BY Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
The Mikado or The Town of Titipu remains since its premiere on March 14, 1885, the most popular of all Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Isaac Goldberg's summary statement concerning The Mikado in his book The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan highlights popular approval. "It is questionable whether, in any other of the operettas, Gilbert has produced a finer gallery of whimsically distorted portraits or Sullivan framed them in music at once more fitting or of finer intrinsic quality."
The genesis of The Mikado grew out of a near tragic decision of Sir Arthur Sullivan. He had had to struggle out of a sick bed on January 5, 1884 in order to conduct at the Savoy Theater the premier performance of Princess Ida. His diary for that date noted that it took a strong hypodermic injection and a cup of black coffee to enable him to conduct a "fine performance without a hitch. After the performance I turned very faint and could not stand." Princess Ida's preparations had nearly broken Sullivan's precarious health.
Three weeks later he informed Richard D'Oyly Carte that he would compose no more for the Savoy. He had wearied of operetta composition. D'Oyly Carte's efforts in an interview with Sullivan to get him to reverse his decision proved fruitless. With signs of Princess Ida's languishing attendance, he then fell back on the provisions of his contract with Gilbert and Sullivan by informing them of the six-month notice required when he judged it time for a new operetta.
Gilbert, of course, was thunderstruck at Sullivan's decision. Letter from him followed letter as Sullivan trekked about the Continent. Sullivan ultimately clarified his attitude in a letter from Paris. "I will be quite frank. With Princess Ida I have come to the end of my tether - the end of my capability in that class of piece. My tunes are in danger of becoming mere repetitions of my former pieces, my concerted movements are getting to possess a strong family likeness.
"I have rung all the changes possible in the way of variety in rhythm. It has hitherto been word setting, I might almost say syllable setting, for I have looked upon the words as being of such importance that I have been continually keeping down the music in order that not one should be lost.
"And this my suppression is most difficult, most fatiguing, and I may say most disheartening, for the music is never allowed to arise and speak for itself. I want a chance for the music to act in its own proper sphere - to intensify the emotional element not only of the actual words but of the situation.
"I should like to set a story of human interest and probability, where the humorous words would come in humorous (not serious) situation, and where, if the situation were a tender or dramatic one, the words would be of a similar character. There would then be a feeling of reality, and fresh vitality to our joint work ... I hope with all my heart that there may be no break in our chain of joint workmanship."
A somewhat stormy but restrained correspondence and a series of cautious meetings continued through that summer and autumn of 1884. Only by November 20 did the two collaborators arrive at a meeting of minds to begin serious work on Gilbert's new book. Sullivan set first of all "Three Little Maids from School." Until a week prior to the scheduled opening on March 14, his inspiration flowered as the pressure mounted. He gave up "drives, parties, and all recreation." In one all-night session he scored sixty three pages of The Mikado's first Act. Three days later on March 6, 1885 he finished the scoring of Act Two at 5:45 a.m. One famed song, "The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring" came into existence between tea and dinner time. Sullivan was known always to work best when a deadline stared him in the face.
Sullivan’s earlier ennui which had so threatened the partnership evaporated with his diary entry for the opening night. "New Opera, 'The Mikado' or 'The Town of Titipu' produced at the Savoy Theater with every sign of real success. A most brilliant house. Tremendous reception. All went very well except Grossmith whose nervousness nearly upset the piece. A triple encore for 'Three Little Maids' and for 'The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring.' Seven encores taken - might have been twelve." Grossmith acted and sang the part of Ko-Ko.
The Mikado had cemented Gilbert and Sullivan's friendship; the partnership was never more solid. Their masterpiece enjoyed 672 consecutive performances at the Savoy, the longest of any of the twelve operettas they produced.
How did Gilbert alight on this fantasy? While pacing his studio floor one evening an old Japanese sword fell from Gilbert's studio wall. Picking it up he began to reflect on the fashionable attraction English sophisticated society felt just then for a diminutive Japanese village located in Knightsbridge, a short distance from London. Demure geishas, ritual tea ceremony, koto music and folksong, and exotic Japanese costumes stimulated Gilbert's imagination to comply in elaborating a libretto conforming to Sullivan's expressed formula.
Both librettist and composer in The Mikado, as Golberg observes, "have acquired subtlety and a certain independence from the more parodic elements of their work. Gilbert is at last, though not forever, freed from the travesty of other men's writings: he strikes out in the direction of original characterization. He satirizes, not the stage-forms of his predecessors, but life itself in his own incongruous fashion. Sullivan, too, by reaching toward the essential humor of musical suggestion, and away from the allusiveness of parody, by that same token brings to the self-conscious play of the intellect a new warmth that is of the understanding heart."
The whimsical plot may be summarized as follows: Crown Prince Nanki-Poo has fled his father's, the "great and virtuous" Mikado's court to escape an impending marriage with the shrewish, uncomely, and elderly Lady Katisha. Generally repellant to look at, Katisha compensated for her lack of beauty overall by fostering the delicate precision of parts of her anatomy. Her left elbow demonstrated such precision of movement as to attract people from considerable distances to observe its operations.
Arriving in Titipu disguised as a "second trombone" Nanki-Poo meets Yum-Yum, ward of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Naturally Nanki-Poo is smitten with love for the demure beauty. Horrors! she is betrothed to her ogre guardian. Ko-Ko, however, having failed rather consistently to fulfill his official duties, learns that his exalted office will soon be abolished unless he forthwith executes someone. When he accidentally meets the despairing suicide-bent Nanki-Poo, he formulates a neat pact between them. By agreeing to be executed, thus saving Ko-Ko's high position, Nanki-Poo will come into possession of Yum-Yum for one monthl Enter Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else, who through lie and legal strategem has a complacent legal confidant draw up the necessary false writ of execution against Nanki-Poo. PoohBah is rewarded for his enterprise by being "grossly insulted" with a large bribe. Consternation soon overtakes executioner and allies when they learn upon the Mikado's arrival that Nanki-Poo is his son. Execution by immersion into boiling oil awaits the perpetrators of Nanki-Poo's demise. Since pleaded ignorance of the prince's identity provides no excuse, boiling oil it is. No consolation is afforded them when they learn that the law will be changed to take into future account such a misjudgment of mistaken identity.
But, behold, Nanki-Poo lives! General rejoicing at the stay of execution for Pooh-Bah and his confederates brings no consolation to Ko-Ko. He must be linked to that self-proclaimed beauty, the termagant Katisha. Nanki-Poo wins Yum-Yum as his future imperial consort forever and not just for a month.