The Mikado or, The Town of Titipu is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert, their ninth of fourteen operatic collaborations. It opened on March 14, 1885, in London, where it ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performances, which was the second longest run for any work of musical theatre and one of the longest runs of any theatre piece up to that time. Before the end of 1885, it was estimated that, in Europe and America, at least 150 companies were producing the opera.The Mikado remains the most frequently performed Savoy Opera, and it is especially popular with amateur and school productions. The work has been translated into numerous languages and is one of the most frequently played musical theatre pieces in history.
Setting the opera in Japan, an exotic locale far away from Britain, allowed Gilbert to satirise British politics and institutions more freely by disguising them as Japanese. Gilbert used foreign or fictional locales in several operas, including The Mikado, Princess Ida, The Gondoliers, Utopia, Limited and The Grand Duke, to soften the impact of his pointed satire of British institutions.
Origins of the work
Gilbert and Sullivan's previous opera, Princess Ida, ran for nine months — a short duration by Savoy opera standards. As Ida showed signs of flagging, producer Richard D'Oyly Carte realised that, for the first time since 1877, no new Savoy opera would be ready when the old one closed. On 22 March 1884, Carte gave Gilbert and Sullivan contractual notice that a new opera would be required in six months' time. Sullivan's close friend, conductor Frederic Clay, had suffered a serious stroke in early December 1883 that effectively ended his career. Sullivan, reflecting on this, on his own precarious health, and on his desire to devote himself to more serious music, replied that "it is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself". Gilbert was surprised to hear of Sullivan's hesitation and had started work on a new opera involving a plot in which people fell in love against their wills after taking a magic lozenge. He wrote to Sullivan asking him to reconsider, but the composer replied on 2 April that he had "come to the end of my tether" with the operas:
“ ...I have been continually keeping down the music in order that not one [syllable] should be lost.... I should like to set a story of human interest & probability where the humorous words would come in a humorous (not serious) situation, & where, if the situation were a tender or dramatic one the words would be of similar character." ”
Gilbert was much hurt, but Sullivan insisted that he could not set the "lozenge plot". In addition to the "improbability" of it, it was too similar to the plot of their 1877 opera, The Sorcerer. The parties were at a stalemate, and Gilbert wrote, "And so ends a musical & literary association of seven years' standing — an association of exceptional reputation — an association unequalled in its monetary results, and hitherto undisturbed by a single jarring or discordant element." However, by 8 May 1884, Gilbert was ready to back down, writing, "...am I to understand that if I construct another plot in which no supernatural element occurs, you will undertake to set it? ... a consistent plot, free from anachronisms, constructed in perfect good faith & to the best of my ability." The stalemate was broken, and on 20 May, Gilbert sent Sullivan a sketch of the plot of The Mikado.Gilbert eventually found a place for his "lozenge plot" in The Mountebanks, written with Alfred Cellier in 1892. It would take another ten months for The Mikado to reach the stage. A revised version of their 1877 work, The Sorcerer, coupled with their one-act Trial by Jury (1875), played at the Savoy while Carte and their audiences awaited their next work.
Cellier and Bridgeman first recorded the familiar story of how Gilbert found his inspiration in 1914:
“ Gilbert, having determined to leave his own country alone for a while, sought elsewhere for a subject suitable to his peculiar humour. A trifling accident inspired him with an idea. One day an old Japanese sword that, for years, had been hanging on the wall of his study, fell from its place. This incident directed his attention to Japan. Just at that time a company of Japanese had arrived in England and set up a little village of their own in Knightsbridge. ”
The story is an appealing one, but it is entirely fictional. Gilbert was interviewed twice about his inspiration for The Mikado. In both interviews the sword was mentioned, and in one of them he said it was the inspiration for the opera, but Gilbert never said that the sword had fallen. Moreover, Cellier and Bridgeman are incorrect about the Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge, which did not open until 10 January 1885, almost two months after Gilbert had already completed Act I. Jones notes that "the further removed in time the writer is from the incident, the more graphically it is recalled." Leslie Baily, for instance, told it this way in 1952:
“ A day or so later Gilbert was striding up and down his library in the new house at Harrington Gardens, fuming at the impasse, when a huge Japanese sword decorating the wall fell with a clatter to the floor. Gilbert picked it up. His perambulations stopped. 'It suggested the broad idea,' as he said later. His journalistic mind, always quick to seize on topicalities, turned to a Japanese Exhibition which had recently been opened in the neighbourhood. Gilbert had seen the little Japanese men and women from the Exhibition shuffling in their exotic robes through the streets of Knightsbridge. Now he sat at his writing desk and picked up the quill pen. He began making notes in his plot-book. ”
The story was dramatised in more-or-less this form in the 1999 film Topsy-Turvy. However, even though the 1885-87 Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge had not opened when Gilbert conceived of The Mikado, the English craze for all things Japanese had built through the 1860s and 1870s and made the time ripe for an opera set in Japan. Gilbert told a journalist, "I cannot give you a good reason for our ... piece being laid in Japan. It ... afforded scope for picturesque treatment, scenery and costume, and I think that the idea of a chief magistrate, who is ... judge and actual executioner in one, and yet would not hurt a worm, may perhaps please the public."
In an 1885 interview with the New York Daily Tribune, Gilbert also stated that the short stature of Leonora Braham, Jessie Bond and Sybil Grey "suggested the advisability of grouping them as three Japanese school-girls" referred to in the opera as the "three little maids". He also recounted that a young Japanese lady, a tea-server from the Japanese village, came to rehearsals to coach the three little maids in some native Japanese dances. On 12 February 1885, one month before The Mikado opened, the Illustrated London News wrote about the opening of the Japanese village noting, among other things, that "the graceful, fantastic dancing featured... three little maids!" Finally, Gilbert related that he and Sullivan had decided to cut the Mikado's Act II song, but that members of the company and others who had witnessed the dress rehearsal "came to us in a body and begged us to restore [it]".
Durward Lely as Nanki-Poo
The Mikado of Japan (bass or bass-baritone)
Nanki-Poo, His Son, disguised as a wandering minstrel and in love with Yum-Yum (tenor)
Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner of Titipu (comic baritone)
Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else (baritone)
Pish-Tush, A Noble Lord (baritone)
[Go-To, ''A Noble Lord''] (bass)
Yum-Yum, A Ward of Ko-Ko, also engaged to Ko-Ko (soprano)
Pitti-Sing, A Ward of Ko-Ko (mezzo-soprano)
Peep-Bo, A Ward of Ko-Ko (soprano or mezzo-soprano)
Katisha, An Elderly lady, in love with Nanki-Poo (contralto)
Chorus of School-Girls, Nobles, Guards and Coolies
Courtyard of Ko-Ko's Official Residence
Gentlemen of the Japanese town of Titipu are gathered ("If you want to know who we are"). A wandering musician, Nanki-Poo, enters and introduces himself ("A wand'ring minstrel I"). He inquires about his beloved, the maiden Yum-Yum, a ward of Ko-Ko (formerly a cheap tailor). One of the gentlemen, Pish-Tush, explains that when the Mikado decreed that flirting was a capital crime, the Titipu authorities frustrated the decree by appointing Ko-Ko, a prisoner condemned to death for flirting, to the post of Lord High Executioner ("Our great Mikado, virtuous man"). Ko-Ko was "next" to be decapitated, and the Titipu authorities reasoned that he could "not cut off another's head until he cut his own off", and since Ko-Ko was not likely to try to execute himself, no executions could take place. However, all officials but the haughty Pooh-Bah proved too proud to serve under an ex-tailor, and Pooh-Bah now holds all their posts — and collects all their salaries. Pooh-Bah informs Nanki-Poo that Yum-Yum is scheduled to marry Ko-Ko on that very day ("Young man, despair").
Ko-Ko - 1926 costume design by Charles Ricketts
Ko-Ko enters ("Behold the Lord High Executioner"), and asserts himself by reading off a list of people "who would not be missed" if they were executed ("I've got a little list"). Soon, Yum-Yum appears with two of her friends (sometimes referred to as her "sisters"), Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing ("Comes a train of little ladies", "Three little maids from school"). Ko-Ko encourages a respectful greeting between Pooh-Bah and the young girls, but Pooh-Bah will have none of it ("So please you, sir"). Nanki-Poo arrives on the scene and informs Ko-Ko of his love for Yum-Yum. Ko-Ko sends him away, but Nanki-Poo manages to meet with his beloved and reveals his secret to Yum-Yum — he is the son and heir of the Mikado, but he's travelling in disguise to avoid the amorous advances of Katisha, an elderly lady of his father's court. They lament over what the law forbids them to do ("Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted").
Ko-Ko receives news that the Mikado has decreed that unless an execution is carried out within a month, the town will be reduced to the rank of a village — which would bring "irretrievable ruin". Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush point to Ko-Ko himself as the obvious choice for beheading, since he was already under sentence of death ("I am so proud"), but Ko-Ko protests that, firstly, it would be "extremely difficult, not to say dangerous", for him to attempt to execute himself, and secondly, it would be suicide, which is a "capital offence". Fortuitously, Ko-Ko discovers that Nanki-Poo, in despair over losing Yum-Yum, is preparing to commit suicide. After ascertaining that nothing would change Nanki-Poo's mind, Ko-Ko makes a bargain with him: Nanki-Poo may marry Yum-Yum for one month if, at the end of that time, he allows himself to be executed. Ko-Ko would then marry the young widow.
Everyone arrives to celebrate Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum's union ("With aspect stern and gloomy stride"), but the festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Katisha, who has come to claim Nanki-Poo as her husband. However, the townspeople are much more sympathetic to the young couple, and her attempts to reveal Nanki-Poo's secret are drowned out by the shouting of the crowd. Outwitted but not defeated, Katisha makes it clear that she intends to return.
Koko reveals that when a man is beheaded, his wife is buried alive: from Gilbert's children's book The Story of the Mikado. Art by Alice B. Woodward.
Yum-Yum is being prepared by her friends for her wedding ("Braid the raven hair"), after which she is left to muse on her own beauty ("The sun whose rays"). She is joined by Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, who remind her of the limited nature of her impending union. Joined by Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush, they try to keep their spirits up ("Brightly dawns our wedding-day"), but soon Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah enter to inform them of a twist in the law that states that when a married man is beheaded for flirting (the only crime so punished), his wife must be buried alive ("Here's a how-de-do"). Yum-Yum is unwilling to marry under these circumstances, and so Nanki-Poo challenges Ko-Ko to behead him on the spot. It turns out, however, that Ko-Ko has never executed anyone, not even a Blue bottle, and cannot execute Nanki-Poo, because the ex-tailor is too soft-hearted. Ko-Ko instead sends Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum away to be wed (by Pooh-Bah, as Archbishop of Titipu), promising to present to the Mikado a false affidavit in evidence of the fictitious execution.
"His teeth, I've enacted,
Shall all be extracted
By terrified amateurs."
(Cartoon by W. S. Gilbert)
The Mikado and Katisha arrive in Titipu with little notice, but accompanied by a large procession ("A more humane Mikado"). Ko-Ko assumes that he has come to see whether an execution has been carried out. Aided by Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah, he gives a graphic description of the supposed execution ("The criminal cried") and hands the Mikado the certificate of death — signed and sworn to by Pooh-Bah as coroner and noting, slyly, that most of the town's important officers (that is, Pooh-Bah) were present at the "ceremony". However, the Mikado has come about an entirely different matter — he is searching for his son. When they hear that the Mikado's son "goes by the name of Nanki-Poo", the three panic, and Ko-Ko says that Nanki-Poo "has gone abroad". Meanwhile, Katisha is reading the death certificate and notes with horror that the person "executed" was Nanki-Poo. The Mikado (though expressing understanding and sympathy) ("See How the Fates") discusses with Katisha the statutory punishment "for compassing the death of the heir apparent" to the Imperial throne — something lingering, "with boiling oil... or melted lead". With the three conspirators facing painful execution, Ko-Ko pleads with Nanki-Poo to return. Nanki-Poo fears that Katisha will order his execution if she finds he is alive, but notes that if Ko-Ko could persuade Katisha to marry him, then Nanki-Poo could safely "come to life again" ("The flowers that bloom in the spring"). Though Katisha is "something appalling", Ko-Ko has no choice: it is marriage to Katisha, or a painful death for all three.
Ko-Ko discovers Katisha mourning her loss ("Alone, and yet alive") and throws himself on her mercy. He begs for her hand in marriage, saying that he has long harboured a passion for her. Katisha initially rebuffs him, but is soon moved by his pleadings ("Tit-willow"). She agrees ("There is beauty in the bellow of the blast") and, once the ceremony is performed (by Pooh-Bah, the Registrar), begs mercy for him and his "accomplices" from the Mikado. Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum then re-appear, sparking Katisha's fury. The Mikado is astonished that Nanki-Poo is alive, when the account of his execution had been given with such "affecting particulars". Ko-Ko explains that when a royal command for an execution is given, the victim is, legally speaking, as good as dead, "and if he is dead, why not say so?". The Mikado deems that "Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory", and so Titipu celebrates ("For he's gone and married Yum-Yum").
Nanki-poo as a wand'ring minstrel, from The Story of the Mikado. Art by Alice B. Woodward.
Overture (Includes "Mi-ya Sa-ma", "The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze", "There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast", "Braid the Raven Hair" and "With Aspect Stern and Gloomy Stride")
1. "If you want to know who we are" (Nanki-Poo and Men)
2. "A Wand'ring Minstrel I" (Nanki-Poo and Men)
3. "Our Great Mikado, virtuous man" (Pish-Tush and Men)
4. "Young man, despair" (Pooh-Bah, Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush)
5. "Behold the Lord High Executioner" (Ko-Ko and Men)
5a. "As some day it may happen" (Ko-Ko and Men)
6. "Comes a train of little ladies" (Girls)
7. "Three little maids from school are we" (Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, Pitti-Sing, and Girls)
8. "So please you, Sir, we much regret" (Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, Pitti-Sing, Pooh-Bah, and Girls)
9. "Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted" (Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo)
10. "I am so proud" (Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko and Pish-Tush)
11. Finale Act I (Ensemble)
"With aspect stern and gloomy stride"
"The threatened cloud has passed away"
"Your revels cease!" ... "Oh fool, that fleest my hallowed joys!"
"For he's going to marry Yum-Yum"
"The hour of gladness" ... "O ni! bikkuri shakkuri to!"
"Ye torrents roar!"
Lithograph from The Mikado
12. "Braid the raven hair" (Pitti-Sing and Girls)
13. "The sun whose rays are all ablaze" (Yum-Yum) (Originally in Act I, moved to Act II shortly after the opening night)
14. "Brightly dawns our wedding day" (Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush)
15. "Here's a how-de-do" (Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko)
16. "Mi-ya Sa-ma...." "From every kind of man obedience I expect" (Mikado, Katisha, Girls and Men)
17. "A more humane Mikado" (Mikado, Girls and Men) (This song was nearly cut, but was restored shortly before the first night.)
18. "The criminal cried as he dropped him down" (Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing, Pooh-Bah, Girls and Men)
19. "See how the Fates their gifts allot" (Mikado, Pitti-Sing, Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko and Katisha)
20. "The flowers that bloom in the spring" (Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bah)
21. "Alone, and yet alive" (Katisha)
22. "Willow, tit-willow" ("On a tree by a river") (Ko-Ko)
23. "There is beauty in the bellow of the blast" (Katisha and Ko-Ko)
24. "For he's gone and married Yum-Yum" ... "The threatened cloud has passed away" (Ensemble)
The Mikado had the longest original run of the Savoy Operas. It also had the quickest revival: after Gilbert and Sullivan's next work, Ruddigore, closed relatively quickly, three operas were revived to fill the interregnum until The Yeomen of the Guard was ready, with The Mikado being revived just seventeen months after the first run closed. On 4 September 1891, D'Oyly Carte's touring "C" company gave a Royal Command Performance of The Mikado at Balmoral Castle before Queen Victoria and the Royal Family.
Political parody celebrating the bicentennial of Albany, New York
It was revived again while The Grand Duke was in preparation. When it became clear that that opera was not a success, The Mikado was given at matinees, and the revival continued when The Grand Duke closed after just three months. In 1906–07, Helen Carte, the widow of Richard D'Oyly Carte, mounted a repertory season at the Savoy, but The Mikado was not performed, as it was thought that visiting Japanese royalty might be offended by it. However, it was included in Mrs. Carte's second repertory season, in 1908–09. New costume designs were created by Charles Ricketts for the 1926 season and were used until 1982.
The first provincial production of The Mikado opened on July 27, 1885 in Brighton, with several members of that company leaving in August to present the first authorised American production in New York. From then on, The Mikado was a constant presence on tour. From 1885 until the Company's closure in 1982, there was no year in which a D'Oyly Carte company (or several of them) was not presenting it.
Geraldine Ulmar, Yum-Yum in the New York cast
In America, as had happened with H.M.S. Pinafore, the first productions were piracies, but once the authorised American production opened in August 1885, it was a success, earning record profits, and Carte formed several companies to tour the show in North America. Burlesque and parody productions, including political parodies, were mounted. Numerous unauthorised versions cropped up, and, as had been the case with Pinafore, there was nothing that Carte or Gilbert and Sullivan could do about it, since there was no copyright treaty at the time. In Australia, The Mikado's first authorised performance was on 14 November 1885 at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, produced by J. C. Williamson. During 1886, Carte was touring five Mikado companies in North America.
Carte toured the opera in 1886 and again in 1887 in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. In September 1886, Vienna's leading critic, Eduard Hanslick, wrote that the opera's "unparalleled success" was attributable not merely to the libretto and the music, but also to "the wholly original stage performance, unique of its kind, by Mr D'Oyly Carte's artists... riveting the eye and ear with its exotic allurement." Authorised productions were also seen in France, Holland, Hungary, Spain, Belgium, Scandinavia, Russia and elsewhere.
After the Gilbert copyrights expired in 1962, the Sadler's Wells Opera mounted the first non-D'Oyly Carte professional production in England, with Clive Revill as Ko-Ko. Among the many professional revivals since then was an English National Opera production in 1986, with Eric Idle as Ko-Ko and Lesley Garrett as Yum-Yum, directed by Jonathan Miller. This production, which has been revived several times, was set not in ancient Japan, but in a swanky 1920s seaside hotel with sets and costumes in white and black.
The following table shows the history of the D'Oyly Carte productions in Gilbert's lifetime:
Theatre Opening Date Closing Date Perfs. Details
Savoy Theatre March 14, 1885 January 19, 1887 672 First London run.
Fifth Avenue and Standard Theatres, New York August 19, 1885 April 17, 1886 250 Authorised American production. Production was given at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, except for a one-month transfer to the Standard Theatre in February 1886.
Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York November 1, 1886 November 20, 1886 3 wks Production with some D'Oyly Carte personnel under the management of John Stetson.
Savoy Theatre June 7, 1888 September 29, 1888 116 First London revival.
Savoy Theatre November 6, 1895 March 4, 1896 127 Second London revival.
Savoy Theatre May 27, 1896 July 4, 1896 6 Performances at matinees during the original run of The Grand Duke.
Savoy Theatre July 11, 1896 February 17, 1897 226 Continuation of revival after early closure of The Grand Duke.
Savoy Theatre April 28, 1908 March 27, 1909 142 Second Savoy repertory season; played with five other operas. Closing date shown is of the entire season.
Analysis and reception
Themes of death
The Mikado is a comedy that deals with themes of death and cruelty. This works only because Gilbert treats these themes as trivial, even lighthearted issues. For instance, in Pish-Tush's song "Our great Mikado, virtuous man", he sings: "The youth who winked a roving eye/Or breathed a non-connubial sigh/Was thereupon condemned to die —/He usually objected." The term for this rhetorical technique is meiosis, a drastic understatement of the situation. Other examples of this are when self-decapitation is described as "an extremely difficult, not to say dangerous, thing to attempt", and also as merely "awkward". When a discussion occurs of Nanki-Poo's life being "cut short in a month", the tone remains comic and only mock-melancholy. Burial alive is described as "a stuffy death". Finally, execution by boiling oil or by melted lead is described by the Mikado as a "humorous but lingering" punishment.
Death is treated as a businesslike event in Gilbert's Topsy-Turvy world. Pooh-Bah calls Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, an "industrious mechanic". Ko-Ko also treats his bloody office as a profession, saying, "I can't consent to embark on a professional operation unless I see my way to a successful result." Of course, joking about death does not originate with The Mikado. The plot conceit that Nanki-Poo may marry Yum-Yum if he agrees to die at the end of the month was used in A Wife for a Month, a 17th century play by John Fletcher. Ko-Ko's final speech affirms that death has been, throughout the opera, a fiction, a matter of words that can be dispelled with a phrase or two: being dead and being "as good as dead" are equated. In a review of the original production of The Mikado, after praising the show generally, the critic noted that the show's humour nevertheless depends on "unsparing exposure of human weaknesses and follies — things grave and even horrible invested with a ridiculous aspect — all the motives prompting our actions traced back to inexhaustible sources of selfishness and cowardice.... Decapitation, disembowelment, immersion in boiling oil or molten lead are the eventualities upon which [the characters'] attention (and that of the audience) is kept fixed with gruesome persistence.... [Gilbert] has unquestionably succeeded in imbuing society with his own quaint, scornful, inverted philosophy; and has thereby established a solid claim to rank amongst the foremost of those latter-day Englishmen who have exercised a distinct psychical influence upon their contemporaries."
Grossmith "made up" as Ko-Ko
To the extent that the opera portrays Japanese culture, style and government, it is a fictional version of Japan used merely to provide a picturesque setting and to capitalise on the British fascination with Japan in the 1880s. Gilbert wrote, "The Mikado of the opera was an imaginary monarch of a remote period and cannot by any exercise of ingenuity be taken to be a slap on an existing institution." G. K. Chesterton compared the satire in the opera to that in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels: Gilbert pursued and persecuted the evils of modern England till they had literally not a leg to stand on, exactly as Swift did.... I doubt if there is a single joke in the whole play that fits the Japanese. But all the jokes in the play fit the English.... About England, Pooh-bah is something more than a satire; he is the truth. The opera's setting draws on Victorian notions of the far east, gleaned by Gilbert from the glimpses of Japanese fashion and art that immediately followed the beginning of trade between the two island empires, and during rehearsals, Gilbert visted the popular Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge, London. Gilbert sought authenticity, however, in the setting, costumes, movements and gestures of the actors. To that end, Gilbert engaged some of the Japanese at the Knightsbridge village to advise on the production and to coach the actors. "The Directors and Native Inhabitants" of the village were thanked in the programme that was distributed on the first night. Sullivan inserted into his score, as "Miya sama", a version of a Japanese military march song, called "Ton-yare Bushi", composed in the Meiji Era. Giacomo Puccini later incorporated the same song into Madama Butterfly. The characters' names in the play are not Japanese names, but rather (in many cases) English baby-talk or simply dismissive exclamations. For instance, a pretty young thing is named Pitti-Sing; the beautiful heroine is named Yum-Yum; the pompous officials are Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush; the hero is called Nanki-Poo, baby-talk for "handkerchief" The headsman's name, Ko-Ko, is similar to that of the scheming Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko in Ba-ta-clan by Jacques Offenbach.
Temple as the Mikado
The Japanese were ambivalent toward The Mikado for many years. Some Japanese critics saw the depiction of the title character as a disrespectful representation of the revered Meiji Emperor. Japanese Prince Komatsu Akihito, who saw an 1886 production in London, took no offence. When Prince Fushimi Sadanaru made a state visit in 1907, the British government banned performances of The Mikado from London for six weeks, fearing that the play might offend him – a manoeuvre that backfired when the prince complained that he had hoped to see The Mikado during his stay. A Japanese journalist covering the prince's stay attended a proscribed performance and confessed himself "deeply and pleasingly disappointed." Expecting "real insults" to his country, he had found only "bright music and much fun."
The J. C. Williamson G&S company toured Japan in the 1920s, likely performing The Mikado among other Gilbert and Sullivan works. After World War II, The Mikado was staged in Japan in a number of private performances. The first public production, given at three performances was in 1946 in the Ernie Pyle Theater in Tokyo, conducted by the pianist Jorge Bolet for the entertainment of American troops. The set and costumes were opulent, and the principal players were American, Canadian, and British, as were the women's chorus, but the male chorus and the female dancing chorus were Japanese. General Douglas MacArthur banned a large-scale professional 1947 Tokyo production by an all-Japanese cast, but other productions have occurred in Japan. For example, the opera was performed at the Ernie Pyle Theater in Tokyo in 1970, presented by the Eighth Army Special Service.
In 2001, the town of Chichibu (秩父), Japan, under the name of "Tokyo Theatre Company", produced an adaptation of The Mikado in Japanese. Locals say that Chichibu was the town that Gilbert had in mind when he named his setting "Titipu", but there is no contemporary evidence for this theory. Rokusuke Ei, a Japanese broadcaster, lyricist and essayist, was convinced that a peasant uprising in Chichibu in 1884 inspired Gilbert to set the opera in Japan. Although the Hepburn system of transliteration (in which the name of the town appears as "Chichibu") is usually found today, it was very common in the 19th century to use the Kunrei system, in which the name 秩父 appears as "Titibu". Thus it is easy to surmise that "Titibu", found in the London press of 1884, became "Titipu" in the opera. Other Japanese researchers have concluded that Gilbert may simply have heard of Chichibu silk, an important export in the 19th century. In any case, the town's Japanese-language adaptation of The Mikado has been performed several times throughout Japan. In August 2006, the Chichibu Mikado was performed at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in England, and the same company continued to perform the adaptation on tour in Japan in 2007.
Modernised words and phrases
Barrington: "Lord-high everything else"
In the song "As some day it may happen", sung by Ko-Ko in Act I, the character goes through a "little list" of "society offenders" who, if executed, "would not be missed". One of these is "the nigger serenader and the others of his race". Gilbert's reference was to blackface minstrels who were white entertainers in makeup, not to dark skinned people. Also included in the list are "the lady novelist", referring to a particular type of novelist earlier lampooned by George Eliot, and "the lady from the provinces who dresses like a guy", where guy refers to the dummy that is part of Guy Fawkes Night celebrations, hence a tasteless woman who dresses like a scarecrow.
To avoid distracting the audience with references that have become offensive over time, the lyrics are almost invariably modified in modern productions; universally, the word "nigger" is changed. Other changes are made to the opera to take advantage of opportunities for topical jokes; the "Little List" song is often significantly rewritten. Another frequent alteration is to Pooh-Bah's list of titles, which must be kept largely the same due to later plot references, but may be added to with modern, topical positions. The Mikado's list of punishments and crimes in "A more humane Mikado", is also sometimes rewritten to include modern infractions.
The Mikado became the most frequently performed Savoy Opera, and it has been translated into numerous languages. It is one of the most frequently played musical theatre pieces in history.
The Mikado has been admired by other composers. Dame Ethel Smyth wrote of Sullivan, "One day he presented me with a copy of the full score of The Golden Legend, adding: 'I think this is the best thing I've done, don't you?' and when truth compelled me to say that in my opinion The Mikado is his masterpiece, he cried out: 'O you wretch!' But though he laughed I could see he was disappointed."
The following tables show the casts of the principal original productions and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company touring repertory at various times through to the company's 1982 closure:
Role Savoy Theatre
1885 Fifth Avenue
1885 Savoy Theatre
1888 Savoy Theatre
1895 Savoy Theatre
The Mikado Richard Temple F. Federici Richard Temple R. Scott Fishe² Henry Lytton
Nanki-Poo Durward Lely Courtice Pounds J. G. Robertson Charles Kenningham Strafford Moss
Ko-Ko George Grossmith George Thorne George Grossmith Walter Passmore Charles H. Workman
Pooh-Bah Rutland Barrington Fred Billington Rutland Barrington Rutland Barrington Rutland Barrington
Pish-Tush Frederick Bovill George Byron Browne Richard Cummings Jones Hewson Leicester Tunks
Go-To1 Rudolph Lewis R. H. Edgar Rudolph Lewis Fred Drawater
Yum-Yum Leonora Braham Geraldine Ulmar Geraldine Ulmar Florence Perry Clara Dow
Pitti-Sing Jessie Bond Kate Forster Jessie Bond Jessie Bond Jessie Rose
Peep-Bo Sybil Grey Geraldine St. Maur Sybil Grey Emmie Owen Beatrice Boarer
Katisha Rosina Brandram Elsie Cameron Rosina Brandram Rosina Brandram Louie René
1Role of Go-To added from April 1885
²For 1896–97 revival, Richard Temple returned to play The Mikado during January–February 1896, and again from November 1896–February 1897.
Role D'Oyly Carte
1915 Tour D'Oyly Carte
1925 Tour D'Oyly Carte
1935 Tour D'Oyly Carte
1945 Tour D'Oyly Carte
The Mikado Leicester Tunks Darrell Fancourt Darrell Fancourt Darrell Fancourt Darrell Fancourt
Nanki-Poo Dewey Gibson Charles Goulding Charles Goulding John Dean Neville Griffiths
Ko-Ko Henry Lytton Henry Lytton Martyn Green Grahame Clifford Martyn Green
Pooh-Bah Fred Billington Leo Sheffield Sydney Granville Richard Walker Richard Watson
Pish-Tush Frederick Hobbs Henry Millidge Leslie Rands Wynn Dyson Alan Styler
Go-To T. Penry Hughes L. Radley Flynn L. Radley Flynn Donald Harris
Yum-Yum Elsie McDermid Elsie Griffin Kathleen Frances Helen Roberts Margaret Mitchell
Pitti-Sing Nellie Briercliffe Aileen Davies Marjorie Eyre Marjorie Eyre Joan Gillingham
Peep-Bo Betty Grylls Beatrice Elburn Elizabeth Nickell-Lean June Field Joyce Wright
Katisha Bertha Lewis Bertha Lewis Dorothy Gill Ella Halman Ella Halman
Role D'Oyly Carte
1955 Tour D'Oyly Carte
1965 Tour D'Oyly Carte
1975 Tour D'Oyly Carte
The Mikado Donald Adams Donald Adams John Ayldon John Ayldon
Nanki-Poo Neville Griffiths Philip Potter Colin Wright Geoffrey Shovelton
Ko-Ko Peter Pratt John Reed John Reed James Conroy-Ward
Pooh-Bah Fisher Morgan Kenneth Sandford Kenneth Sandford Kenneth Sandford
Pish-Tush Jeffrey Skitch Thomas Lawlor Michael Rayner Peter Lyon
Go-To John Banks George Cook John Broad Thomas Scholey
Yum-Yum Cynthia Morey Valerie Masterson Julia Goss Vivian Tierney
Pitti-Sing Joyce Wright Peggy Ann Jones Judi Merri Lorraine Daniels
Peep-Bo Beryl Dixon Pauline Wales Patricia Leonard Roberta Morrell
Katisha Ann Drummond-Grant Christene Palmer Lyndsie Holland Patricia Leonard
1907 Mikado recording
"Favorite airs from The Mikado"
A 1914 Edison Records recording of selections from the overture, "A wand'ring minstrel", "Three little maids", "Tit-willow", and the Act II finale.
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The Mikado has been recorded more often than any other Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Of those by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, the 1926 recording is the best regarded. Of the modern recordings, the 1992 Mackerras/Telarc is admired.
Selected audio recordings
1926 D'Oyly Carte — Conductor: Harry Norris
1936 D'Oyly Carte — Conductor: Isidore Godfrey
1950 D'Oyly Carte — New Promenade Orchestra, Conductor: Isidore Godfrey
1957 D'Oyly Carte — New Symphony Orchestra of London, Conductor: Isidore Godfrey
1984 Stratford Festival — Conductor: Berthold Carrière
1990 New D'Oyly Carte — Conductor: John Pryce-Jones
1992 Mackerras/Telarc — Orchestra & Chorus of the Welsh National Opera, Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras
Films and videos
In 1926, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company made a brief promotional film of The Mikado. Some of the most famous Savoyards are seen in this film, including Darrell Fancourt as The Mikado, Henry Lytton as Ko-Ko, Leo Sheffield as Pooh-Bah, Elsie Griffin as Yum-Yum, and Bertha Lewis as Katisha.
In 1939, Universal Pictures released a ninety-minute technicolor film of The Mikado. The film stars Martyn Green as Ko-Ko, Sydney Granville as Pooh-Bah, the American singer Kenny Baker as Nanki-Poo and Jean Colin as Yum-Yum. Many of the other leads and chorusters were or had been members of the D'Oyly Carte organisation. The music was conducted by Geoffrey Toye, a former D'Oyly Carte music director, who was also the producer and was credited with the adaptation, which involved a number of cuts, additions, and re-ordered scenes. Victor Schertzinger directed, and William V. Skall received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography.
In 1966, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company appeared in a film version of The Mikado, which closely reflected their traditional staging at the time, although there are some minor cuts.
Video recordings of The Mikado include a 1972 offering from Gilbert and Sullivan for All; the 1982 Brent-Walker film (one of the weakest in the series); the 1984 Stratford Festival video (probably their best-regarded video), the 1986 English National Opera production (abridged), and a 1988 Australian Opera video.
The Mikado was adapted as a children's book by W. S. Gilbert entitled The Story of The Mikado, which was Gilbert's last literary work. It is a retelling of The Mikado, with various changes to simplify language or make it more suitable for children. For example, in the "little list" song, the phrase "society offenders" is changed to "inconvenient people", and the second verse is largely rewritten.
Cover of The Story of the Mikado. Art by Alice B. Woodward.
The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company controlled the copyrights to performances of The Mikado and the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas until 1961. It usually required authorised productions to present the music and libretto exactly as shown in the copyrighted editions. Since 1961, Gilbert and Sullivan works have been in the public domain and can be — and frequently are — adapted and performed in new ways. Notable adaptations have included the following:
The Bell Telephone Hour version (1960) features Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko, Stanley Holloway and Helen Traubel, directed by Martyn Green.
The Black Mikado (1975) was a jazzy, sexy production set on a Caribbean island.
The Chichibu production of the "Tokyo Theatre Company"
The Cool Mikado is a 1962 British musical film directed by Michael Winner that adapts The Mikado in 1960s pop music style and reset as a comic Japanese gangster story.
The Hot Mikado (1939) was a Broadway adaptation of The Mikado with an all-black cast, using jazz and swing music.
Metropolitan Mikado, a political satire adapted by Ned Sherrin and Alistair Beaton, first performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall (1985) starring Louise Gold, Simon Butteriss, Rosemary Ashe, Robert Meadmore and Martin Smith, produced by Raymond Gubbay.
Hot Mikado (1986) is a jazz and swing style adaptation that premiered in Washington, D.C. and has been played frequently since then.
The Jazz Mikado
The Swing Mikado was an adaptation of The Mikado with an all-black cast, using swing music, that premiered in Chicago in 1938.
Essgee Entertainment produced an adapted version of The Mikado in 1995 in Australia and New Zealand.
The Condensed Mikado is a one-hour production sometimes staged in honor of the annual Washington, D.C., Cherry Blossom Festival by The Washington Savoyards..
Sound film versions of key Mikado musical numbers were produced in England, and presented as programs, both titled Highlights from The Mikado. The first production was released in 1906 by Gaumont and starring Albert Gater, Marie Grey, James Rouse and George Russell. The second production was released in July 1907 by the Walturdaw Company and starred George Thorne. Both of these programs used recordings of the performers played back along with the silent footage of the performance. They preservation status of both programs is unknown and the materials are thought to be lost.
The Mikado in popular culture
Main article: Cultural Influence of Gilbert and Sullivan
A wide variety of popular media, including films, television, theatre, and advertising have referred to, parodied or pastiched The Mikado or its songs, and phrases from the libretto have entered popular usage in the English language. Some of the best-known of these cultural influences are described below.
Groucho Marx, a life-long fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, starred as Ko-Ko in a made-for-TV production of The Mikado in 1960. Other well-known actors who have played the role of Ko-Ko include Eric Idle and then Bill Oddie, with English National Opera's production of The Mikado. Dudley Moore played the role when the production toured the United States.
Quotes from The Mikado were infamously used in letters to the police by the Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least five people in the San Francisco Bay area between 1966 and 1970. The Mikado is parodied by Sumo of the Opera, which credits Sullivan as the composer of most of its songs. In 2007, the Los Angeles-based Asian American theatre company, Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, produced The Mikado Project, an original play by Doris Baizley and Ken Narasaki. It was a deconstruction of the opera premised on a fictional Asian American theatre company attempting to overcome perceived racism in the original through a revisionist version. The detective novel Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell (London: Grayson, 1934) is set against a background of a production of The Mikado.
Popular media have referred to The Mikado in numerous ways. For example, the climax of the 1978 film Foul Play takes place during a performance of The Mikado. A second-season episode of the TV show Millennium titled "The Mikado" is based on the Zodiac case. Beginning in the 1880s, Mikado trading cards were created that advertised various products. "The Mikado" is a villainous vigilante in the comic book superhero series The Question, by Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan. He dons a Japanese mask and kills malefactors in appropriate ways — letting "the punishment fit the crime". In addition, the name was applied to the 2-8-2 railroad locomotive when an early production run of these locomotives, built in the U.S., was shipped to Japan in 1893.
Popular phrases from The Mikado
The phrase "A short, sharp shock", heard in the Act 1 song "I am so proud" has entered the English language, appearing in titles of books and songs (most notably in samples of Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon"), as well as political manifestos. Likewise "Let the punishment fit the crime" is an often-used phrase from the Mikado's Act II song and is particularly mentioned in the course of British political debates, though the concept, and similar phrases, long predate Gilbert. For instance, in episode 80 of the television series Magnum, P.I., entitled "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime," Higgins prepares to direct a selection of pieces from The Mikado to be staged at the Estate. The show features bits of several Mikado songs including "Three Little Maids From School." The phrase and the Mikado's song also are featured in the Dad's Army episode, "A Soldier's Farewell."
The name of the character Pooh-Bah has entered the English language as a person who holds many titles, often a pompous or self-important person. Pooh-Bah is mentioned in P. G. Wodehouse's novel Something Fresh, again in reference to his many titles. In December 2009, BBC presenter James Naughtie, on Radio 4's Today programme, compared UK cabinet member Peter Mandelson to Pooh-Bah, because Mandelson holds many offices of state, including Secretary of State for Business, First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Council, President of the Board of Trade, and Church Commissioner, and he sits on 35 cabinet committees and sub-committees. Mandelson replied, "Who is Pooh-Bah?" Mandelson was also described as "the grand Pooh-Bah of British politics" earlier the same week by the theatre critic, Charles Spencer, of The Daily Telegraph. In the U.S., particularly, the term has come to describe, mockingly, people who hold impressive titles but whose authority is limited. The expression "Grand Poobah" was used in episodes of The Flintstones, denoting the head of Fred Flintstone's fraternal lodge (the Loyal Order of Water Buffalos).
References to songs in The Mikado
In addition to the popular phrases noted above, politicians often use phrases from songs in The Mikado. Perhaps most notably, Conservative Peter Lilley pastiched "I've got a little list" to specify some groups to whom he objected, including "sponging socialists" and "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue".
Many of the songs in The Mikado have been referenced in Broadway shows, films, comedy routines, and television. For example, in The Producers, an auditioner for the musical Springtime for Hitler begins his audition with Nanki-Poo's song, "A wand'ring minstrel I." He is quickly dismissed. In the 1966 Batman episode "The Minstrel's Shakedown," the villain identifies himself as "The Minstrel" by singing to the tune of "A wand'ring minstrel I." In the 2006 film Brick, femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) performs a spoken-word version of "The Sun Whose Rays are All Ablaze" while playing piano. In Blackadder Goes Forth a recording of "A Wand'ring Minstrel I" is played on a gramophone at the beginning of the first episode, and a snatch of the song is also sung by Captain Blackadder in the episode involving "Speckled Jim". The movie poster for The Little Shop of Horrors, shown to the right, parodies the song title, "The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring," changing the word "bloom" to "kill".
The original three little maids at a Mikado 45th anniversary reunion in 1930
The song "Three Little Maids" is featured in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, where Harold Abrahams first sees his future wife dressed as one of the Three Little Maids. Many television programmes have featured the song, including Frasier Crane and John Cleese in the Cheers episode "Simon Says" (for which Cleese won an Emmy Award), Frasier solo in the Frasier episode "Leapin' Lizards", the Angel episode "Hole in the World", The Simpsons episode "Cape Feare," Alvin and the Chipmunks episode "Maids in Japan", The Suite Life of Zack & Cody episode, "Lost In Translation," The Animaniacs Vol. 1 episode "Hello Nice Warners", and Curb Your Enthusiasm, which features the instrumental music in the background of many various episodes. The Capitol Steps also performed a parody entitled "Three Little Kurds from School Are We" about conditions in Iraq. In the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode Suckers, a corrupt casino owner uses the notes from the first line ("Three little maids from school are we") to program the combination to the casino's safe.
References to "Tit-Willow" ("On a tree by a river") have included Allan Sherman's comedy song, "The Bronx Bird Watcher", about a Yiddish-accented bird whose beautiful singing leads to a sad end. On The Dick Cavett Show, Groucho Marx and Cavett sang the song. Groucho interrupted the song to quiz the audience on the meaning of the word "obdurate". A Muppet Show episode featured Rowlf the Dog and Sam the Eagle singing the song, with Sam clearly embarrassed at having to sing the word 'tit'.
Sherman also did a variant on the "Little List" song, presenting reasons why one might want to seek psychiatric help, titled "You Need an Analyst". In a Eureeka's Castle Christmas special called "Just Put it on the List," the twins, Bogg and Quagmire, describe what they'd like for Christmas to the tune of the song. Richard Suart and A.S.H. Smyth released a book in 2008 called They’d none of ‘em be missed, about the history of The Mikado and the 20 years of little list parodies by Suart, the English National Opera's usual Ko-Ko. In Robert A. Heinlein's Hugo Award-winning novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw, discovering Valentine Michael Smith's ability to make objects (including people) disappear, mulls, "I've got a little list... they'd none of them be missed."