This week saw casting announcements from two of the biggest shows hitting stages across the country next year: Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Les Misérables, featuring a cast of seasoned musical theatre performers with nary a soap actor or reality TV personality among them, and The Gordon Frost/Opera Australia mounting of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, starring 10-time Logie Award winner Lisa McCune as the sunny, widowed governess. McCune’s rumoured real-life love interest Teddy Tahu Rhodes, an ethnically white New Zealander, will play the King of Siam.
Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are a curious thing. For all their cheerful sentimentality, they’re overtly political works. At a time when political correctness was still a pejorative term, the duo tackled social issues others were afraid to touch. South Pacific, Flower Drum Song and The King and I talked about class and race in ways nobody had addressed in the theatre. But what was progressive in 1949 or 1958 doesn’t look so rosy in 2013, and the sentiments themselves are undercut by the constant, pervasive use of racist stereotypes and conventions by the duo.
Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini responded to concern over the casting of Tahu Rhodes with a statement:
“Opera Australia works on the basis of colour-blind casting (as does every opera company in the world). That is, the best artist is chosen for the role, irrespective of race.”
It’s how opera works now. After centuries of white women playing the titular Ethiopian princess in Verdi’s Aida or the Japanese Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, non-white performers are getting their due, in these and a multitude of other roles, ethnic or otherwise.
But The King and I is not an opera, and colour-blind casting, like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s progressive agenda, only works if it’s implemented consistently and with sensitivity. Colour-blind casting is not employing Caucasians to play Asian roles, it’s disregarding race when it’s irrelevant to the story.
Despite its alleged race-blind casting policies, Opera Australia considered ethnicity to be relevant in the casting of the chorus. The audition notice for the show called for dancers “of any Asian ethnicity” with “a strong ballet technique or traditional Asian dance skills”. Casting director Neil Rutherford, in a conversation with AussieTheatre.com, said:
“Given the setting of the piece, we’re really keen to meet as many dancers as possible from any Asian ethnicity in order to be true to the piece.”
The lesser principal roles also went to Asian performers, with Chinese-born Australian opera singer Shu-Cheen Yu playing Lady Thiang and Adrian Li Donni cast as Lun Tha.
The fantastically disingenuous idea that Tahu Rhodes, with his arch, overinflated opera baritone and wooden acting, and McCune with her thin-but-passable voice and mass appeal, are the best musical theatre performers Opera Australia could find looks even less credible in the same week that the celebrity-free Les Misérables cast was announced.
Tahu Rhodes and McCune — with their alleged romance getting a near-constant run in The Australian Women’s Weekly — are box office draws, as last year’s South Pacific proved. While a predictable and brazen commercial casting move might simply be galling on any other show, with Asian performers still drastically under-represented in the theatre, the casting of Rhodes as a Thai king is downright shameful.
Despite the prevalence of colour-blind casting in the opera world, singers performing the role of Aida still have their skin — as convention dictates — darkened with make-up. It remains to be seen whether Tahu Rhodes will tread the boards in yellowface.