SCENE BY JAMES: Yellowface and The Mikado: Time for NZ Opera to Woke Up

by James Wenley

Woke up Kitty

[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 ChinaSimon 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:

14 Comments on SCENE BY JAMES: Yellowface and The Mikado: Time for NZ Opera to Woke Up

  1. What a tirade of misplaced so-called political correctness! Firstly, this is a comedy. If we were to observe Mr Wenley’s suggestions, we would have to reject Fawlty Towers, Billy T James and a vast number of other shows/art forms that allow us to not take ourselves so dreadfully seriously. Secondly, this show requires excellent singers – opera singers – not just “actors”. Not possible to find an entire cast of suitably qualified Japanese singers in NZ – importing would break the budget. Some of the text is often modernised to reflect topical events – as in “I’ve got a little list”. Then, if we were to take this to the apparent “logical” outcome, it would mean that I, and my many fine NZ colleagues could never sing La Traviata (all characters are French); Eugene Onegin (all Russians), Carmen (all Spanish) – all full of clichés – in the fear that we might offend the current nationalities. I have several Japanese friends who love The Mikado. Go and enjoy a great show, sung by wonderful singers and have a good laugh.

    • Gina, your argument of Billy T James and Faulty Towers is outdated. Those shows were made before the turn of the century when we allowed this to happen. It is 2017,it is no longer acceptable. It is because of people like you who think that cultural appropriation is fine, that people like James Wenley and myself will call you out on your dribble.
      There are a LARGE number of Asian singers in Auckland. I would love to know how much of a search you personally did to find them seeing as you said that is it not possible.It is possible but they just need to look a little further. I directed a musical in Gore last last year that required an Asian performer. I worked tirelessly to find the right person and I did. If I can find one in Gore, NZOPERA can find some in Auckland. Mr Wenley also said of asian decent. He did not say Japanese. This is just your racist ignorance that believes well if we can’t get a whole bunch of Japanese people, lets not worry about trying to cast the net wider to include other Asian nationalities. Lets just cast white.
      Which I assume is good for you because a quick face nook search of your name shows that you are a white woman who sings opera. Congratulations on being a racist.

      • Dear Hamish. You may be aware the the lowest form of debate (the bottom of 7 levels) is “name calling”. Try to avoid this if you are to be taken seriously. There is nothing in my comments that can allow you to make the the assertion that I am “racist”. Indeed, it is grounds for libel, but I find your feeble efforts so unbalanced that a refutation is almost unnecessary. You do not address my question concerning the principle – ie should every opera/musical/show that is set in a particular country then be restricted to casting singers of that nationality? Impractical if not impossible. How does casting “an Asian” somehow correct this imbalance My Wenley implies? My Japanese acquaintances assure me that Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese are no more substitutes for Japanese than you or I. You may be assured that Opera NZ will cast on merit, not race. I am not sure which “nook” you are referring to, but given your lack of punctuation, inability to argue a point, and generally subjective responses, I gather it is a typo made in the heat of the moment – in keeping with your misplaced, poorly refuted text. Do try a little harder next time!

      • Dear Russ. Please refer to the 7 levels of debate. You just scored the lowest possible mark. When you have something useful to say, try again.

  2. This is a stupid article. Is it even a review of the preview ? Is “scene” just a pun ? I can’t tell.

    By the principles expressed here, only blacks can play Othello, only caucasians can play Tosca. Sorry Kiri, we have to wait for a dark(ish) skinned role for you. Only Japanese playing the leads in Butterfly !?

    SJWs like James Wenley are not doing art any favours.

    Art does not have to be respectful, and indeed there are times, when it must not be respectful of race or culture to achieve the author’s goals.

    Anyway, what is being represented to the audience in a classical production (not sure what this one is, but check out Eric Idle’s telling), is “Japanese Culture” through a Victorian English Humorist lens. It’s not claiming to be an accurate portrayal of the Edo period.

    What a bland and eggshell strewn world Wenley is advocating. I suppose he also thinks that only tonally verified Maori people should be able to do Kapa Haka ?

    When it comes to giving Japanese people offense I am less concerned with the sensitivities of “yellowface” and more diverted by duplicitous Japanese “scientific” whaling and dolphin slaughtering.

    I’m not so sure about this term “Yellowface” either, since usually, cast members looking a bit more oriental is limited to eyeliner and drooping mustaches.

    NZOpera is not advocating the Black and White Minstrel show here.

    I suppose Wenley would also like to disallow naming one of the roles “Pitti sing” as it is disrespectful of Japanese language and cut the line “Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way…”

    It’s just censorship. Art must resist it.

  3. “We are not good at having these conversations in New Zealand.” Well, did you ask NZ Opera about their view on the matter? That’s generally how a conversation starts. Or would that have ruined your diatribe?

  4. Are you saying that any person with sufficient Asian bloodline to render their facial features ‘of Asian extraction’ automatically has a right to authoritatively represent all Asians?
    Also, do you have Japanese authority to be getting offended on their behalf?

      • Well, hypothetically speaking, if NZ Opera had no racist intent, and Japanese people generally were not offended by this staging, then you wouldn’t have anything to call out. This editorial would have carried actual weight, exemplified actual journalism, and actual credible argument if a conversation with both parties had been embarked on instead of jumping to some triggered conclusion.

        Also, could you please critique my first point, about the presumption of consensual pan-Asian cultural representation, and how, by James’ (and presumably your) definition it is not “racist” to assume that someone’s outward appearance automatically defines their cultural, ethnic, ideological and geographical identity.

  5. You have a stupid job. While your points are notable, yes we should not be racist, you seem to be pushing your “I’m better than other” by spending the time to write this. Maybe speaking on other cultures is also racist. Go and contribute to society you internet waste of space.

    • Arran, I have always found it so bizarre that people seem to get angrier over people calling out racism than racism itself. Thanks for further highlighting societies problem with your misplaced outrage and further strengthening the need for conversations such as the one James has started.

  6. I am avoiding the Mikado, and those photos do nothing to convince me otherwise.

    The Pop-Up Globe’s all-male company is also irritating – I have no problem with all-male productions, and thought Unitec’s all-male Titus was excellent. But the plays they’ve chosen gain very little from being all-male (why not do Othello all-male? Much more interesting) and the way this shuts out roles for women is misguided at best. Why aren’t they letting other companies use the venue this time, do you know? My favourite production of the last season was Antony & Cleopatra, which wasn’t the Globe’s company.

  7. This article makes a simplistic argument. Most critiques of “Yellowface” (i.e. white actors playing “Asian” characters) analyze how it serves as a vehicle for racial stereotyping and constructs “Asians” as an unassailable, permanently foreign “Other”. It’s worth questioning whether the “Japanese” characters The Mikado actually function that way: far from being portrayed as completely alien and different, they’re shown to have stereotypically “British” traits (isn’t that the opposite of “othering”?), and the libretto repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to remind the audience that we’re watching actors playing a part.

    Is “yellowface” inherently wrong? Isn’t it important to ask how the casting choices actually function within the production rather than insisting on imposing simplistic taboos?

    Japanese productions of the Mikado invariably retain the original setting, so I don’t really understand why diaspora Asians are so keen on erasing it. It reflects and comments on a vogue for “Things Japanese” in Victorian Society that the Japanese were involved in shaping through their participation in International Exhibitions during 2nd half of the 19th century; as such it’s part of Japanese History too.

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