17 Feb 2017

The Mikado - riotous or racist?

From Upbeat, 1:25 pm on 17 February 2017

New Zealand Opera’s The Mikado has stirred up debate about cultural appropriation since it opened this week in Auckland. For reviewer Frances Moore,the production was a game of two halves - and not without controversy.

The Mikado female Esemble

The Mikado female Esemble Photo: David Rowland

The Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, written in 1885, is set in Japan in a fictional town called Titipu, but satirises British politics, institutions and formalities.

Frances Moore descends into a world described by New Zealand Opera as “a modern-day Japan, where Harajuku fashion, mobile phones and Hello Kitty rule”.

With characters named Yum Yum, Ko-Ko, and Nanki-Poo, is The Mikado inappropriate or just a bit of inane fun?  

Review by Frances Moore

We’ve come to expect great things from director Stuart Maunder, following on from his elegant Tosca, and last year’s vital and beautifully complex and moving Sweeney Todd

As a show, The Mikado is light, fluffy and entertaining. The script has been nicely updated to include topical references to Trump. But the glaring issue is whether performing The Mikado is really appropriate in 2017. 

Is it Riotous?

Maunder has set his Mikado in a fantasy space somewhere between the 21st century and a more traditional Japan.

The three maids and women’s chorus perform as Tokyo's Harajuku girls, in school uniforms and later as Lolita girls: a Japanese fashion subculture inspired in part by Victorian fashion - think pink wigs, Hello Kitty accessories, knee high socks, corsets and cupcake skirts.

However, the male characters are dressed in more traditional Japanese men’s clothing with kimono jackets and hakama pants. James Clayton’s Mikado particularly stands apart with an elaborate top-knot styled wig, and kimono.

Everyone constantly refers to cell phones and an iPad is brought out to read official documents, but much of the choreography also references traditional martial arts. 

The set design is by Simone Romaniuk, with lighting by Donn Byrnes. Moving set pieces allude to traditional Japanese houses, giant fans unfold, there are whimsical colourful kites, a giant cat statue and floating plastic flowers encased in clear plastic sheets that all contribute to a celebration of kitsch.

The lighting is colourful, and a grid at the back of the stage lights up with different colours and effects and is used to engagingly highlight dramatic moments. Everything is saturated in pop-colours and the details are gorgeous.

Despite this, at times the setting felt a bit too flat - as if in trying to create a two-dimensional anime world you lose a bit of depth. 

The night for me felt a little like a game of two halves - and yes, there’ll be more rugby puns to come, I’m sorry. The first half struggled a little bit with its pacing; however the second half romped along. 

As we’ve come to expect from Maunder, the ensemble work was excellent, with the chorus creating a tapestry of interesting individuals each with their own agenda. Their comedic choreography was excellently executed, and they sang with a warm rich tone throughout.

This was a relatively young chorus, filled with some of New Zealand’s most exciting developing singers including Imogen Thirlwell, Jonathan Eyers, Natasha Wilson, Olivia Sheet and Amy Jansen, to name a few. It’s exciting to see such a small ensemble dominated by such gorgeous young singers and this chorus seems to be going from strength to strength. 

Another talent familiar to NZ audiences is our home-grown Amelia Berry singing Yum Yum. Her performance was, as usual, vocally effortless. Berry glided through Sullivan’s melodies. Her Act 2 aria, The Sun Whose Rays, is particularly lovely and wonderfully musical; we see her not only command the music but have fun with it.

That said, I just hated her characterisation of Yum Yum as a very high-pitched idiot. The decision to play her character felt far too much in the world of pantomime. She’s a character who knows her own mind, and a bit more girl power (as we saw in her Zerlina for example), would have lifted the comedy. 

This was a flaw that was exacerbated by her delicious sisters Anna Dowsley’s Pitti-Sing and Barbara Graham’s Peep-Bo. Both were allowed more freedom to be a bit more naughty and Dowsley in particular was my standout performer of the evening.

A magnificent mezzo tone, her performance was light, playful and authentic. She embodied her character of protective sister absolutely and was beautifully aided by the gorgeous Barbara Graham, who snuck in delightful comic moments across the show. 

Yum Yum’s love is Nanki-Poo, performed by Jonathan Abernathy. Dramatically agile on stage, his singing was at times a little under-powered. His performance also highlighted another mystifying detail for me, which was the choice of accents.

Berry took on an obviously fake aristocratic British accent, Byron Coll’s Ko-Ko was in a broad Scottich accent, (that occasionally slipped all over the place), Andrew Collis’ Pooh Bah was in his BBC best, but Abernathy maintained a Kiwi accent throughout. It was… strange.  

James Clayton was a powerful, sonorous Mikado. He seemed to enjoy stalking the stage in impressive gold platform shoes. Collis’ Pooh-Bah was admirably officious, while Robert Tucker delighted in his sidekick role of Pish-Tush. All three created well-developed characters - Pooh Bah and Pish-Tush enjoying their corruption and power yet shamefully cowered under The Mikado’s commands. Tucker and Clayton in particular singing with ease in this repertoire. Never overpowering the text and drawing us in.

The show though belonged to Byron Coll’s Ko-Ko. Charming and funny, Coll makes a very sympathetic Ko-Ko. His physical comedy, often jumping all over his cast mates and throwing weapons willy-nilly, is masterful. As was always going to be the case, his singing is often out of balance with his operatic colleagues, with the balance between duets and trios and orchestra at times problematic. He has no qualms either in alluding to his famous stint as the world’s biggest All Blacks fan, throwing in rugby jokes whenever possible. The audience loved these... not really my thing.  

And of course I’m saving my favourite until last, because Helen Medlyn was an absolute superstar. A hilarious evil old crone, she creates a Katisha that relishes in her blood thirst, is creatively - and uncomfortably - physical and gives everyone on stage with her a run for their money. Her Act II duet with Coll was the best thing in the show - genuinely funny, pitiful and sympathetic. 

Is it Racist?

Yes. I think it is, personally. There has been a lot of chatter about this. It’s not to say that it shouldn’t be performed, but it is 2017 and we need to acknowledge the world we live in.

Opera does have a problem with how it’s perceived from a broader perspective in terms of inclusiveness and diversity and every company that decides to stage this needs to face those questions and consider them.

Orientalism was “the vogue” in the 19th Century, and it happens to be where the majority of the repertoire comes from. The solution isn’t necessarily not to perform it, but to perform in an acknowledgement of where you stand in the world right now and who your audience is and who you want your future audiences to be.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes