FWO Archives: Gilbert & Sullivan's 'The Mikado' Program Notes (2011 Festival)
GILBERT AND SULLIVAN'S THE MIKADO
Stocked with melodies that will keep swirling through your brain for days, The Mikado is a light-hearted romp about beheading, capital punishment, forced suicide, and the ridiculous nature of government regulations. No wonder it is Gilbert and Sullivan's most beloved and well-known opera. Written with a distinctly British sense of humor, and clearly a predecessor to the well-known twentieth century comic styling of Monty Python, The Mikado carries a preposterous story to its happy conclusion with a highly memorable score as its companion. How did Gilbert and Sullivan, who were polar opposites in every way, work together to define the operatic output of an entire nation and influence musical theater in Great Britain for the past 125 years? It wasn't easy.
THE ORIGINS OF PARTNERSHIP
Playwright and stage director William Schwenck Gilbert and composer Arthur Seymour Sullivan were introduced officially in 1869, but the future partners already knew of each other - Gilbert had reviewed, favorably, Sullivan's first composition written specifically for the theater. When they met, Gilbert was working on a show for the Royal Gallery of Illustration, which was founded specifically to fill a void in London for more family-friendly entertainment.
Until the Gallery came along, the city's cultural diversions consisted of the Royal Opera House at the high end of the spectrum or a number of musical theater establishments that respectable Londoners shunned. Occasionally, the lowbrow theaters would produce adaptations of French opéra bouffe, such as Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, but the writers used to their advantage the fact that rough translations of the works made the jokes much coarser than originally intended. The Gallery's solution was to offer a variety of entertainments including concerts by respected singers, dramatic readings and newly composed operettas to entice a new audience altogether, which is where the matchmaking of Gilbert and Sullivan came into play.
Since their first project together was not a commercial success, running for a mere 64 performances, Gilbert and Sullivan would have gone their separate ways had not Richard D'
Oyly Carte, an artist manager who aspired to build a theatre to present English comic opera only, stepped into the gap. Carte asked Gilbert for something to finish out an evening of short operettas and he asked that Sullivan set it to music. This simple request launched the 15 years (1875-1890) of association between the three men, with Carte as manager of what would later evolve into the home of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas - The Savoy Theatre.
The relationship between the men, particularly between Gilbert and Sullivan, was always troubled to say the least, often relying on Carte to mediate. At the time, Sullivan was the famous one, and he saw himself as a much more dedicated artist than Gilbert would ever be. He was polite, proper, and wanted his music to be taken seriously. On the contrary, Gilbert was loud, boisterous, and lived to ridicule everyone, which was often interpreted as cruelty by Sullivan. The composer, despite his frequent complaints to Carte about Gilbert, continued to work with him because, quite frankly, they were extremely successful together in turning out one hit show after another, and the healthy box office receipts helped alleviate the composer's grievances.
From the beginning, an important part of the agreement between the three men was that Carte could give Gilbert and Sullivan notice that he needed a new opera within 6 months, and they would provide it. On March 22, 1884, he did just that. Tensions had already been running high between the men 10 years into their partnership. By this time, they had already created The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, and Princess Ida. Audiences had not responded well to this last opera, so Carte's decision to force Gilbert and Sullivan to create a new opera immediately ignited the friction between the writer and the composer.
Sullivan, at one time deemed the hope of English music by Queen Victoria herself, already felt deeply criticized for wasting his talents in the theater, and claimed he was tired of subordinating the music to Gilbert's words and of the ridiculous plots Gilbert inevitably wrote. When confronted with Sullivan's frustrations, Gilbert argued that he always gave in to Sullivan's demands and Sullivan's reaction was an insult to his hard work. Carte, as usual, tried to intercede between the artists, but when Gilbert suggested they use his "lozenge plot" in which characters take a magic pill to transform them (an idea Sullivan had vetoed before), their relationship seemed over for good with both artists vowing never to speak again.
Reportedly, a few months after the squabble, a Japanese executioner's sword fell off the wall in Gilbert's study while he was brainstorming a new libretto, which he eventually credited for inspiring him to set the new opera in Japan. Of course it didn't hurt that an entire Japanese village had been erected in Knightsbridge, a small town just outside of the city, due to the fascination of all things Japanese that swept London in the mid-1880s. (Months later, when The Mikado was being staged by Gilbert, he hired some of the villagers to come to the Savoy Theatre and teach his cast proper Japanese manners.) When Gilbert told Sullivan about the setting of the new opera, to the composer's credit, he agreed to compose anything needed to make the opera a success, as long as it was free from any "topsy-turvydom." Almost a full year after Carte first requested a new opera from Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado opened to become their most popular work ever.
The reason for the popularity of the opera is actually quite simple - it is incredibly clever. In a particularly British style of humor that is still popular today, The Mikado is based on an inane concept and populated with jokes that rely on the audience's intelligence and appreciation of dry wit. In this particular case, the Mikado, who must be obeyed for no other reason than he is the Mikado, rules that flirting is a crime punishable by death. To avoid wholesale slaughter, the villagers name Ko-Ko, who is the next in line to die,the Lord High Executioner, since he cannot execute anyone else until he executes himself. It's a very logical solution to be sure, but at the same time, what a ludicrous concept!
The sharp contrast in ideas causes Gilbert's libretto to sparkle and tickle our imagination. His town of Titipu is a thinly veiled commentary on Victorian England and is populated with characters who, in order to be proper citizens, must obey the letter of the law, often in defiance of common sense. Even the enduring dream of love conquering all must bend to the reality of logic. When Yum-Yum learns that she must be buried alive after her young husband Nanki-Poo is beheaded (as Ko-Ko's substitute), suddenly her feelings of romance dim. Yet, while all these characters calmly discuss brutal methods of dying, the audience cannot help but laugh, mostly because Gilbert never allows the characters to take themselves seriously.
Overall, The Mikado is very English in subject matter, despite its exotic locale. However, while Gilbert's story frames a Japanese village, Sullivan's music gives it depth and color. Out of the two men, Sullivan was the one who took pains to include actual Japanese references. That being said, the vast majority of the music is firmly grounded in English folk song tradition, but the Japanese flavors that he injects into the score are effective. Because it has an oriental sound to western ears, Sullivan employs touches of the pentatonic scale (the simplest way to describe this scale: all the black keys on a piano, often used to play "chopsticks").
He sets the tone from the very beginning by giving the male chorus a melody comprised of this modified pentatonic scale, which also swirls in the violin accompaniment. One other piece in the opera is well known for its Japanese influence, the Mikado's entrance, "Mi-ya sa-ma." The real "Mi-ya sa-ma" was a Japanese march written to help teach the Japanese Restoration army to march in step. Sullivan picked up the tune from a government official formerly stationed at Tokyo and dropped it into The Mikado with great effect and flavor. Truthfully, without Sullivan's musical contributions of orientalism, the opera would have had very little Japanese connection what so ever.
The opera, or operetta as purists would argue it should be called, does seem to be an exercise in contrasts, but one indisputable fact can be taken from The Mikado. It is a wonderful representation of the men who created it and of the times in which they lived. For Gilbert and Sullivan, extreme opposites themselves, to work together to paint this picture of fanatical logic - that is nothing short of topsy-turvy - just garbed in a kimono. - Program Notes by Hannah Smith.
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W.S. Gilbert
Conductor Joe Illick
Director John de los Santos
Scenic Designer Richard Kagey
Costume Designer Linda Cho
Makeup and Wig Designer Steven Bryant
Lighting Designer Chad R. Jung
Sound Designer Ian Kagey
Stage Manager Adam Schwartz
Assistant Director Cory Boulieris
Chorus Master Stephen Dubberly
Repetiteur Chistopher Devlin
Supertitle Cueing Keith A. Wolfe
The Cast in Order of Vocal Appearance
NANKI-POO Logan Rucker
PISH-TUSH Joel Herold
POOH-BAH Jesse Enderle
KO-KO Lane Johnson
YUM-YUM Jessica Cates
PEEP-BO Laura Mercado-Wright
PITTI-SING Amanda Robie
KATISHA Meaghan Deiter
THE MIKADO Matthew Young