MIKA has never been afraid of taking risks. Identified as the heir apparent to Freddie Mercury from the moment he burst onto the scene, Michael Holbrook Penniman, Jr., quickly became known for his brash stage presence, exuberance, and charmingly original performances. With stage sets reminiscent of a Broadway show and a bashful style of bubblegum pop (think the incredibly catchy smash hit “Grace Kelly”), MIKA’s debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, exploded globally in 2007, becoming a staple of Australian 2000s radio.
Everyone wanted a piece of the new pop star who had all the flamboyance of the Scissor Sisters and Kylie Minogue as well as the musical influences of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. That was 14 years ago. The MIKA of 2021 is different from the MIKA of 2007, as experience shapes his development, but he’s still taking risks.
“The opportunities to perform are so rare right now that if you have the opportunity to do a concert, it must be different and impeccable,” he says to Le Parisien.
MIKA’s latest album is no ordinary studio album. Together with over 100 classical musicians and choristers, he has ventured to the Royal Opera of Versailles to re-record orchestral versions of his biggest hits. But this isn’t an ordinary concert album: there is something special about this release. This isn’t the effort of a rising star trying to prove himself. This is the work of an accomplished professional putting on a show and producing a stunning product. Last Party is one of MIKA’s best works.
Beneath the unashamed pop stylings of his first album, 2007’s Life in Cartoon Motion, it is clear that MIKA is not the typical pop star. An outsider from the beginning, MIKA was born in Lebanon before fleeing with his family during the war at the age of one. He was then educated in France and London but never really fit in and left school early.
A self-confessed ‘loner’, MIKA joined the Royal London Opera at eight years old as a boy soprano and continued to sing there until he was 15. He then studied classical voice at the Royal College of Music in London before dropping out to record his first album. At the start of his career, he felt too classical for pop music and too modern for classical music. It was only when he realised that this outsider genesis put him in unique stead in the music industry that he truly began to flourish.
MIKA’s quirkiness shines through on Last Party. Very few non-classical musicians have ever performed at the Royal Opera of Versailles; MIKA himself describes the venue as seemingly “inaccessible and forbidden for pop singers”. It is equally rare for pop singers to perform with orchestras.
In the 1980s and ’90s, rockers like Metallica and John Farnham occasionally brought live orchestras on tour with them and the genre has since been used intermittently as a novelty. It is certainly far from the norm. However, it seems as though these novelties are part of the charm for MIKA, a trained classical musician himself who always considered becoming a “classical baritone but … was just too mediocre”. Performing in such a setting with a full orchestra and choir gives Last Party a sense of grandeur from the start, which MIKA feeds off during the performance.
The opening song, “Grace Kelly”, showcases MIKA in typical theatrical form. The trademark falsetto is there but it’s interspersed with an additional touch of maturity in sound. Instead of shying away from the climactic notes, MIKA launches into them, singing with power and conviction.
MIKA’s ability to strip the infectious songs of his first album down to their basic essence is particularly impressive, showcasing his newfound maturity as an artist. The Kylie Minogue-esque “Relax, Take It Easy” is stripped back to a crooning piano ballad and the vivacious “Love Today” feels like a completely different tune.
Although listeners might gravitate toward the more famous songs, it is some of the lesser-known ones that truly allow MIKA to shine. “Over My Shoulder”, a hidden track at the end of Life in Cartoon Motion, is exquisitely transformed into a duet with countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński. The light throb of the accompanying orchestra allows MIKA’s voice to simmer over the top, his trademark falsetto resonating beautifully. Orlinski adds the perfect balance, singing the dissonant harmonies in a quasi-canonical style with MIKA. The harmonies echo through the empty theatre in a style closer to the works of Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky than a modern pop singer.
Although like most MIKA albums the tone here is mostly joyous, there is a tinge of melancholy interspersed throughout. In interviews with MIKA, he will almost always raise the subject of his family. He has spoken particularly highly of his mother, singer Joannie Penniman, whom he says shaped him as a musician. It seems fitting that this concert would be the last show of her son’s that she would see. She attended the concert, frail and wheelchair-bound, which seemed to give MIKA extra impetus for the performance.
His version of “Last Party”, an ode to the final days of Freddie Mercury before he succumbed to AIDS, is the most emotional performance on the album and possibly of MIKA’s entire career. It is delivered with gusto, raw emotion, and furious conviction. “She passed away a few days [after the concert],” MIKA says, “in a way, I was doing this for her.”
MIKA is at his best with the entire orchestra behind him, supporting his voice to the fullest. For the most part, the orchestration is stunning. In some of the more challenging vocal repertoire, such as “Underwater” and “Good Guys”, the orchestra provides extra substance to the songs, with luscious strings and gorgeous harmonies. The resonance of the empty theatre further allows the beauty of the orchestra to shine through.
“No amplified instruments were used,” MIKA says, “so the audience could feel every moment… every moment becomes more powerful [without amplification].”
Some songs do not require the full orchestra but instead showcase the Gospel 100 choir, who sing alongside MIKA. The interplay between the choir and MIKA is exquisite. “Lollipop”, a highlight of the album, utilises the choir and provides a lovely contrast to some of the heavier material. The closing song, “Happy Ending” is also marvellous, contrasting MIKA’s voice with the lush tone of the ethereal Swedish soprano, Ida Falk-Winland.
The biggest problem with the album is its similarity to previous live MIKA albums. I was expecting this album to be substantially different from his collaboration with L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal in 2015. Whilst the orchestration and handling of music are much better in Last Party, and MIKA’s voice seems stronger, the setlist is virtually identical. Whilst the similarity does not necessarily detract from the product itself, die-hard MIKA fans may feel a little short-changed.
Despite the similarity to his previous orchestral work, there is no doubt that MIKA himself is charmingly original. He switches between singing in French and English in a complementary manner. The French acts more as a musical interlude before launching into his biggest English-language hits – and the French is absolutely necessary.
MIKA is a well-known polyglot, speaking English, French, and Italian. His European fanbases are almost as large as his English-language fanbase, thanks to his judging roles on The Voice France and The X Factor Italy (in fact, he learned Italian just for these judging roles). By throwing some French-language songs into the mix, the internationally-renowned musician shows off his versatility.
When MIKA first burst onto the scene, he was a brash pop star who immediately drew comparisons to the flamboyant rock stars of the ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, like Freddie, Bowie, and even Prince, MIKA’s exuberance left an indelible mark on the industry. This album reflects a different version of MIKA. This is a more mature artist who has a better understanding of his own style, and the knowledge he has garnered can be heard in his clear voice.
It is rare for a pop singer to take a risk like this and pull it off. It would have been very easy for this album to come off as cheesy or contrived. By taking this risk, MIKA put himself out there in a way that pop singers rarely do. As a result, he has put together an album that excels both sonically and programmatically.
It’s safe to say that his mum would have been very proud of this work. Last Party is powerful, emotional, and irresistibly engaging.
Conradsson, Pauline. “Mika in concert at the Royal Opera of Versailles: ‘We must not forget 2020 …'”. 4 February 2021. le Parisien
Goodwin, Alice. “MIKA – Interview“. GoldenPlec.com 30 September 2012.
Himes, Geoffrey. “Singer MIKA Balances the Sweet with the Sour“. The Washington Post. 4 April 2013.