Opera: The Mikado – Sir Arthur Sullivan

“The Mikado” or “The Town of Titipu,” a comic opera in two acts, with words by W. S. Gilbert and music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, was produced at the Savoy Theatre, London, March 14, 1885.


The Mikado of Japan. Nanki-Poo, his son, disguised as a wandering minstrel, and in love with Yum-Yum. Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner of Titipu. Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else. Pish-Tush, a Noble Lord. Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, three sisters, wards of Ko-ko. Peep-Bo, Katisha, an elderly lady in love with Nanki-Poo. Chorus of school-girls, nobles, guards and coolies.

In this delightful opera there is always something delightful happening, from the instant that the curtain rises upon the courtyards of Ko-Ko’s palace in Titipu disclosing a company of nobles who explain that

If you want to know who we are, We are gentlemen of Japan: On many a vase and jar, On many a screen and fan, We figure in lively paint: Our attitude’s queer and quaint You’re wrong if you think it ain’t,

to the final chorus :

For he’s gone and married Yum-Yum, Yum-Yum.

Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado, is pursued by Katisha, an elderly lady with matrimonial intentions. He flees from the court, in the guise of a minstrel, to escape punishment for his reluctance to marry his persistent admirer. Ko-Ko is a gentleman who successfully combines the office of Lord High Executioner with the profession of tailor. True to the traditions of comic opera, he wants to marry his ward, Yum-Yum, who, in turn wants to marry someone else. This someone else is no other than Nanki-Poo, the heir-apparent, who is badly in love with the maid. He comes in disguise to Titipu to find Yum-Yum and approaches Poo-Bah for information. Poo-Bah is a haughty and exclusive personage, who can trace his ancestry back to a ” protoplasmal, primordial, atomic globule.” He also retails state secrets at a low figure. He furnishes Nanki-Poo with the sad news that when Yum-Yum comes home from school, that very day, her wedding to Ko-Ko is to occur. A damper is put on the happy plans of Ko-Ko, however, by a message from the Mikado, informing him that His Majesty is struck by the fact that no executions have taken place in Titipu in the past year and that unless somebody is beheaded within a month, the executioner will be degraded. Nanki-Poo appears at this juncture, announcing that he is about to terminate an existence made unendurable because he can’t marry the girl he adores. He and Ko-Ko then and there make a bargain that if Nanki-Poo can marry Yum-Yum and live with her a month, he will, at the end of that time, be a subject for the execution which will preserve Ko-Ko’s dignity. Yum-Yum’s philosophical attitude in the matter is somewhat impaired by the news that when a man is beheaded, it is customary to bury his wife alive at the same time. She objects on the grounds that it is such a ” stuffy ” death, whereupon Nanki-Poo threatens suicide again. Thereupon Ko-Ko arranges for a false statement of the execution. The Mikado comes unexpectedly, and when he sees the statement, instead of praising Ko-Ko, threatens him with terrible things because he has killed the heir apparent. That youth’s appearance in the flesh causes Ko-Ko to be forgiven on condition that he will marry Katisha, whom his friends assure him has a “left elbow that people come miles to see,” even if her face isn’t what it should be. Finally, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are happily married.

” The Mikado ” is in some respects the most universally appreciated of any of the Gilbert-Sullivan operas. These collaborators, who usually enjoy satirizing British institutions have refrained from this tendency in ” The Mikado,” which, in consequence, gains in general interest. It is especially popular with the Germans and its revival in Berlin in 1907 was greeted with delight. While it has to do with characters having caricatured Japanese names and stations, it is not too heavily painted with local color. It came at a time when the passion for the Japanese was at its height and added to the craze, while at the same time benefiting from it. The text is filled with charming wit and philosophy, and the music is bright and humorous, the instrumentation being a model of its kind.

Among the many popular numbers are Ko-Ko’s song, “They’d none of ’em be missed;” the trio for Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing, ” Three little maids from school are we; ” Nanki-Poo’s “A Wandering Minstrel I ; ” the trio by Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah and Pish Tush, ” My Brain it teems ; ” Yum-Yum’s song ” The Sun whose rays are all ablaze; ” the quartet, “Brightly dawns our wedding-day; ” the Mikado’s song, ” My object all sublime; ” Ko-Ko’s ballad, ” On a tree by a river a little tomtit and the duet of Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko, ” The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la.”