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What's Opera, Doc? Part 1. The Mikado

By Alex Richards.

The Metropolitan Opera House, 1898.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Editor's Introduction:

Back in the day, opera filled the slot in society that is today occupied by popular music. Composers and top performers were celebrities of their day, performing to all strata of society. And yet opera is little covered in many AH and, indeed, historical works.

You’re way ahead of me.

Now, I’m not an opera buff by any stretch of the imagination. I’m the sort of person who, on hearing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie starts singing: “Kill the Wabbit.”

Attempting to Kill the Wabbit. Opera permeates rather more areas of society than one might imagine. Just listen to the music on adverts, for a start. Does Brunhilde Bunny survive? To find out, you'll have to see the relevant Bugs Bunny cartoon.

I’m not an opera buff, but I know some people who are.

One of whom is Alex Richards, who here takes a look at a possible major geopolitical change through Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado. I’ll pass the narrative over to Alex.

Alex Richards

On the 14th March 1885, the Savoy Theatre in London saw the start of what was to become the second longest continuous run of any musical theatre piece in history. The Mikado, by the already wildly successful duo William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, was the latest in their parodic critiques of Victorian High Society, loosely disguising their commentary on domestic figures and cultural attitudes with a Japanese veneer for greater deniability. As veneers go, it was an at least moderately well-crafted one – several of the Japanese employees at the travelling ‘village’ exhibition in Knightsbridge were recruited to offer advice to the production and actors in an effort to ensure that the acting, dancing, costumes and, indeed, facial makeup were as ‘authentic’ as possible. It remains, however, an undeniably late Victorian British caricature of the ‘traditional’ Japan that was already disappearing with the near-contemporary Meiji revolution.

Even at the time, there was criticism in the London press that the ‘Japanese’ aspects were shallow in comparison to the deepening appreciation for Japanese culture that was occurring in contemporary British high society. Yet perhaps it was the very fact that this veneer was so shallow – so demonstrably a matter of mere costume and set dressing on an otherwise entirely British commentary – that meant that views in Japan were far more ambivalent than you might expect. Prince Komatsu Akihito saw a production in London in 1886 and, it is reported, took no offence at the work. The work did not see a public production in Japan until the Americans organised one during the occupation after WWII – probably due to the legal ban on depicting the Mikado, or Emperor of Japan, on stage. Despite this, we have at least one report of a journalist being ‘pleasingly disappointed’ at the lack of insult to his homeland compared to rumours when he saw a production.

Bill advertising The Mikado.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

That journalist was in London to cover the official visit of Prince Fushimi Sadanaru in 1907, and the production he had seen was, officially, proscribed after the Government banned all performances for fear of offending the delegation. Ironically, the Prince himself was more offended by the ban – he had been hoping to see a performance.

Meanwhile, Germany had a fan of the work of even higher status. Kaiser Wilhelm II had met Arthur Sullivan once when the latter visited Kiel in 1881, immediately quoting from HMS Pinafore. He had been to both the opening and second night of the first Berlin run of The Mikado in 1886 and, reportedly, knew the entire work by heart. The story that he once embarrassed Gilbert by quoting the entire operatta back to him is probably an apocryphal combination of the two, but it is in character. In short, Wilhelm II was exactly the sort of person who would have put on a production of The Mikado in honour of a visiting Japanese delegation.

Wilhelm II was also, even for an aristocratic German born in the late 19th Century, an extremely racist individual, with a particular penchant for talking about the ‘Yellow Peril’ represented by the threat of a rapidly industrialising Japan allying with the mass manpower of China to overrun Europe. Or, to put it another way, exactly the worst person to be organising a production of The Mikado in honour of a visiting Japanese delegation.

An unlikely Gilbert and Sullivan fan and would-be producer.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The text and music would, at least, have remained the same – if perhaps presented in a German translation, but we can easily see how all the problematic elements in the London productions would have simply been emphasised. Pair these with an artistic patron subconsciously emphasising the more negative characteristics of the characters and the possibility of an under-rehearsed cast exhausted by the micromanagement of someone who’s convinced that they’re the best interpreter of the work available. Then add the possibility of a host who’s far more enamoured with showing how much of a fan of the work they are than in ensuring the entertainment of their host, and you have all the makings of a major diplomatic insult.

The obvious question at this point is whether it could have gone further than simply an insult. The years running up to World War I were turbulent, replete with crises and near misses which could have started the war earlier. Parts of the German High Command were eager for a war sooner rather than later to expand eastwards into Russia; the Japanese military and government saw Germany’s concessions in China and her colonies in the Pacific as targets for expansion. Historically this, combined with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance that had been in place since 1902, led to Japan enthusiastically joining with Britain in occupying the German colonial empire in the East – holding on to most of it until their defeat in World War II.

Ironically, the most apparently obvious time for this insult to occur – that being 1907 – is perhaps the least likely time that it could have escalated further. With international alliances solidifying and both Britain and Japan coming to agreements with Russia on spheres of influence that year, the insult would probably have been allowed to slide while diplomacy continued. The following years saw several colonial clashes smoothed over through diplomacy, and it seems difficult to believe that a Japan that was increasingly keen to show itself as a mature member of the Great Powers would declare war over such a relatively small matter.

Instead, we can look at the situation a few years earlier. The historical Russo-Japanese War in 1904 had profound consequences, both in material terms where Japan’s strengthening position in East Asia was concerned, and the psychological effects of Japan having beaten one of the Great Powers in a direct war. While Korea and Manchuria were far more valuable goals for Tokyo to be pursuing than Germany’s scattered colonies in the area, this also has to be balanced against the fact that Germany’s navy in the years before 1904 was still at a relatively early stage in the naval race with Britain – and her ability to reinforce distant colonies was correspondingly weaker.

Let us, therefore, suppose that a diplomatic insult occurs in around 1901/02 to a Japanese delegation who are in Europe as part of the groundwork for the Anglo-Japanese treaty and attempt to look like they are ‘shopping around’ for other allies to help with putting pressure on. A particularly insulted prince returns to Tokyo with tales of the Kaiser’s insulting attitude to the Emperor of Japan, and the Japanese military successfully argues that a removal of an, admittedly minor in the theatre, European power from East Asia and the North Pacific would be of advantage to demonstrate that Japan is now a Great Power in her own right. Prime Minister Katsura Tanō, of an army background himself, views this as in keeping with his more aggressive outlook as to how to ensure Japanese interests. Outright war is a stretch, but this is probably the most likely time that it could have occurred.

The first target would have been the German leased territory of Jiaozhou focused on Qingdao (contemporarily referred to as the port of Tsingtau in the Kiautschou Bay lease). Historically, this fell in a matter of months after a short, but intense, siege at the start of World War I. Here, the fortifications of the port started as a consequence of the Boxer Rebellion would have been barely started – it may fall in as little as a few days. There would have been informal clashes in Tianjin, Hankou, and Shanghai, but these were minor concessions in amongst the other international outposts, so would probably have been kept contained. Germany’s northern Pacific territories purchased from Spain in 1899 – what are today the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands – were historically captured by October 1914 and are equally likely to be swept up.

The chief question at that point is who would have won in an open clash between the German navy of 1902 and the Japanese navy in her home waters. The former would likely see German gunboats park up outside a major Japanese port and bombard it for a bit, and if the running balance of these clashes continued to lie in Germany’s favour, Tokyo would be forced to concede defeat, pay some sort of indemnity and return any captured territories not already retaken by Germany. The Kaiser might have dreamed of something larger – possibly seizing Taiwan or some other significant prize from the Japanese – but this seems unlikely have have been obtainable and, in any case, Britain, France, and Russia would probably have intervened to ensure that Germany did not grow too powerful in this region before this point.

Domestically this would have discredited the Prime Minister, and it seems likely that Itō Hirobumi – who only resigned in 1901 – would have been summoned to steady the ship of state. Itō had, however, resigned out of a sense of exhaustion with the emergence of party politics, and it’s likely he would have resigned at the earliest opportunity – probably handing over to his successor as leader of the Rikken Seiyūkai Saionji Kinmochi. Saionji would have been forced by the defeat to return to the policy of placating Russia by conceding Manchuria – despite the fact that Itō himself had concluded that there was no chance of the desired quid pro quo in Korea. He was also a relative liberal and would have likely pushed for greater acceptance of the principle that the Prime Minister needed to be leader of the largest party in the House of Representatives – if only to help quell the likely public outrage from such a defeat. It is difficult to know whether this might have prevented the later rise of de facto military rule in the late 1930s.

A Japanese victory must, however, be considered as a possibility. Historically, the Russian-Japanese War saw the former’s local navy bottled up and then the relief navy from Europe almost completely destroyed by the Japanese in the Battle of Tsushima. Germany’s navy was still growing, did not yet have Dreadnaughts, and will probably be commanded by people who have a very dismissive attitude towards an Asian naval commander. A similar defeat here seems to be a possibility.

The consequences of this would be significant. Germany’s colonial empire in China and the North Pacific would be essentially snuffed out. Russia would be wary and it’s possible that they would concede influence in Korea without a fight in order to retain Manchuria, potentially averting the Russian Revolution of 1905 – though equally, doubling down and being dealt and even greater defeat seems plausible. Britain is likely to see Japan here as an even more valuable ally against Russia Japan having conveniently dealt a blow against her nearby emerging naval rival in Europe – though may actually be less inclined to join a Franco-Russian alliance against Germany if they believe the latter is a paper tiger. And, of course, Japan’s exploitation of China would be expanded earlier and likely sees Shangdong fall into their sphere of influence from this point.

In Germany, the domestic consequences would have been significant. The 1903 Federal Election saw the Socialists historically win the largest share of the vote – on 31.7% - but come second to the Centre party, with 81 seats as opposed to 100. It seems plausible that in the aftermath of such a humiliating defeat they would have been swept to power on a wave of popular discontent, and immediately ended up clashing with the Kaiser, the aristocracy, and – it seems likely – the military. In these circumstances, perhaps Germany would have been too politically divided to be as involved in the diplomatic crises of the 1900s and early 1910s. Austria-Hungary may have decided against the risk of a clash with Russia from annexing Bosnia. The Agadir crisis may not happen at all. Large-scale war may come from aggressive moves by Moscow – perhaps even with an Anglo-German-Japanese alliance against France and Russia over the disposition of territories after an Austro-Hungarian collapse.

And maybe, just maybe, this version of Germany is uncertain enough of military success in a war with a European Peer power that a conflict on the scale of the First World War.

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