Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Mikado" Opens

Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Mikado" Opens

On this day in 1885, The Mikado, a comic opera by composer Arthur Sullivan and dramatist W.S. Gilbert, had its first public appearance in London’s Savoy Theatre. It went on to have one of the longest runs of any theatre piece at the time and today is one of the most frequently played musical theatre pieces in history.

The Mikado was almost never written. As Gilbert and Sullivan’s previous opera, Princess Ida, reached its final runs, producer Richard D’Olyly Carte demanded Gilbert and Sullivan compose a new Savoy opera within six months’ time. Having just witnessed a close friend end his career due to a serious stroke and in ill health himself, Sullivan decided to devote himself to more serious work, telling the Savoy, “It is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself.” Both the Savoy and Gilbert were disappointed, with Gilbert lamenting, “And so ends a musical and literary association of seven years’ standing.” Fortunately, Gilbert went back to his drawing board and sent Sullivan a sketch of the plot of a new story set in Japan. The intriguing plot and novel setting won Sullivan over and The Mikado was born. In another ten months, it would reach the stage.

On 14 March 1885, The Mikado opened to a full house. It tells the story of Nanki-Poo, the son of the imperial Mikado of Japan, who fled his father’s imperial court to escape a marriage with the old, ugly Katisha. Wandering pastoral farmlands as a traveling musician, Nanki-Poo falls in love with Yum-Yum, the pretty ward of a tailor named Ko-Ko. When Nanki-Poo learns Yum-Yum is already betrothed to her guardian Ko-Ko, he leaves her in despair. Things take a turn when Nanki-Poo learns Ko-Ko has been condemned to death for flirting. Anticipating Ko-Ko’s death, Nanki-Poo returns to the small town to claim Yum-Yum.

The play was popular in part because Gilbert and Sullivan used the exotic locale of Japan to loosely disguise their real objective: satirising the politics and institutions of Victorian England. In fact, it was so popular with British audiences that by the end of the year at least 150 different companies were performing the comic opera. The initial production itself closed after a record 672 performances, the second-largest run of any work of musical theatre at the time. Today, The Mikado, an opera that almost never was, has been translated into numerous foreign languages and is the most frequently performed Savoy opera, especially popular with amateur and school productions.

Credit: © The Protected Art Archive / Alamy
Caption: A poster for “The Mikado.”