“I see you’re away on holiday in August, where are you off to?” people asked. “A church hall in Gateshead!” I beamed, much to the bemusement of my colleagues. But this seemed a simpler answer than the reality – that I was going to be spending my holiday frolicking around the fictional town of Titipu in a black wig, rehearsing and performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado with the splendid Dauntless Theatre. Coming back to Cambridge last week and realising that my turn to blog was coming up, I decided to go for a ‘what I did on my holidays’ post!
The Mikado is one of the best-known Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. Featuring gentlemen of Japan, a wandering minstrel, little maids lately freed from scholastic trammels (the usual description of whom was changed from ‘eighteen and under’ to ‘eighteen and over’ in this production as being much more accurate!), a Lord High Executioner, and of course the Mikado of Japan, this work was written at a time of fascination with all things Japanese in Victorian Britain and America. Gilbert’s original idea for the work is said to have been inspired by a Japanese executioner’s sword hanging in his library.
The show opens with a chorus of gentlemen of Japan, who, having introduced themselves, happen to meet Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel who has come to Titipu in search of Yum Yum, with whom he has fallen in love. He is disappointed to be told that Yum Yum is betrothed to her guardian Ko-Ko, who was condemned to death for the crime of flirting, but reprieved at the last minute and raised to the exalted rank of Lord High Executioner. When Nanki-Poo and Yum Yum are finally alone, he confides to her that he is in fact the son of the Mikado, and has fled his father’s court in order to avoid marrying Katisha, a lady with whom he has accidently become romantically entangled.
The Mikado sends word to Titipu that he is displeased that no executions have taken place there for over a year and demands that one must take place in order for Titipu to keep its town status. Nanki-Poo agrees to be executed in a month’s time, on the condition that he can marry Yum Yum in the meantime. However, after eventually realising that he cannot bring himself to execute anyone anyway, Ko-Ko makes a fake affidavit of execution to show to the Mikado.
When the Mikado arrives with Katisha, it turns out the reason for their visit is actually to search for the Mikado’s missing son. Katisha is aghast when she reads Nanki-Poo’s name on the execution certificate, and the Mikado agrees that beheading the heir to the throne of Japan, albeit unknowingly, merits a terrible death for those responsible. Nanki-Poo realises that the only way for his pretend executioners to escape death is for him to come back to life again. However, this will only be possible if Ko-Ko marries the lovelorn Katisha, who will then have no further claim on him. Reluctantly, Ko-Ko agrees and woos Katisha. This done, all is revealed and explained to the Mikado, who decides that the situation is now quite satisfactory. (A much more detailed plot summary here!)
Based in the North East of England, Dauntless Theatre takes a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan show to the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival every summer, putting their productions together in just over a week of all-day rehearsals. For The Mikado, the cast rehearsed for a week in Gateshead, before packing everything up and travelling to Harrogate to perform at the festival, fitting in a dress rehearsal with the orchestra the morning before the performance. As well as festival-goers, friends, and family, the audience included the festival adjudicators, who were judging the show as part of the G&S Festival UNIFest Awards. After the Harrogate performance, the company headed straight back for a performance in Gateshead the next day.
After such an intense week of rehearsing and performing, it is always a shock to have to get back to real life again – luckily this year I was able to sooth my post-show-blues by exploring some of the Mikado-related resources held in the music collections at the Pendlebury and at the UL. I discovered at the Pendlebury a DVD of The Mikado performed by Opera Australia (at DVD.C.277) as well as the vocal score (Pb.261.84S.M1) and libretto (Pc.463.85S.W3).
The UL holds a reproduction in facsimile of the autograph score of The Mikado (the original being at the Library of the Royal Academy of Music) at classmark MR260.a.95.201. I was fascinated to see the by now very familiar musical numbers in Sullivan’s hand, and to note that the overture, compiled for Sullivan by Hamilton Clarke was ‘designed and scored within 30 hours.’
I also found at the UL an exciting box of facsimiles of first-night Gilbert and Sullivan programmes (MR463.a.95.6), including programmes for the first night of The Mikado on 14th March 1885 at the Savoy Theatre – complete with an advertisement for Liberty Art Fabrics on the back! This was the first night of a long run at the Savoy, which went on for a further 671 performances – much longer than Gilbert and Sullivan’s previous show,
Princess Ida, which had a run of 246 performances. The fact that The Mikado tapped into the Victorian ‘Japan craze’ in such a timely manner was one reason for its popularity. In this way the appeal of The Mikado to the Victorian public could be likened to the popularity of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s earlier shows, Patience, which has a plot centred around another Victorian fashion, aestheticism. In any case, The Mikado did much more than merely “hold its own among the series of pretty and enjoyable operettas which we owe to Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan” as one rather lukewarm first night review predicted.
The longstanding popularity of The Mikado is also evident from the references it receives in other works and other contexts. People who don’t know the show itself are still likely to be familiar with some of its musical numbers. The wonderfully re-writable ‘little list’ song can be adapted for use in pretty much any context, and ‘three little maids’ is also well known, and was used in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. The featuring of The Mikado in films such as Chariots of Fire and Topsy-Turvey has perhaps emphasised its status as the ‘exemplar’ Gilbert and Sullivan work. As well as this, there have been various later adaptations of the show, such as the Hot Mikado.
As well as being able to pore over Mikado-related resources at the Pendlebury and the UL, the post-show-blues were further soothed by the announcement that Dauntless Theatre’s The Mikado had won them the coveted title of ‘UNIFest Champions 2015’ in the festival awards. In the words of his majesty the Mikado, “nothing could possibly be more satisfactory!”