The Mikado is the most popular English language operetta of all time, and of course G&S's greatest success. Strangely, while it is the one most people think of when they think of G&S, it is more frivolous and in many ways atypical of the remainder of their work. While it is set in a fictionalized Japan, it is utterly English and again deals with typical noblemen and their caste system in England. The Mikado was put together quite hurriedly to satisfy the pair's contract with Carte to produce an opera on 6-months notice, and as shown in the film Topsy-Turvy, they had a great deal of disagreement on an acceptable story. Thus, while there are a number of very funny scenes, the characters are less fully developed than in the operas that follow. In fact, the creators experimented with putting the songs in different places in the play, indicating how non-integral they actually are to the story.
Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel is in love with Yum-Yum, a beautiful village maid (Braid the Raven Hair, The Sun and I) in the town of Titipu, where she lives with other school maids. (Three Little Maids From School ) However, she is betrothed to Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, (Behold the Lord High Executioner) who was appointed to the post after having been condemned to death for flirting, which is against the law under the the emperor's (the Mikado's) extremely Victorian moral code. By the Mikado's logic the person who was
...next to be
could not cut off another's head
until he's cut his own off.
Ko-Ko receives a message from the Mikado that he is coming to visit and looks for a victim to execute. Among the possible victims are Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else, who took all the town titles as his own once Ko-Ko was elevated to Lord High Executioner and the other nobles resigned en masse. Pooh-Bah discusses with Ko-Ko who the victim should be (I am so Proud)
Finally, they decide to fake an execution of Nanki-Poo, who was despondent because he cannot marry Yum-Yum. Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo then run off together. However, the Mikado actually is searching for his son who has run off and disguised himself as a minstrel (of course this is Nanki-Poo) and when he finds that he has been beheaded, he finds the law requires that Ko-Ko along with Pitti-Sing and Poo-Bah be executed for the crime. Accompanying the Mikado is Katisha, a horrible harridan who has been training Nanki-Poo to love her, so she can marry him. She is of course distraught that Nanki-Poo has been executed, and eagerly awaits the execution of the three culprits. Ko-Ko realizes that he can only save himself by persuading Katisha to marry him instead (Tit-willow, There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast). Once this happens Nanki-Poo reappears, safe at last and married to Yum-Yum (For He's Gone and Married Yum-Yum).
While Sullivan did not compose a lot of musical parodies in The Mikado as he had in earlier operas, he managed to write one of the most spritely scores in all musical theater. While the very first number (If you want to know who we are) is pentatonic, in a bow to Japanese music, most of the rest of the show is pure Sullivan. A recent survey of G&S aficionados regarding their favorite trios in the entire canon found that 3 of their top choices came from The Mikado. In addition, it contains everyone's favorite madrigal: Brightly dawns our wedding day, and some actual Japanese music and words in the entrance of the Mikado (Mi-ya-sa-ma, mi-ya-sa-ma).
The music and words of the Mikado brim with phrases we still quote today:
|To let the punishment fit the crime|
|A wandering minstrel, I|
|Behold the Lord High Executioner|
|I've got a little list|
|Three little maids from school|
|The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la|
And, unlike the British Empire, the sun still never sets without a production a The Mikado somewhere in the world. It is truly the most popular English opera ever written!