Did New Zealand Opera sense rumblings of political discontent while rehearsing its rather jolly production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado?
Earlier this month, a Facebook thread, prompted by the blunt challenge of "Is it ok to do The Mikado?" drew several days of responses. There was much chastisement, chiding and accusations of cultural misappropriation, a phrase which might have fitted rather neatly into a Gilbert lyric.
There was disapproval of the use of yellowface (when white performers play Asian characters) and a heroine being burdened with the suggestive name of Yum-Yum. One contributor pronounced there was no point in rescuing this opera [sic] likening it to a gross racist comic strip. More constructive comments were posted on creating a dramatic framework to "explain" Gilbert was satirising the English and not the Japanese.
Yet there was also affection for the 1885 classic, along with a reminder that, back in 2003, the operetta was a runaway hit in Japan itself, not to mention one local composer asking, tongue-in-cheek, if it was okay to use Mikado font on his computer.
For some time now, the dated sexual and ethnic politics of opera have caused concern, as well as those of the musical, with both Show Boat and South Pacific slated for arrant racism.
The current Mikado controversy started in the US late last year. Minor modifications to a production by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players placated a worried New York Times, even if the critic observed that the "orchestra struggles to measure up much of the time."
A San Francisco company offered what was headlined a "guilt-free Mikado," reset it in Renaissance Italy, adding to a long line of G&S curiosities, from the 1939 The Hot Mikado to the more recent Der Yiddishe Mikado in 2009.
Stuart Maunder steps carefully in his NZ Opera production of the work, updating the satire to our age of Hello Kitty merchandise and cellphone mania, and neatly catching a multi-cultural ambivalence when the heroine moves from schoolgirl through kimono beauty to assembly-line bride.
All around, there's much ingenuity, from Simone Romaniuk's massive fans that might have crossed the harbour from headland Sculpture on the Gulf, to much sliding of screens, with Donn Byrnes' clever lighting almost compensating for the lack of elevated stage areas.
Romaniuk's delightful costumes convert Gilbert's "train of little ladies" into six buxom schoolgirls, as much St Trinian's as Tokyo fetish; a spell-binding Katisha (Helen Medlyn) sweeps around as if Mozart's Queen of the Night had wandered onto a Kabuki stage.
To say that it was a crowd-pleaser would be an understatement; even some of Gilbert's more arcane banter provoked roars of laughter. Inevitably, the show is stolen by the irrepressible Byron Coll's Lord High Executioner, his celebrated hit list including an orange-tinted Fuhrer intent on wall building.
The Mikado is an almost merciless succession of rousing tunes, with operatic nudges for the cognoscenti. If Jonathan Abernethy's affable Nanki-Poo occasionally wants in robustness, Amelia Berry is radiant in Yum-Yum's famous Act II aria.
This is followed by a patch of highly amusing dialogue, thanks to the sharp characterisations of Anna Dowsley's Pitti-Sing and Barbara Graham's Peep-Bo. Andrew Collis' Pooh-Bah, droll in his various pompous discourses, doesn't always match the solid focus of Robert Tucker's Pish-Tush in song. The splendid James Clayton, as The Mikado, thrills on all counts.
As Katisha, one of Gilbert's many maligned middle-aged matrons, Medlyn runs the gamut from perfectly timed slapstick with Coll, to a genuinely moving final recitative and aria.
Young Australian conductor Isaac Hayward keeps musical spirits aloft, even if ears might have to adjust to the sprightly bijou ensemble of 15 APO players.
In Auckland, The Mikado finds NZ Opera charting new territory, in the gleaming intimacy of the ASB Waterfront Theatre, hopefully drawing new punters to its later Aotea productions.
What: The Mikado
Where & when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, until Sunday then seasons in Wellington and Christchurch
Reviewer: William Dart