Interview: Soprano Sarah Tynan and tenor Robert Murray on ENO's The Mikado

'Gilbert and Sullivan are a bit of a national treasure really, aren't they!'

31 January 2008

Sarah Tynan as Yum-Yum (centre) in the 2006 revival of The Mikado (credit: Alastair Muir)As English National Opera continues to prepare for the new production of Lucia di Lammermoor in mid-February, an old favourite is about to return to the Coliseum to lighten up the winter season.

Jonathan Miller's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado is one of the most beloved productions in the company's recent history. By updating the action to the 1930s and unashamedly treating the piece as a send-up of the English rather than the Japanese, Miller seems to connect more directly with the composer and librettist's satirical tone than is often the case with productions of this repertoire. It has more of the air of a Busby Berkeley musical, complete with dance routines and creamy sets and costumes, than a stuffy operetta.

I caught up with two of the stars of the show – former ENO Young Singer and Company Principal Sarah Tynan (Yum-Yum) and former Royal Opera Jette Parker Young Artist Robert Murray (Nanki-Poo) – to find out more about the revival.

When I ask why the piece has endured for so long, Tynan replies: 'It's like all Gilbert and Sullivan, really: very sweet and light-hearted, funny and intelligent, witty and entertaining. It does what it says on the tin – it's not trying to be grand opera.' As Murray elaborates: 'The Britishness of those Gilbert and Sullivan pieces rings true, and it's something we don't have any more in our way of life today.  The way they play around with text and deal with language and comedy still resonates after so many years. I think we all find these things quite funny really, even if we don't want to admit it. It's extremely charming.'

Tynan adds that 'Gilbert and Sullivan are a bit of a national treasure really, aren't they!', while Murray admits: 'I have to say, I've liked this much more than anything I've done before by them. I've been converted by this production to finding the whole thing genuinely funny and enjoyable – I've always enjoyed some of the music, but it suddenly clicked this time. I've been saying to people, it's actually really quite funny!'

The 2006 revival of The Mikado (credit: Alastair Muir)The enduring quality also extends to Jonathan Miller's production, which has survived numerous revivals over the last two decades, always to critical and public acclaim. 'It's very witty – it doesn't take itself too seriously,' says Tynan. And Murray adds: 'The fact that they've subverted it by setting it in British society is great. The text isn't altered much but there are a few extra gags which allow it to live in that updated period. When Ko-Ko reads the letter from the Mikado, he turns it upside down and says 'It's in Japanese!'. That's the key to the production: boldly not being Japanese but being British.'

'The music is lovely' says Murray. 'Sarah's aria, 'The sun whose rays', is simple but it's aspirational and hopeful – everything it should be in the lyrics. Some of the music is passionate; some of it is satirical. But it's always true to the text.'

'Also,' says Tynan, 'it always complements the text rather than obscuring it. They were trying to match the text and music and make them of equal importance; I think they do that really well. The music is funny and passionate, but you're still focussed on the words.'

When I ask them if there's any substance to the music beyond satire – for instance in the pastiche 'oriental' opening number 'We are Gentlemen of Japan' – Murray responds: 'But that's followed by 'A Wand'ring Minstrel I', which is again a silly song but captures so many styles and just does what the text says. That's what it needs to do. And they're not silly – they're brilliantly written melodies. It's not Mozart's finest, but it's near as damn it.' Tynan agrees: 'It's enjoyable. Not everything has to be complex to be good. It's not massively complicated but it's charming. That was its intention when it was written.'

Murray continues: 'It meets its brief, this piece. It's such a collaboration – where the music is simple and silly, it's because the character's being simple and silly. And don't forget, when it was new it had that ridiculously long run of about two years and several hundred performances – it clearly struck a chord with audiences.' Tynan feels the same: 'And it's retained that universality: politics, love and the quirkiness of human behaviour remain big issues today. Anyone would be able to find parallels between the behaviour of the characters and that of members of their families! It's in between opera and theatre and it's a great way to get new audiences into a house like this.'  

Sarah Tynan as Yum-Yum (centre) in the 2006 revival of The Mikado (credit: Alastair Muir)We touch on the attitude of the press towards ENO in recent times, but Tynan feels that they are generally positive about the company presenting this repertoire. 'I think the press has always been in favour of ENO doing Gilbert and Sullivan. It's so popular with the audiences and it's a great way to get people in, so I think they appreciate it. Some of the press may not like them doing musical theatre, but Gilbert and Sullivan is part of a whole different tradition.' And, says Murray, 'the range of pieces that the company has done has made it part of ENO's tradition too, now.'         

An inevitable topic of conversation is the two singers' experiences as Young Artists in the country's two leading opera houses. 'The two Young Artist programmes are very different,' says Murray. 'The most valuable thing that the Royal Opera House programme gave me was experience in world-class situations. I feel I can turn up in most places and not be scared of the situations. That may sound silly, but from the first day of singing Gastone in Traviata, you couldn't hear a word I was singing because it's a middle-voice character role. A month later, I got to do Tamino, which was a great, amazing experience and the correct repertoire for me to sing. In that couple of weeks, I learnt so much about what's possible and what isn't. It's not so much about the success that it's brought me but the way I feel about singing and my job. The coaching was fantastic – one thing it's given me is free coaching now for as long as they keep that going. I can call up and go back and do all my language coaching for free. So that's extraordinary. I didn't get so many roles, but I covered people who were sick so I got to go on for some Mozart roles. And musically, their staff are second to none.'

Tynan contrasts that with her experiences at the Coliseum: 'I guess the ENO programme is more of an apprenticeship. It's much more about onstage experience – the amount of roles I've had to sing is something I'd never have had otherwise. What could be better than getting onstage and having the experience of just doing it? It's also great being helped and coached by people and having the chance to make mistakes before you get in front of the bright lights and perform. It's absolutely brilliant.'

'And,' says Murray, 'it's also about being part of a company. Working inside both of these companies is extraordinarily nice. Individual directors and conductors might make life difficult occasionally, but being within the walls of both buildings is lovely. Everyone wants to achieve a common goal. That's really refreshing, because it's not always the case with companies.'

Tynan cites Dialogues of the Carmelites as one of the highlights of her time as a Young Artist at ENO. 'Phyllida Lloyd is a wonderful director, and it was wonderful to be onstage with so many really strong women performing really strong roles. Felicity Palmer is amazing: we did The Carmelites, then the next thing we did together was The Mikado when she played Katisha. She was very sweet and took me under her wing a bit, and chatted to me about agents and the business. It's also great to have a certain amount of financial security, so you don't have to take on every role that's offered to you. That's the sort of thing you don't get if you're a young singer just out of college.' Murray adds: 'It's also good not to have to do too much, too soon. You are the kid in a room full of adults, but as long as you respect that, it's fine. I was looking round the room today at Graeme Danby [Pooh-Bah] and Richard Suart [Ko-Ko] – they've been doing opera for over twenty years. It makes me feel good to think that you can have that kind of career, and I don't panic if I'm not doing the thing I most desperately want to do now. It's about patience – you have a long way to go, and it's actually a lovely feeling.'

Later in the year, Sarah Tynan returns to ENO to play the role of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. 'I cannot wait!' she exclaims. 'It's my dream role, so it's fantastic for me. It's good to be singing more vocally demanding things, and it is an honour to sing with people like Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson and Janice Watson. It's fabulous.' Robert Murray's big upcoming role is Tom Rakewell in The Rake's Progress at Garsington Opera. 'It's with a great cast including Christopher Purves, so it should be interesting,' he says. 'Then I'm going to Salzburg to do Romeo and Juliet in which I have about ten words on my own as Benvolio! It will be a wonderful experience to spend a month performing at the festival, though. Then I come back to do Don Ottavio again at the Royal Opera House, and Harry in La fanciulla del West at the same time. There's also a couple of recitals at the Wigmore Hall with Malcolm Martineau. It's a nice range of things – I love doing Lieder and opera and early music.'

The 2006 revival of The Mikado (credit: Alastair Muir)We also discuss the kinds of roles the two singers would like to perform in future years. Tynan says, 'I want to keep experimenting with as wide a repertoire as possible, rather than specialise. I'd love to do The Cunning Little Vixen.  I've got an Adina in L'elisir d'amore which I'm quite excited about – I'd like to do lots of that bel canto repertoire, and more Handel and Strauss. I'm doing another Susanna, and more Mozart would be good too.'

Murray has a similarly wide range of interests: 'I can't wait to do The Rake's Progress. I love singing in English to an English audience, because they connect with the text very directly. If that happens, it can be a remarkably intimate experience. A long-term goal would be Peter Grimes, but I'd just like to investigate a variety of things at the moment. Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore is one. Ferrando in Così fan tutte would be good, because I've not yet done it in public and it's a lovely singing role from the more Italian side of Mozart. I don't know if I'm going to go in the direction of Alfredo and Rodolfo and things like that. I'd love to, but I have to check and see how it feels. I just want to sing nice music and sing it well.' And Tynan adds: 'We just don't know where our voices are going to go because we're still young. In five years' time, who knows what kind of repertoire we'll be looking at?'

For the time being, the two singers are wrapped up in thoughts of The Mikado. 'It's going to be great,' says Murray. 'I'm a little nervous because I've never done it before, but we've had a wonderful rehearsal period. Jonathan Miller has come a few times and given us some really nice notes. He's very good in rehearsals: he has a real eye for a joke and he also makes it clear what the joke should play against. Some of the tenors that have done this role are extraordinarily good at it, which is daunting, so it's been great to feel I've had that input from Jonathan.' Tynan explains that he was present in the previous revival, too. 'He's just so intelligent. Being a doctor, he seems to have a good grasp of human nature and behaviour. In particular, he's good at telling people what to do when they're not being watched.' Murray agrees: 'It's been a privilege to work with him.'

By Dominic McHugh

The Mikado opens at ENO on 2 February 2008 and runs until 4 March (9 performances only). More details at