When talking about opera, it’s perhaps the ultimate question: to update or not update?
And it’s one that tends to slice the artform’s passionate community of enthusiasts right down the middle. Those against say it robs performances of their original context and power. Those in favour make the point that if you don’t update these works, they may never appeal to younger generations.
It’s a question that’s no doubt rattled around the mind of Simone Romaniuk in recent months. As set and costume designer for Opera Queensland’s upcoming production of ‘The Mikado’, Romaniuk has had to oversee a complete refit of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic. When asked what she’d say to those who think opera shouldn’t be updated, Romaniuk is diplomatic.
“It is hard,” she says, laughing. “There’s certainly a place for the grand scale, beautiful Italian or German operas, and there’s a certain audience where that is all they want to see. But then there are a lot of audiences who think, ‘I’ve seen ‘The Mikado’. Why do I want to see it again?’ And then there has to be a reason why you do want to see it again. You like the music but you’re interested to see how it will be reinterpreted. Is a younger audience less familiar with opera? Will they find a different interpretation more interesting? Like with Shakespeare: how many different ‘Romeo and Juliet’s are there? And how many times would you see the same one over and over?”
Of course, ‘The Mikado’ is hardly ‘La bohème’. The Gilbert and Sullivan classic is an operetta first and foremost, designed to tickle the funny bone rather than sway the emotions. Whether this will make audiences more receptive to an update, Romaniuk is hopeful. “A lot of people have seen it and seem to be quite familiar with it. It will be interesting because ‘The Mikado’ is one that people expect to be done in a certain way, and because we’re trying to do something different I hope they’ll be accepting of it.
“I suppose when you think that, you do want an artform that can relate to a whole range of societies, (and) you would just try and programme – and I think Opera Queensland does this – a mixture of the traditional as well as the newer things, and if you can explain what it’s going to be, then people can decide if they want to go and see it or not,” she says. “It is a balance, and there will be some vocal people who have strong feelings about it – because opera fans are passionate!”
Regardless, Romaniuk has approached the redesign with the same eye for detail that’s seen her work with countless other Australian productions, both opera and theatre, and also on television shows such as ‘Underbelly 2’, ‘East West 101’, and ‘Dangerous’. Given an open brief by former artistic director Chris Mangin, Romaniuk zeroed in on ‘The Mikado’s skewering of Western bureaucracy and how that might apply to the modern world.
“We looked at that iconic image of the Japanese schoolgirl in the little sailor suits, and then the Harajuku girls,” she explains. “And having that mixture of Western Victorian dresses, which is of the original period of the Mikado, but they wear them now and they’re like little dolls. So it was thinking about the way contemporary Japan now uses its own traditional design and then takes all these elements from Western design and history and blends them together. It was also being really playful about the references in the piece, which are making fun of the English and the West, and the Japanese part, and binding all of these things into something that has bits of East, bits of West, bits of contemporary, bits of traditional.
“I looked at lots of contemporary fashion. And you can really see how they’ll have kimonos but made out of denim, or they’ll have a traditional pinstripe suit but with Japanese pants over the top. Then for some of the characters like the actual Mikado, I looked at much more traditional references and then interpreted that in our graphic contemporary style. So it was really looking at lots of source material to put it all together into this world.”
Many will be familiar with the contemporary Japan Romaniuk is describing. It makes you wonder: ‘The Mikado’ was first produced in 1885 in part to capitalise on a Western obsession with Japanese culture – in that regard, has much changed over the last 120 years?
“It probably has never really gone away,” she says. “Because Japanese design is so intricate and there is the really beautiful, traditional, handcrafted side of it. But then it’s got this cutting edge, futuristic, avant-garde feel to it as well. It’s got these two components – it’s so interesting. And then going into Japanese illustration and graphics: that sort of manga and anime style that is so iconic and so different from anywhere else in the world.”
What certainly has changed in Western society since 1885 is respect and sensitivity for foreign cultures. If you’ve never seen ‘The Mikado’ – or at least experienced a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta – it’s perhaps easy to suspect the work of being a racist anachronism. But there’s rarely ever been such debate. When Prince Fushimi Sadanaru made a state visit to London in 1907, the British government, fearing offence, banned performances of ‘The Mikado’ for the duration of his stay – the prince would later complain that he didn’t get to see it. A Japanese journalist in England for the visit attended a proscribed performance and quipped that he was disappointed at how fun and inoffensive it turned out to be.
“It’s in the design and the costuming and the sets, the Japanese influence, but in terms of what they actually say and what they’re talking about, it could be anywhere,” Romaniuk explains. “It’s like Japan was an exotic location and they just decided to use that.”
Indeed, most companies – whether they’re amateur, professional or pro-am – choose to focus on the vivid characterisations in the operetta. Such is the case with Opera Queensland: besides Romaniuk, they’ve also hired Gilbert and Sullivan expert Stuart Maunder to direct the show and vividly bring to life the characters of royal-in-disguise Nanki-Poo, his paramour Yum-Yum, her betrothed Ko-Ko, and of course Nanki-Poo’s imposing father, the Mikado himself.
“It really depends on [the companies] and what they put their focus on. I think Stuart is really interested in the characters and how they portray their role, rather than how they’re portraying the culture … when you are reading it, it’s very light. So you almost can’t take it seriously. You certainly would be mindful of what’s this saying and what’s that saying. But because the characters themselves are a caricature, you really just roll with them.”
‘THE MIKADO’ OPENS ON JULY 7 AT THE CONSERVATORIUM THEATRE, QCGU, SOUTH BANK, FOR A 10-PERFORMANCE BRISBANE SEASON. QTIX.COM.AU