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NZ Opera’s Mikado contentious but “not to be missed”

By , 25/02/2017

The Mikado
Libretto by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan
(New orchestrations by Eric Wetherell)

Director: Stuart Maunder
Conductor: Isaac Hayward
Production Designer: Simone Romaniuk

Cast: The Mikado (James Clayton)
Nanki-Poo (Kanen Breen)
Ko-Ko (Byron Coll)
Pish-Tush (Robert Tucker)
Pooh-Bah (Andrew Collis)
Yum-Yum (Amelia Berry)
Pitti-Sing (Anna Dowsley)
Peep-Bo (Barbara Graham)
Katisha (Helen Medlyn)

Freemasons NZ Opera Ensemble Chorus
Orchestra Wellington

Wellington Opera House

Saturday, 25th February (evening)

When W.S.Gilbert’s ornamental Japanese sword fell off the wall of his study while he was turning over in his mind ideas for his latest operatic collaboration with Sir Arthur Sullivan, The Mikado was born – or so all the G&S history books tell us. In fact, there happened to be a vogue for japonaiserie in England at the time Mikado first hit the stage, instigated some years before by artists like Whistler and Rosetti with oriental prints on ricepaper, and images of beautiful Japanese women, a fascination that reached its height in the 1880s. In fact, London’s Daily Telegraph proclaimed at the time that “We are all being more or less Japanned,” and commented on the phenomenon of “the quaint art of a strange people who are getting rid of their national characteristics as fast as they can……..receiving from us that form of homage which the proverb describes as “the sincerest form of flattery””.

It can be seen from this that whatever “cultural appropriation” of oriental styles, fashions and objects d’art by the West was taking place, the process was being reproduced in reverse, with a rapid and efficient “Westernisation” of Japan in particular. But it’s a process that, if anything has burgeoned in recent times, with the all-pervading influences of globalisation in practically every country in the world to a greater or lesser extent. It’s difficult to ascribe any kind of judgement of “cultural exploitation” to situations whose characteristic mode seems like some kind of “boots-and-all” exchange, which makes the recent comments in the press and on radio regarding NZ Opera’s allegedly “racist” current production of “The Mikado” seem to me more like instances of PC imploding in certain people’s sensibilities rather than reportage of shock, horror and outrage on a widespread scale.

Of course, individuals are entitled to their own opinions – and questions of cultural piracy and associated exploitations have a fascinating fluidity of application when it comes to the question of boundaries deemed generally desirable by society at large. But what a recent article in the Washington Post called “the new war on appropriation” highlights the problem for people from one culture who would like to “experience” or even participate in aspects of another, and risk criticism in doing so from what are called “the new culture cops”……see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/08/21/to-the-new-culture-cops-everything-is-appropriation/
(alternatively, read the same article reproduced at the foot of this review)……

Mikado has, at certain earlier times, been a bit of a hot potato, actually – as long ago as 1907 the show was temporarily banned in Britain by the Lord Chamberlain, for fear of offending the newly-assertive Japanese government, whose military forces had freshly and successfully fought a war with Russia, and whose representative, one Prince Fushimi, was visiting Britain at the time. The then-touring D’Oyly Carte Company decided to defy the ban and perform the opera in Sheffield, an event to which the newspaper “The Daily Mail” with a canny eye on the interest of prospective readers, invited one Mr. K.Sugimura, the visiting special correspondent of a Tokyo newspaper, Asahi, who was reporting on the Prince’s tour, to attend the performance, and criticise the show “as frankly as possible”. Below is part of the correspondent’s report:

“I am deeply and pleasingly disappointed. I came to Sheffield expecting to discover real insults to my countrymen. I find bright music and much fun, but I could not find the insults. I laughed and laughed very heartily.I enjoyed the music: I envy the nation possessing such music. The only part of the play to which objection might be taken by some is the presentation of the Mikado on the stage as a comic character. This would be impossible in Japan, where my countrymen regard the person of the Emperor as too high for such treatment. Yet, even with us, one of our most famous novelists, Saikaku, of the Genroku period, did treat the figure of the Emperor humorously, describing one of his characters as the Emperor Doll. That novel is still circulated in Japan. It has not been prohibited there…….
Of course the play shows quite an imaginary world, not in the least bit like Japan. I had a pleasant evening, and I consider that the English people, in withdrawing this play lest Japan should be offended, are crediting my country with needless readiness to take offence…….”

In recent years there have been charges levelled against both various productions and the show itself of “catering to fetish impulses which reduce the Japanese culture to an object of curiosity”, of “dehumanizing an entire race of people through yellowface stage and screen portrayals”, and of “laughing downwards at a voiceless minority ‘other’, using the Japanese setting as an excuse for cheap gags.” My feeling about the current NZ Opera production in relation to these charges was that, in the first instance it used the staging’s quasi-Japanese culture settings to create colour, atmosphere and a sense of unreality in a way that perfectly served the original dramatist’s intentions, that of attractively and exotically underlining the powerful satirical element of the show’s message.

As for the much-maligned “yellowface” aspect of oriental depiction, there was more “whiteface” than anything in the very overtly Japanese portrayal of Helen Medlyn’s Katisha, the Mikado’s “daughter-in-law elect”. However, for me the stylised makeup reflected the age-old technique of a “mask”, temporarily concealing a character’s more covert characteristics and attitudes, attributes which were demonstrated all too humanly and powerfully in this present portrayal. Finally, the charge of ridiculing a “voiceless minority” seemed to me blunted by the production’s clear delineation of various empowering and insightful chorus lines such as “If you think we are worked by strings…..You don’t understand these things…….” in the opening scene, and the schoolgirls’ whimsical wonderment at the mysteries of the world in their opening chorus “We wonder, how we wonder, what on earth the world can be….”,, and, finally, the choruses’ knowing and whimsical responses to the three commentators describing the execution of the hapless “criminal” to the Mikado – no mere parroting of the refrains, here, but knowing and gently mocking ironies: e.g – “This haughty youth, he speaks the truth, whenever he finds it pays….”

Away with all of this polemic, and its all-too-subjective arguments! – time now for some all-too-subjective analysis and appreciation of the performance!

Straightaway the opening sounds engaged our sensibilities, with conductor Isaac Hayward plunging us straight into the opera, and doing away with the Overture (not by Sullivan in any case, but merely a “stitching together” of the work’s favourite tunes by his assistant, Hamilton Clarke). As well, there were various orchestral retouchings throughout, the work of ex-BBC conductor Eric Wetherell, designed to scale down the orchestral ambiences and make it easier for the singers to be heard. As befits the standards of orchestral execution we’ve come to expect from Orchestra Wellington, the playing, both in general terms and in the matter of individual detailing, was an absolute delight throughout!

For the rest, the work was presented pretty well complete, EXCEPT that the production seemed to regard a couple of Act Two vocal ensemble numbers as “fair game”, to my intense disappointment, cutting the second verse of “Brightly dawns our Wedding Day”, and, what was worse, completely excising the equally wonderful “See How the Fates”, with its wonderfully contradictory lines “Happy, undeserving A!” and “Wretched, meritorious B!” – oh well, as Gilbert himself wrote for Nanki-Poo in the first Act – “Modified rapture!”……..

I thought the chorus work just superb – from the resplendently-garbed men (old-fashioned waistcoats with Japanese-styled hakama (pants) we got everything the words had to offer us from the opening “If you want to know who we are”, matching their word-pointing with both movements ands attitudes in a wholly delightful way. More controversially, the women were garbed in what seemed like the Harajuku, “Hello Kitty” style currently in vogue in Japan (representations far more deserving of feminist-influenced eyebrow-raising, I would have thought, than of heavy-handed, “holier-than-thou” cultural appropriation responses), but their response to the text certainly made the most of its formative, rite-of-passage word-images – “Each a little bit afraid is, wondering what the world can be…”, and later, relishing the prospect of one of them, Yum-Yum, taking those first steps into womanhood, in this case via the age-old ceremony of marriage – “Art and Nature thus allied, go to make a pretty bride…” – beautifully and richly voiced.

As for the cast, we were galvanised at the start by director Stuart Maunder’s announcement that, due to New Zealand tenor Jonathan Abernathy’s sudden indisposition, his place in the role of Nanki-Poo, the Mikado’s disguised son, was to be taken at extremely short notice by an Australian singer, Konen Breen. As it turned out, this “Lord High Substitute” performed the role (after ONE rehearsal, so we were told) with tremendous aplomb, as if he had been doing a run of fifty-plus performances! – I thought his somewhat gauche, nerd-turned-superhero portrayal thoroughly engaging, even if there still seemed some vestiges in his tones of the character we were told he’d recently been playing, which was Mime in Wagner’s “Ring” – his voice had more of an “edge” to it that I would have liked in the role’s more lyrical places. But what a trouper! – hats off and full marks!

It’s a classic “ensemble opera” though, and no one character is allowed to dominate to an extent that they’re a “diminutioner”, though pride of place at the curtain-call was rightly given the Ko-Ko of Byron Coll, known for his various character roles both on stage and screen. He made the most of his comic opportunities in portraying a classic “Chauncey Gardiner-like” figure making good through corrupt practices of local government. His British regional accent added a different kind of exoticism to the production’s ambience ( certainly an amusing foil for Andrew Collis’s hilariously toffee-nosed Pooh-Bah!), and his delivery of the lines had for me an attractive whimsicality which highlighted the droll humour, though on one or two occasions his words were too rushed to capture the essence of the jokes! His interaction with Helen Medlyn’s Katisha throughout the “Tit Willow” sequences was sheer delight.
Andrew Collis’s aforementioned Pooh-Bah brought just the right mix of gravitas and pomposity to a role whose lines are among the best written by Gilbert – “I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmic primordial atomic globule” – and which lay bare the covert, world-wide processes of bureaucratic and political corruption – “I also retail State Secrets at a very low figure”…..Collis’s sonorous baritone brought to life vignettes such as his description of the behaviour of a criminal’s severed head post-execution – “It clearly knew the deference due to a man of pedigree….”

I also enjoyed the bustling, vigorous and full-voiced pragmatism of Robert Tucker’s Pish-Tush, both in his articulate explanation to Nanki-Poo of the rise to prominence of “Ko-Ko, a cheap tailor”, in “Our Great Mikado, virtuous man”, and for his part in the wonderful trio “I am so proud”, in which the agitated Ko-Ko contemplates the alarming prospect of having to cut HIS OWN head off to appease the wishes of the Mikado! This trio, incidentally, was one of several places where I thought the production needed to bring the singers right up to the footlights so we in the audience could have gotten more of the individual flavours of the number’s separate but wholly intertwined thought processes – unfortunately it all happened, for me, too far back!

Completely commanding the stage in his scenes was James Clayton’s Mikado – one of the best I’ve encountered. Seemingly echt-Japanese in his regalia, he looked and sounded the part with utter conviction, speaking and singing every word of his role with razor-sharp clarity, and transfixing the ensemble with his gittering eye (the exception, of course, being the fearsome Katisha, his “daughter-in-law elect”!). But what a pity we weren’t able to also enjoy his contribution to “See how the fates”, as much for his stellar voice-quality as for a corrective of the omission’s further reducing his already sparse singing-role!

Though in accordance with their “college-girl” status at the story’s beginning I thought the somewhat gauche, “jolly-hockey-sticks” manner and deportment of all “Three Little Maids from School” dramatically at odds with certain of their later interactions, such as Anna Dowsley’s determined and forthright portrayal of Pitti-Sing bravely confronting the vengeful Katisha in search of Nanki-Poo, her betrothed. And as Yum-Yum, Amelia Berry’s singing of “The sun whose rays” was so outstanding in its outpouring of beauty and sensitivity it all seemed a world away from the sensibility of the giggly schoolgirl whom we first encountered, even if she quickly “grew up” in her “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted” scene with Nanki-Poo. Of the Three Little Maids, the dipsiest was, I thought, Barbara Graham’s gloriously vacuous Peep-Bo, who made the most of her relatively few chances to shine with a deliciously artless reference to her sister’s wedding-day being “happiness in all but perfection”, followed by a reference to it all being “cut short” (alluding to the bridegroom’s eventual fate at the hands of the Public Executioner!)

Finally, there was Helen Medlyn’s assumption of the role of Katisha, the elderly would-be bride of Nanki-Poo, bent upon vengeance for her loss of happiness, but finally settling for the life-sparing blandishments of the (by then!) desperate Ko-Ko. Not quite as voluminous of tone as I might have expected from previous encounters with her singing, Medlyn was nonetheless able to still command the stage on each of her entrances by dint of her sheer presence, be it as a kind of fearsome oriental harpie, or as a momentarily crushed and defeated woman – for all Gilbert’s reputed cruelty regarding his theatrical depictions of older women, his portrayal of Katisha evinces real sympathy in places and accords her with no little dignity in the throes of her “defeat” at the hands of “pink cheek, bright eye, rose lip, smooth tongue…..”

I felt there were sequences in which she (and in a particular instance, Ko-Ko) were placed too far back on the stage for the voices to really “tell”, a case in point being throughout the marvellous “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast” – the words are again so delicious, both from Katisha – “There is eloquence appalling when the lioness is roaring, or the tiger is a-lashing of his tail” – and from Ko-Ko – “There’s a fascination frantic in a ruin that’s romantic – do you think you are sufficiently decayed?” Still, Medlyn’s greatest moment, for me, was her truly affecting “The hour of gladness”, sung in response to the news that her would-be lover Nanki-Poo, was going to marry Yum-Yum. Medlyn’s singing, along with the sensitive instrumental accompaniments and the rapt attention she garnered from the entire onstage company, made for a beautiful and treasurable charge of emotion which brought a lump to this listener’s throat, even after so many hearings of this much-loved piece over the years.

So! – rather than be regarded as a dismissal of the objections raised to this and to other productions of Mikado, particularly those of recent times, I would prefer this review to be a constructive addition to a reasoned dialogue concening the issues. A number of the articles by the “dissenters” to their credit contain assertions that what is needed in this situation is awareness, understanding and sensitivity by way of discussion and expression of thoughtful opinion, whatever the individual “stance”. I hope my thoughts on the issues, be they ever so opinionated, fulfil those criteria.

Meanwhile, to all of those awaiting my final verdict concerning the show – it’s this – get to the Mikado if you can, because (as Ko-Ko might say) it’s too good to be missed!

(Wellington: Wednesday 28th February (6:30pm), Ist March (7:30pm), 2nd March (7:30pm)
Christchurch, Isaac Theatre Royal: from Tuesday 7th March (7:30pm) to Saturday 11th March)

* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Washington Post
Democracy Dies in Darkness
To the new culture cops, everything is appropriation
Their protests ignore history, chill artistic expression and hurt diversity
By Cathy Young August 21, 2015

“A few months ago, I read “The Orphan’s Tales” by Catherynne Valente. The fantasy novel draws on myths and folklore from many cultures, including, to my delight, fairy tales from my Russian childhood. Curious about the author, I looked her up online and was startled to find several social-media discussions bashing her for “cultural appropriation.”

There was a post sneering at “how she totally gets a pass to write about Slavic cultures because her husband is Russian,” with a response noting that her spouse isn’t even a proper Russian, because he has lived in the United States since age 10. In another thread, Valente was denounced for her Japanese-style LiveJournal username, yuki-onna, adopted while she lived in Japan as a military wife. In response to such criticism, a browbeaten Valente eventually dropped the “problematic” moniker.

Welcome to the new war on cultural appropriation. At one time, such critiques were leveled against truly offensive art — work that trafficked in demeaning caricatures, such as blackface, 19th-century minstrel shows or ethnological expositions, which literally put indigenous people on display, often in cages. But these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.

To take just a few recent examples: After the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry was criticized for dressing like a geisha while performing her hit single “Unconditionally.” Last year, Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar accused Caucasian women who practice belly dancing of “white appropriation of Eastern dance.” Daily Beast entertainment writer Amy Zimmerman wrote that pop star Iggy Azalea perpetrated “cultural crimes” by imitating African American rap styles.

And this summer, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been dogged by charges of cultural insensitivity and racism for its “Kimono Wednesdays.” At the event, visitors were invited to try on a replica of the kimono worn by Claude Monet’s wife, Camille, in the painting “La Japonaise.” The historically accurate kimonos were made in Japan for this very purpose. Still, Asian American activists and their supporters besieged the exhibit with signs like “Try on the kimono: Learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today!” Others railed against “Yellow-Face @ the MFA” on Facebook. The museum eventually apologized and changed the program so that the kimonos were available for viewing only. Still, activists complained that the display invited a “creepy Orientalist gaze.”

These protests have an obvious potential to chill creativity and artistic expression. But they are equally bad for diversity, raising the troubling specter of cultural cleansing. When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.

The concept of cultural appropriation emerged in academia in the late 1970s and 1980s as part of the scholarly critique of colonialism. By the mid-1990s, it had gained a solid place in academic discourse, particularly in the field of sociology.

Some of this critique was rightly directed at literal cultural theft — the pilfering of art and artifacts by colonial powers — or glaring injustices, such as white entertainers in the pre-civil rights years profiting off black musical styles while black performers’ careers were hobbled by racism. Critics such as Edward Said offered valuable insight into Orientalism, the West’s tendency to fetishize Asians as exotic stereotypes.

But the hunt for wrongdoing has gone run amok. The recent anti-appropriation rhetoric has targeted creative products from art to literature to clothing. Nothing is too petty for the new culture cops: I have seen them rebuke a Filipina woman who purchased a bracelet with a yin-yang symbol at a fair and earnestly discuss whether it’s appropriation to eat Japanese, Indian or Thai food. Even Selena Gomez, a Latina artist, was assailed a couple of years ago for sporting a Hindu forehead dot, or bindi, in a Bollywood-style performance.

In some social-justice quarters, the demonization of “appropriative” interests converges with ultra-reactionary ideas about racial and cultural purity. I once read an anguished blog post by a well-meaning young woman racked with doubt about her plans to pursue a graduate degree in Chinese studies; after attending a talk on cultural appropriation, she was unsure that it was morally permissible for a white person to study the field.

This is a skewed and blinkered view. Yes, most cross-fertilization has taken place in a context of unequal power. Historically, interactions between cultures often took the form of wars, colonization, forced or calamity-driven migration and subordination or even enslavement of minority groups. But it is absurd to single out the West as the only culprit. Indeed, there is a paradoxical and perverse Western-centrism in ignoring the history of Middle Eastern and Asian empires or the modern economic and cultural clout of non-Western nations — for instance, the fact that one of the top three entertainment companies in the U.S. market is Japanese-owned Sony.

It is also far from clear that the appropriation police speak for the people and communities whose cultural honor they claim to defend. The kimono protest, for instance, found little support from Japanese Americans living in the Boston area; indeed, many actively backed the museum’s exhibit, as did the Japanese consulate.

Most critics of appropriation, including some anti-kimono protesters, say they don’t oppose engagement with other cultures if it’s done in a “culturally affirming” way. A Daily Dot article admonishes that “an authentic cultural exchange should feel free and affirming, rather than plagiarizing or thieving.” A recent post on the Tumblr “This Is Not China” declares that “cultural appropriation is not merely the act of wearing or partaking in cultural symbols & practices that do not belong to you, it’s a system of exploitation & capitalisation on cultural symbols & practices that do not a) originate from b) benefit c) circle back to the culture in question.”

It makes sense to permit behaviors that encourage empathy and genuine interest while discouraging those that caricature or mock a sampled-from culture. But such litmus tests leave ample room for hair-splitting and arbitrary judgments. One blogger’s partial defense of “Kimono Wednesdays” suggests that while it was fine to let visitors try on the kimonos, allowing them to be photographed while wearing them was a step too far. This fine parsing of what crosses the line from appreciation into appropriation suggests a religion with elaborate purity tests.

What will be declared “problematic” next? Picasso’s and Matisse’s works inspired by African art? Puccini’s “Orientalist” operas, “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot”? Should we rid our homes of Japanese prints? Should I take offense at other people’s Russian nesting dolls?

And while we’re at it, why shouldn’t a wide range of cultural minorities within Western society demand control over access to their heritage, too? Can Catholics claim appropriation when religious paintings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary are exhibited in a secular context, or when movies from “The Sound of Music” to “Sister Act” use nuns for entertainment?

Appropriation is not a crime. It’s a way to breathe new life into culture. Peoples have borrowed, adopted, taken, infiltrated and reinvented from time immemorial. The medieval Japanese absorbed major elements of Chinese and Korean civilizations, while the cultural practices of modern-day Japan include such Western borrowings as a secularized and reinvented Christmas. Russian culture with its Slavic roots is also the product of Greek, Nordic, Tatar and Mongol influences — and the rapid Westernization of the elites in the 18th century. America is the ultimate blended culture.

So don’t let anyone tell you that there is art, literature or clothing that does not belong to you because of your racial, ethnic or religious identity. In other words: Appropriate away.”

Cathy Young is the author of two books, and a frequent contributor to Reason, Newsday, and RealClearPolitics.com.

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