The Mikado is the work of the most famous collaborators of light opera, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900). For about twenty years, they produced many of the most enduring and charming operettas the world has ever known, with Gilbert as librettist and Sullivan as composer. The two began collaborating in 1869, but it was not until they met Richard D’Oyly Carte in 1874 that they started to achieve the fame that continues today. D’Oyly Carte leased an old opera building for their productions and, in 1881, he built the Savoy Theatre especially for the D’Oyly Carte company to produce Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas.
Gilbert suggested to Sullivan the subject of The Mikado in 1884. The British fashion for things Japanese was at its height as the result of a Japanese village exhibition in the London borough of Kensington. (Knightsbridge, in the Kensington area, is mentioned in the dialogue as the place where Nanki-Poo was to have fled.) The opening of Japan to the West, spurred by U.S. naval officer Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, created a Victorian fascination for Japanese art and architecture, and wealthier homes displayed expensive Japanese vases, decorated screens and fans, and colorful marionettes, items mentioned in the introductory chorus of nobles. In music, composers experimented with Japanese five-tone scales, rhythmic drums, and the exotic sounds of instruments such as the koto and gongs. The culmination of this musical fascination was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which ran for more than six hundred nights after it was first presented at the Savoy on March 14, 1885, and Giacomo Puccini’s popular Italian opera Madam Butterfly, first performed in Milan on February 17, 1904.
The Mikado is not really about Japan. It is about late nineteenth century England, and Japanese kimonos cloak characters whom most Victorian theatergoers would have easily recognized. The Mikado, for instance, is a paternalistic, self-important parliamentarian out to punish “all prosy dull society sinners,” a type of politician who remains common. The “criminals” for whom he plans punishment include advertising quacks, music-hall singers, billiard hustlers, and defacers of the windows of railway carriages. Like a true politician, the Mikado labors to make the punishment fit the crime: The billiard sharp is doomed to play with a twisted cue and elliptical billiard balls, the quack is condemned to have all his teeth extracted by amateur dentists, and shrill tenors must exhibit their vocal powers to an audience of wax dummies at Madame Tussaud’s museum.
In the same way, others are recognizable Victorian types. Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner, and Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else, are deferential small-town English civil servants who would willingly eradicate almost anyone. In act 1, part 2, Ko-Ko’s hate list includes autograph seekers, children who memorize historical dates, people with flabby handshakes, those with peppermint on their breath, cross-dressers, and women novelists. None of them would be missed, he assures us.
The young lovers, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, are faced, as were many Victorian youths, with a father who forbids flirting and courtship, in this case under penalty of death. Katisha, an aging spinster spurned in love by youthful Nanki-Poo, is a vengeful old maid of Victorian melodrama, albeit a comic one. In the end, she marries Ko-Ko, who takes the lady to prevent himself from being plunged into boiling oil or molten lead, and only after proper assurance that Katisha is old enough to marry—“sufficiently decayed,” as Ko-Ko puts it. All of these characters, with names derived from the Victorian nanny-talk of nurseries, were readily identified by Savoy audiences. (Ko-Ko means “pickles” in Japanese.)
The essence of The Mikado , however, is neither topical nor geographical; it is universal. Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas, after all, are enjoyed the world over not because audiences are interested in Victorian...
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