Chatting with a Poo-Bah

A NZ Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular comic opera, The Mikado, opens this week in Christchurch at the Isaac Theatre Royal.

Australian bass-baritone Andrew Collis has performed all over the world and appears in this production in the role of Poo-Bah. I chatted with him last week about the world of The Mikado, humour, and the family link to W. S. Gilbert that fostered his interest in opera.

How would you describe The Mikado to someone who has never been to see the show before?

The thing about The Mikado is that it is first and foremost a comic piece of musical theatre. It is a piece that has a lot of energy. It’s melodic. It’s a nineteenth century piece so it’s not modern in that sense. It’s an acoustic piece so we have no microphones, we just perform on stage.  I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating – so far audiences have laughed a lot, which is great because it means that the jokes still work and that audiences can still get something out of it 130 years after the event.

It may be a nineteenth century work but many people still go and see Shakespeare plays which are much older so jokes can have a long life span…

You get someone like Oscar Wilde who was also writing at that sort of time – The importance of being Earnest – that sort of humour still works as well, and the Mikado is not a thousand miles away from that. It’s the same sort of witty banter that Wilde was so good at that that Gilbert also did well, so it’s a similar sort of thing to that, I think.

Tell me a little bit about the character that you play.

Without going into the story too much, he is “The Lord High Everything Else”. The main part, Ko-Ko, sung by Byron Coll, has been appointed to the title “Lord High Executioner” and Poo-Bah, in his government, has become “Lord High Everything Else”… Poo-Bah lists all the jobs that he has and basically he has become the encapsulation of a kind of overly pompous, titled bureaucrat who’s also on the take…It’s actually become a term in the language for that sort of character. He’s a real Poobah, he’s got his finger in every pie and is on the make and is somewhat corrupt.

I think that’s a concept that modern audiences can relate to, definitely. Do you have a favourite part of The Mikado that you particularly enjoy?

I love the role that I do. I think the best song on the night is The Mikado song – the emperor of Japan comes in and joins the show about half way through the second act. That’s a great number and …I listen to it every night from the wings. It’s sung by a fine baritone, Wellington resident, James Clayton.

And Byron Coll, the Christchurch born Ko-Ko in the piece, he has some wonderful numbers particularly a duet that he does with Helen Medlyn, who sings Katisha, is tremendous.

Tell me a little bit about the costumes. They seem to be a break with the traditional in a lot of ways.

Andrew Collis as Poo-Bah
Andrew Collis in costume as Poo-Bah. Image credit: David Rowland.

Mine is a kind of fusion. An oriental, nineteenth century fusion complete with top hat. They’re very inventive costumes. I think they’re trying to bring in various different references and influences. The school girls are all dressed in a Harajuku style costuming. And a lot of the men are sort of half Japanese, half not which I think is trying to encapsulate something about the piece that, although it is set in Japan, it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Japan. It’s really a piece about the mores and functionings of nineteenth century English life set in the context of Japan, which was very fashionable at the time. In the 1880s it was a very fashionable part of London life. [Note: A Japanese Village exhibition opened in Knightsbridge, London in 1885]

It’s a reference to its time, really. And the Harajuku thing is a way of breaking a connection of it being particularly nineteenth century in that obviously [Harajuku] is of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – and there’s a reference to modern technology in there too.

It’s essentially a modernised version of a traditional piece which still, I think, hopefully takes the piece seriously and doesn’t ridicule it too much and that just tries to make it a bit bouncier and more fun for a modern audience.

I hear that you are descended from the Gilbert half of Gilbert and Sullivan…

My maternal great grandfather was Gilbert’s first cousin and he and his brother and sister came out to New South Wales and Sydney in the mid 1850s, I think, and in the family (although I didn’t join the family until some time after that) it was always part of the folklore that Gilbert had been a cousin with whom they kept in some touch but they didn’t see much of him after that period of course because they were living in Australia. So it was very much a part of growing up – my family was not particularly musical or theatrical but Gilbert & Sullivan always played a role in our lives because of this connection.

It’s a bit sad to think of a fifteen year old boy being into Gilbert and Sullivan but nevertheless I was, and that’s why I got into music theatre and opera as my career because that’s what opened the door to it for me and from that I started to listen to other sorts of classical music and opera….

If you hadn’t become an opera singer what direction to you think you would have gone in your career?

I did a law degree when I finished school because lower voiced males, well they usually take a bit longer for their voices to mature before you can start trying to work. So I did a history/law degree… and then worked for a couple of years as a legal bureaucrat which is quite Gilbertian in lots of ways… And then decided that I would have a crack at seeing how I would go and that was in 1990 and I’m still going…

So I’m very grateful for the whole Gilbert connection because it’s given me a sort of direction in my life which has been a lot of fun and very interesting.

Have you performed in Christchurch or at the Isaac Theatre Royal before?

No. My first time. I’ve done a bit on the North Island in Wellington and Auckland but not in Christchurch yet so I’m looking forward to that very much… but I hear great things about [the Isaac Theatre Royal] so I’m looking forward to seeing it.

I haven’t been to Christchurch since the earthquakes so it’s going to be fascinating to see it but I’m sure also quite moving and disturbing to see what’s happened. I’m certainly looking forward to doing the shows and I hope that it brings the citizens of Christchurch a bit of enjoyment, I hope anyway.

…We’ve noticed in our audiences that there’s been a good presence of young kids and that they’ve actually enjoyed it and there’s been a lot of laughter — it is, at the end of the day, a family entertainment and families so far have enjoyed it and I hope they will in Christchurch as well.

Further information

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