[Let the Production Fit the Time]
The clichéd criticism of Opera is that it is a form stuck in the past. I believe that in one major and urgent respect, Opera does indeed need to be dragged into the 21st Century.
It is becoming increasingly clear that our own NZ Opera has a race problem.
In their 2016 Auckland Arts Festival production of Nixon in China, Simon O’Neill played Chairman Mao, a casting decision excused because it was a concert version, and well, you cast the best tenor for the part, despite the incongruity of a white actor playing the Chinese leader.
While the Pop-up Globe claims historical accuracy for their discriminatory all-male company of actors, they would never cast a white actor to play Othello the Moor. While Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles blacked up to play the role in the 20th Century, today such a practice is rightfully viewed as abhorrent and offensive. So why then can NZ Opera feature Simon O’Neill (him again!) as the title character in Otello last year?
Now NZ Opera are staging Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 The Mikado without acknowledging the Operetta’s history of orientalism and yellowface, nor the international conversation happening around how problematic the work is – or whether it should still be staged at all.
Yellowface is when non-Asian actors perform characters of Asian descent. At its most visible, it involves hair, makeup, and mannerisms that ‘orientalises’ the features of the performer. This has long been a part of The Mikado’s stage history. Yellowface is insidious, because, as The Guardian’s Carmen Fishwick writes, it “perpetuates the idea that minorities should be silent, fetishised, and spoken about only by the dominant ethnicity: the idea that we don’t, and perhaps should never, have a voice of our own.” The majority are in control and exoticise the representation of the cultural other.
NZ Opera state on their website that while The Mikado is “set in the imaginary Japanese town of Titipu, the satire is directed fairly and squarely at the British and their love of bureaucracy”. The implication is that they have no responsibility towards how the Japanese are represented; it is all just an allegory for those stuffy Victorians, and besides, the Japanese town doesn’t actually exist. PC brigade stand down: nothing to see here.
Yet, my concern becomes heightened when I read that NZ Opera’s version is set in modern-day Japan “where Harajuku fashion, mobile phones and Hello Kitty rule.” Translation: expect a cavalcade of reductive cultural stereotypes for your easy amusement. The released publicity photos set my warning bells on overdrive: prima facie, this is yellowface.
NZ Opera’s publicity video parades a number of white-passing actors in front of the camera. While I search in vain for an actor of Asian descent, a cast member explains that “the whole concept of the production is adorable – it’s very Japanese, very hello Kitty.”
So, interlinked problems: there’s an apparent lack of diversity in the company, compounded by the casting of predominantly white actors to play contemporary Japanese characters, which perpetuates The Mikado‘s history of yellowface and appropriation.
Has no-one at NZ Opera been paying attention to the conversations around race, marginalization, and representation in the theatre? (Director Stuart Maunder last staged the production in Brisbane in 2012, and wrote about why Aussies love The Mikado)
Producing The Mikado overseas has become a powder-keg. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players cancelled their 2015 production after they were called out for their offensive yellowface caricaturing. In a blog entitled “#SAYNOTOMIKADO”, Ming Peiffer asked how “plays like The Mikado can still be performed with an almost entirely white cast, complete with actors donning #Yellowface, at a prestigious university that prides itself on educating and invigorating the city it supposedly reflects. Why must we once again go through the panoply of politically correct racial discourse to explain why [INSERT OUTDATED ASIAN MUSICAL HERE] is offensive. Is incorrect. Is *racist*.”
The Players initial response was to drop the makeup, but realized “the complications were more than skin deep.” They eventually responded with The Mikado: Re-Imagined, made by an Asian-American cast and production team, who took ownership of their representations (see this New Yorker article). Other productions have transposed the setting to England (with one such production also casting Asian performers for added resonance). America’s Lamplighter company, arguing that “The Mikado is not actually about Japan”, changed the setting to less controversial “exotic lens”- renaissance Italy.
Theatre is a site of representation. The role of the actor, is to play people unlike themselves, limited in theory only by their imaginations. But with representation comes responsibility. Theatre continues to have a conversation about diversity in performance, and how to better reflect our multi-culturalism and empower a range of voices on our stages.
Colour-blind casting is one strategy. This is where actors are cast without considering their ethnicity, or their characters. But casting a majority of white actors as characters of an ethnic minority is not colour-blind casting. Ethical casting requires an awareness of marginalization and ongoing power imbalances when it comes to opportunity.
Some have rejected the ethos of diversity as a box ticking exercise and argue the issue should be framed instead as meaningful participation.
I cannot see any engagement with these issues in NZ Opera’s production. Admittedly, I am only able to ‘read’ the marketing and publicity campaign, but what I have seen disturbs me. The Mikado is being sold as a cringey and kitschy appropriation of an oriental other.
We are not good at having these conversations in New Zealand. Reaction against NZ Opera’s production has been muted so far. And the general public is unconcerned – the Auckland season has all but sold out.
By writing this post, I hope to inform readers about some of the debates around these issues in general, and about The Mikado specifically. I hope that audiences who do go see The Mikado will think a little more about how Japanese culture is being represented to them.
I do not think that The Mikado should never be staged: it is witty and has truths to tell our contemporary society (and I’m a fan of G&S). But I also argue that any company who chooses to program the work needs to approach it with criticality, senisitivity, and with an awareness of its historical context. I do not see this in NZ Opera’s advance publicity, and this is an abnegation of responsibility for an arts organisation with significant funding from the New Zealand Government.
In the show the Mikado sings “Let the punishment fit the crime”. I say, “Let the production fit the time.” What does it mean to stage The Mikado in the current climate of culture wars and calls for diversity? How can the programming become an opportunity to allow people from a wider range of cultural backgrounds to participate, or even control their representations? And how do you engage with and counteract the show’s shameful racist history of yellowface and orientalism?
NZ Opera needs to woke up and join us in 2017.
For more on international conversations around The Mikado see: