Members of the troupe perform during a rehearsal of the Mikado comic opera at The Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College in the Bronx Borough of New York.—AFP photos

As scandals under the Donald Trump administration offer a steady stream of fodder for satirists and comedy show hosts, now the world of musical theater is taking a stab at lampooning the White House. This weekend a New York take on “The Mikado”-a 19th century comic operetta originally intended to satirize British politics through Japanese imagery-sees its characters take on decidedly Trumpian airs. Ben Spierman’s revamp of the Victorian musical in which a clownish despot rules over his juvenile population is an attempt, he says, to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“For me ‘The Mikado’ is a perfect example,” Spierman, the director of the Bronx Opera, told AFP. “The politics and the reality of the fact that we have corruption, and that we have unqualified people in jobs or whatever, nepotism: these things have not changed.” Performed this week as part of New York’s Opera Fest, the themes of the piece originally staged in smog-choked 1880s London by dramatist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan resonate “almost too well,” says Spierman. “We’re in a time that’s shadowed not just by this person, by Trump himself, but by ‘Trumpism’-by this kind of cultural battle that we’re having,” he added.

Spierman’s production, set in the White House press room, doesn’t match characters one-to-one with members of the US president’s administration, instead weaving elements of real-life personalities into the show. The likenesses of Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are featured alongside elements of former chief strategist Steve Bannon, senior advisor Stephen Miller and press secretary Sarah Sanders. Another character evokes the personalities of Hillary Clinton and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren-a champion of progressive causes in the US-while the titular Mikado himself recalls none other than Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Trump himself is an overarching presence rather than a specific character, with all of the players in the comic romp inhabiting aspects of his persona. “To put Gilbert’s words, or even the adapted words of Gilbert, into the mouth of Donald Trump just didn’t make any sense to me,” Spierman said. “He’s just not that clever with the language.”

Art as critical vanguard
Opera has long been a potent medium for provocative takes on the contemporary moment, according to Spierman-one that can make audiences laugh before encouraging more sober reflection on the state of our times. “I think that one of the things we have in this country which is important to remember is that we are allowed to poke fun at the president,” he said. “It’s important that we use that right, because if you don’t… you lose that. It’s important to be aware that yes, we’ve just laughed, but we also need to understand the serious issues that underlie what you just saw on the stage.”

Spierman continues to update the script as events unfold at the White House, and even squeezed in some tweaks when the infamous Mueller report into Russian interference in US democracy came out last month. “We all as artists have to be aware of what’s going on; I think that part of our job is to be the vanguard in some ways of political criticism.” At one moment in ‘The Mikado’ a character presented as a female challenger to authority describes herself “an acquired taste,” Spierman’s nod to the double standards in contemporary coverage of male leaders and their female counterparts. “I really think that is very telling, when it comes to talking about how strong women are looked at in our political discourse,” he said.

From footnote to chapter
Considered a classic of British musical theater, “The Mikado” is no stranger to controversy: modern critics have skewered it not for its political commentary but for what they dub casual racism. Many point to the traditional production’s setting in Japan that includes excessive bowing by white actors, who sing in pinched voices while wearing yellow-tinted makeup. The Bronx Opera’s revamped version eschews those ingredients, aiming instead to “focus people on the fact that it is ultimately about the political state,” Spierman said.

Actresses on his stage sport the business casual pantsuits quintessential to the halls and corridors of Washington’s great institutions while several of the men don excessively long red ties, a clear visual nod to Trump. Twitter also features strongly in the show, whether via a series of Trump tweets or allusions in the libretto to direct messages between characters. For now, the production is running solely as part of the city’s annual Opera Fest-a bid to bring shows to a wide audience and highlight the diversity of New York’s contemporary opera scene-but Spierman sees it as fitting into a broader narrative of the Trump presidency.

“He’s just a fact of history,” the director said. “That’s what happened when he was elected president-he went from being a footnote to a chapter.” Though he is satirizing the 45th US president’s term, for Spierman it remains to be seen whether Trump is comedy or a tragedy: “I think we’re not at the end of the show yet.”-AFP