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Opera

Oct 15, 2013

Should this man play a Thai king? The (colour-blind) King and I

He's played a French planter in the South Pacific and now he'll play the King of Siam in another Rodgers and Hammerstein hit. But is the "colour-blind casting" of Kiwi baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes OK?

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Teddy Tahu Rhodes

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.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Lisa McCune in South Pacific

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.

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12 comments

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12 thoughts on “Should this man play a Thai king? The (colour-blind) King and I

  1. Byron Bache

    The King and I is not an opera.

    That said, opera is pageantry for a tiny, privileged niche audience. That its essentially cloistered, discriminatory casting practices have escaped mainstream scrutiny for the longest time is not a reason to accept them or — for the love of god — champion them.

    The fact that the very white, Russian Yul Brynner played Asian in the 1956 film does not legitimise the casting of a white man in the role FIFTY-SEVEN YEARS LATER.

    And just in case anybody missed it the first few times: The King and I is not an opera. Never has been, never will be. That Opera Australia is doing it does not make it an opera.

    Deccles: if you think calling out racist casting practices is “vile”, it reveals quite a bit about you.

  2. deccles

    What a pile of crap. Total utter crap. You’d have stopped Placido Domingo doing Othello by Verdi at NY Met Opera as well I guess.

    And that overpowering Baritone is actually one of the world’s best voices gracing the world’s opera stages (including Don Giovani here which you’ve also blindly ignored)

    Does that mean it’s Lenny Henry playing Othello from here on in and Lenny not allowed to do Macbeth?

    Nasty vile writing revealing more about the author than his argument.

  3. Altakoi

    A bit difficult to know when ethnicity is irrelevant to the plot. Presumably this is when ethnicity is not specifically mentioned in the name or positon of a character ie the king of Siam. Since the K&I is hardly a documentary, it would seem to be entirely irrelevant whether the lead is actually Thai. It would be an interesting test to apply to Shakespearean plays. Does the duke, duchess, king, queen, prince, retainer or their progency in an Elizabethan state have to be white? I actually thought Tahu was Maori until I googled his wiki entry on the basis of his name.

  4. Salamander

    Anyway, he looks like Yul Brynner.

  5. John Falconer

    What a crock of a story! Teddy Tahu Rhodes doesn’t look “Thai” enough to play King Mongut in the King and I musical?

    The musical on both Broadway and in the film was made famous by Yul Brynner and he certainly didn’t look Thai. Gertrude Lawrence (on Broadway) and Deborah Kerr (the film version) certainly did not fit the ethnicity of the original Mrs Anna. She was Indian/British!!

    I’m surprised your reporter didn’t suggest that Rhode’s height also precluded him from the role. He is 196cm which is probably around 30cm taller than he should be!!

    In any event the production will never make it to Thailand as all versions of the musical are banned here.

  6. Dianne Thomas

    Opera demands the best voice be cast. (Not sure Lisa qualifies). Madam Butterfly for instance.

  7. jenny cullen

    suggest writer listens to Teddy Tahu Rhodes in full voice or goes to see Don Giovanni or other operas in which he takes centre stage with both his voice and presence. And as earlier comment points out, a Thai would not accept the role as the musical has long been banned in Thailand.

  8. mark leo

    A white guy playing the Thai king in “The King and I” is a moot point given that no Thai performer would consider playing the role. The musical, and the book it was based on and the two movies are all banned in Thailand and most Thais would find the production quite offensive. So it wouldn’t really matter if the lead was white black brown or brindle.

  9. Suzy Wrong

    Excellent piece. Always good to be reminded that a lot of mainstream Australian performing arts are trapped in the shameful dark ages.

  10. Byron Bache

    Andybob,

    I refer you to the bit where I said “Colour-blind casting is not employing Caucasians to play Asian roles, it’s disregarding race when it’s irrelevant to the story.”

  11. Andybob

    So it’s only ok to cast blindly if the best person is not white ?

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