It's been too long since Auckland has enjoyed a fully-fledged production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, says New Zealand Opera's general director Stuart Maunder, so now the company's bringing one to town.

Maunder says there's no theatrical phenomenon in the Antipodes with the staying power of Gilbert and Sullivan, pointing out that the New Zealand premiere of The Mikado was in Dunedin in March 1887, just 18 months after it played to London audiences.

Some 130 years later, he says it remains joyous.

"It was written at a time when Sullivan was tired of being classed as a syllable-setter and Gilbert bent over backwards to let him shine in numbers like the madrigal and that wonderful Finale."


Gilbert's devastating satire of Victorian foibles, set in Japan, is matched by Sullivan with music that is deliciously apropos. Even the fierce and feminist composer Dame Ethel Smyth pronounced it his masterpiece.

Maunder's staging, first mounted by Opera Queensland five years ago, is an exhilarating mix of what a Brisbane reviewer summed up as "cutesy kitsch, Japanese-lite and eye-popping," and "a fizzing riot of red and pink polka dots, demure bows and twinkling hairpins," not to mention "humorous swipes at anti-social phubbing and smartphone intrusion."

"There is universality in The Mikado that still deals in the truths of today," Maunder says. "A character like the self-important Pooh-Bah, pompously believing in his own publicity, works absolutely perfectly in a 2017 setting."

Australian bass-baritone Andrew Collis plays him as sneering, charming and brilliantly British. While Collis is Australian, most of the cast are New Zealanders.

"New Zealand is in the title of our organisation," Maunder says. "We owe it to this country to use as many New Zealand singers as we can."

He points to tenor Jonathan Abernethy, the young hero Nanki-Poo, who was discovered at the Whanganui Singing School a few years back. Conal Coad took him over to Sydney where he became a young artist with Opera Australia and this year he's singing at Aix-en-Provence.

James Clayton as The Mikado, Robert Tucker as Pish-Tush and Amelia Berry as the heroine Yum-Yum, are all familiar from previous NZ opera productions. Anyone who fell under the spell of Helen Medlyn's Beggar Woman in last year's Sweeney Todd will be eager to experience her in one of Gilbert and Sullivan's signature contralto roles.

Katisha is described in the score as "an elderly lady in love with Nanki-Poo," one of many similar female characters. Maunder reckons Gilbert had a certain penchant for creating formidable older women, adding psychologists have had field days over why he did that.

"The reality is, however, for all they are maligned, these characters end up becoming audience favourites," he says, pointing to Katisha's moving recitative and song Alone, and yet alive! which leads to her pairing with the list-making Ko-Ko.

"Helen is an extraordinary force who comes to this role afresh. In the middle of high-paced farce and satire, she's just the woman to draw you into the sentiment and beauty of that moment."

Byron Coll, who plays Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, is a new name to the company. Many will know him as the biggest fan ever of Richie McCaw in the Mastercard TV advertisements. Immediately one starts conjuring up images of how he might wield his deadly snickersnee.

"Ko-Ko is the character who's responsible for breaking the fourth wall in the show, continually talking to the audience, all night - and his famous patter song is the one Gilbert and Sullivan number that simply must be updated."

Maunder may not divulge any of these updates but perhaps one or two might take into account the parlous goings-on in the White House at the moment.

That aside, he's optimistic NZ Opera's 2017 season - five well-balanced productions from Gareth Farr's Festival commission, The Bone Feeder to September's Katya Kabanova - will be well received. He's looking forward to working in the new ASB Waterfront Theatre, too.

"With seating of just 660, we'll be putting on two free dress rehearsals, making sure that as many school parties as possible get to see the show."

What: The Mikado
Where & when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, February 14 - 19; Opera House, Wellington, February 25 - March 2; Isaac Theatre Royal Christchurch, March 7 - 11