikado stood to lose rather than gain in credibility with Japanese performers in the flesh” (204). A better argument is that The Mikado stood to lose when the words got short shrift, regardless of who was speaking them.

Lee is vexed that the opera has not been protested more often. The only protest she describes in any detail, occurred at Pomona College in 1990. A few students picketed, but there was no mass boycott or cancellation. Later in the book, she refers to protests in the plural (169), and the “long history of Mikado protest” (215), which would lead the uninitiated reader to believe that organized objection to the opera has occurred far more often than it has.

The specter of selection bias hovers over Lee’s analysis. Between the 1930s and the 1980s, just one production of The Mikado commands her attention, the 1963 film The Cool Mikado, which she concedes is “painful to watch” (136), but probably not for the reason I would give, namely, that it is not very good. To Lee, it “demonstrates the ways that the radical utopias of The Mikado have been updated to reflect the image of the United States as a new superpower spreading its message of liberal tolerance around the globe” (134). But does the film really demonstrate that, when it basically disappeared after a short run, having made no perceptible cultural impact at all?

The last two chapters concern Mikado productions in America with Asian-American actors, and performances in Japan itself. In quite a few cases, it appears that Lee did not see the productions herself, and is instead relying on reviews and press releases, a procedure likewise prone to error. These productions, in any event, are not available on video, so her assessment of them cannot be tested or challenged.

Not many productions meet with her approval. One of the few that does is a 2007 production by Lodestone Theatre, The Mikado Project, a show about a group of Asian actors putting on The Mikado while struggling against its caricatures and stereotypes. The actress playing Yum-Yum complains that, by agreeing to stage the work, they’ll “be putting our stamp of approval on an Imperialist-Colonial, White-Male-centric, dick-waggling . . racist piece of crap” (qtd. on 181–2). The director concedes that their company is on the brink of financial ruin, and they need a sure-fire hit like The Mikado to remain afloat. The performers, obliged to perform an opera they loathe, resolve to rewrite it—practically beyond recognition.

To Lee, The Mikado Project “provides several opportunities not only for critique, but also for imagining how the opera might be liberated in order to comment on the politics of race, gender, and sexuality” (184). But whatever its merits, The Mikado Project is not The Mikado at all, but an original work that happens to use the opera as a mere backdrop. It doesn’t really answer the question of how Gilbert and Sullivan’s text could be presented to Lee’s satisfaction—if indeed it ever could.

She does not allow that the opera’s light satire and inescapably Victorian English outlook might just be fundamentally unsuited to the burden she wishes it to bear. In a recent production of Hot Mikado, “It is difficult to catch anything more than a fleeting glimpse of a more substantive message about race” (132). Another, this time in Madison, Wisconsin, “seems only to confirm a pleasing version of aesthetic foreignness that in fact covers over any more complicated understanding of exchange, commodities, labor, and commerce” (174).

Lee’s familiarity with Gilbert’s broader output is superficial. She refers to the actor who created the role of The Mikado as Richard Templeton, not Temple (73); she refers to the penultimate G&S opera as Utopia Unlimited, not Limited (87); and she describes Joseph Papp as the director, rather than his actual role as producer, of the so-called Papp’s Pirates (156). Twice, she claims (xix, 125) that the David Bell/Rob Bowman Hot Mikado of 1986 now rivals the original in popularity, a statement that is absurd on its face.

On p. 87, she quotes the Mikado’s song:

In “A More Humane Mikado,” the Mikado states that the fitting punishment for “The lady who dyes a chemical yellow / Or stains her grey hair puce / Or pinches her figger” is to be “blacked up like a nigger / With permanent walnut juice.”

The misquote—“blacked up,” rather than just “blacked”—is not a momentary slip, as Lee uses “blacked up,” in quotes, throughout the book. I don’t suggest that her hypothesis would have turned out any differently, but if you are going to describe a work as racist, you ought at least to quote it accurately. It makes one wonder what other mistakes could be lurking in Lee’s text.

Lee is aware that, from the beginning, critics have said that the opera is really about England, not Japan. She concludes, quite simply, that its racial overtones are inescapable:

Having Japanese performers in The Mikado challenges the logic of its racial impersonation. These examples belie the claim that the opera is only about England and insist on its power as a representation of Japan. In turn, they present versions of a Titipu that show the complexity of claims to a distinctively Japanese history for the opera.

These productions are framed not only by their rarity within a world overwhelmingly populated by yellowface versions of The Mikado, but also by the long history of resistance to the opera on the part of Japan (192).

But the very rarity of productions in Japan was directly the result of a censorship regime that prohibited putting the emperor on stage. Whatever the merits of this policy, The Mikado cannot be held responsible for it. Beyond the issue of censorship, it is hardly surprising that the Japanese hewed predominantly to their own theatrical tradition, just as the English hewed to theirs. In 1885, there were no Japanese performers in London who could have given The Mikado in English. If Gilbert was going to write a play situated somewhere other than England, who else but English performers could have been expected to act it?

The Mikado is not the only work in which Gilbert uses an exotic foreign locale as a stand-in for England. He does so in The Gondoliers, with Venice substituted for Japan; and he does so again in Utopia, Limited, with an imaginary South Pacific island. Is Utopia a racist work, when it is situated in an invented place? Lee points out repeatedly that the names of the characters in The Mikado, such as Pooh-Bah and Ko-Ko, are inauthentic. In a made-up place, they naturally would be. If Gilbert had actually tried to use real Japanese names, wouldn’t it just make the problem worse? The reviewer for the Tokyo newspaper Asahi described The Mikado as “an imaginary world, not in the least like Japan” (qtd. on 145). He got the point exactly.

There is far too much good here to dismiss the book out of hand; still, Josephine Lee’s The Japan of Pure Invention is frustrating on many levels. Locked into rigid and outdated notions of race and racism, it leans upon and reinforces the very stereotypes it seeks to explode. The legacy of racism in the English-speaking world is sufficiently broad and deep that some of Lee’s barbs cannot help but strike home. Yet, the one-sidedness of her analysis leaves one suspicious that she can’t be trusted, even when she appears to be right.

* * * *

The Japan of Pure Invention is available on for $21.37 (paperback), or $15 (kindle). It is 248 pages, plus an index and numerous illustrations, many of which will be new to most readers.

The Mountebanks in Vocal Score

July 18th, 2010

Mountebanks Vocal Score CoverDuring recent preparations for a concert performance of The Mountebanks (that did not take place), I put together a vocal score and posted it on Lulu. Although I own a copy of the original Chappell vocal score, it is falling apart, and I didn’t want it to undergo the wear and tear of a concert; also,we were going to perform the dialogue, which is not in the Chappell score.

The new score is simply the 1892 Chappell edition, with the dialogue and an attractive cover added. It is nothing that you could not obtain yourself by downloading readily available sources on the net, but it’s nice to have it in one volume, if you happen to be interested in The Mountebanks.

It is available here.

G&S Discography Update, v24.0

July 11th, 2010

newlogo2.pngThere is a new G&S Discography update today, version 24.0. The number of pages on the site has reached 600.

There is a new logo (right), replacing the ugly monstrosity with concentric green circles (shown below). There is also a new color scheme, with gentle shades of blue and gray replacing the former mixture of bright blue, bright green, and cornfield yellow.

Incidentally, if you are ever in the market for a logo, I highly recommend Its  pre-defined templates and a rich graphics library make logo design a snap. I wouldn’t call the Discography’s new logo a great work of art, but from a blank slate I couldn’t have done anything nearly as good.

Old LogoI have received a number of comments about the availability of digital downloads, such as MP3, iTunes, and so forth. This is a dimension not noted on the site, which indicates availability only on tangible media (LPs, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, and so forth).

Most recordings issued nowadays are available as digital downloads, and older recordings are added all the time. Just to update the site for what is available today would be a daunting task, and the information would be continuously out of date.

Accordingly, I have decided not to indicate which recordings are available as downloads, if they were also issued in physical form. If a G&S recording is issued only as a download (there are none so far that I am aware of), I will note the fact.

The Grand Duke, 4th Impression

November 21st, 2009

I’ve posted an update to the Lulu site. Despite four years of beta testing, no one had noticed an error in measures 79–81 in the Prince of Monte Carlo’s song. Thanks to Dan Kravetz for pointing this one out.

To order, click here for the main edition (with introduction and appendices), or here for the performer’s edition.

The Grand Duke Updated

November 1st, 2009

I have finally finished updating my edition of The Grand Duke, incorporating errors that were found during the Savoynet production in the summer of 2009. I had hoped to finish it by the end of September, but it’s now November, and here we are.

By popular demand, I have created a “Performer’s Edition,” which omits the introduction and appendices. It is 115 pages shorter, and the printed version is $3 cheaper. (The PDF download is still free, and will always be.) As I found out myself during rehearsals last summer, the lighter volume is a lot easier to carry around.

Much as I would like to think that every reader will devour every word of the introduction and critical apparatus, the reality is that many people are just happy to have an easy-to-read performance text, and are not concerned with the history or editorial process that produced it. The Full Edition is recommended for directors, conductors, or anyone else interested in the additional detail.

An Errata List is now available. After many rounds of proofs and drafts, fortunately there were not many remaining. (A few of the changes are more accurately described as “second thoughts.”) This list will be updated as new errors are found. I will probably not update the printed edition unless there are a large number of them, or unless I’ve committed an egregious howler that demands immediate correction.

G&S Discography Update for July 26, 2009

July 26th, 2009

Today, we’ve added reviews for the Ohio Light Opera Sorcerer and Gondoliers.

We’ve also solved a long-standing mystery: the identity of the uncredited pattern baritone on the 1964 National Musicale recordings who sounded uncannily like Vincent Price. (We were always sure it wasn’t Price.) It turns out to have been Ralston Hill, a little known stage actor whose voice sounded a lot like Price, and who understudied Green in various post-D’Oyly Carte G&S productions.