Our great Mikado, virtuous man,
when he to rule our land began
resolved to try a plan
whereby young men might best be steadied.
So he decreed in words succinct
that all who flirted, leered, or winked,
unless connubially linked,
should forthwith be beheaded.
And I am right, as you’ll agree
that he was right to so decree.
Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan were first introduced when John Hollingshead, proprietor of London’s Gaiety theatre, commissioned them to write a burlesque comic opera “Thespis” to run over the Christmas season of 1871. Their collaboration proved to be more successful than anticipated, and the production ran on until Easter. However, the men then went their separate ways for several years.
By 1877 they were back together again, in collaboration with producer and impresario Richard d’Oyly Carte, and together the three of them were to dominate English comic opera – and in many ways Victorian society – for the next dozen years, churning out a total of 13 classic comic operas. These were so successful, and so particular in style, that while their approach was widely copied, their so-called “Savoy” operas still occupy a unique and distinct genre (to use a modern term) all to themselves. Most of these operas are still widely performed today, and in particular are the darlings – even the mainstays – of amateur operatic productions across the UK and elsewhere.
Of all the G&S operas, by far the most successful – and also the most sophisticated – is The Mikado, written in 1885. Gilbert’s libretti had poked increasingly unflinching satire in the eyes of the English establishment, skewering their manners and habits, and as a result they were hugely popular among the lower middle classes, who flocked to see them. But to Sullivan, Gilbert’s drafts for what became The Mikado were deemed too offensive, and he originally balked at the idea. Sullivan saw himself as a successful composer. He had just been knighted, and as such anticipated that his route to preferment would rely on the patronage of the upper classes and the pillars of the establishment, and he didn’t want Gilbert’s libretti to interfere with his prospects. At that time an exhibition of Japanese art and culture – quite an unusual and exotic thing in Victorian England – was all the rage in London, so Gilbert conveniently solved the problem by setting the opera in Japan, and did it so cleverly that one could easily satisfy oneself that it was Japanese society and manners which were being skewered. But, of course, audiences had no problem fully recognizing the satire for what it was.
Here’s an example. The opera’s main character, KoKo, in a typical piece of G&S chicanery, has been appointed Lord High Executioner as a ruse to avoid being himself executed for flirting. In his new capacity he sings a “patter song” – a G&S staple – where he sets out all the people he’d like to see lined up against the wall: “I’ve got a little list”. Gilbert’s lyrics make unmistakable references to a number of prominent characters and character types in the London society of 1885, but it is a common affectation in modern productions to update the lyrics in order to make the list a little more contemporary. For example, here is Eric Idle’s rendition of “I’ve got a little list” in the English National Opera’s 1985 production of The Mikado, where KoKo is presented as a politician on the stump:
The Mikado himself is actually a minor character in the opera. He is the Emperor of Japan and is all-powerful, dispensing laws and justice according to whim. He sees himself as an enlightened and benevolent ruler, but in practice is just another run-of-the-mill despot with a cruel streak of which Idi Amin would have been proud. Yet, as he aims to set forth and catalog his lengthy list of virtues and accomplishments, he finds himself being routinely barged out of the spotlight by the formidable Katisha, his “daughter-in-law elect”:
Mikado: From every kind of man obedience I expect! I’m the Emperor of Japan, and …
Katisha: I’m his daughter-in-law elect. He’ll marry his son – he only has one – to his daughter-in-law elect.
Mikado: My morals have been declared particularly correct…
Katisha: But they’re nothing at all compared to those of his daughter-in-law elect. Bow!! Bow!! To his daughter-in-law elect.
Katisha is absolutely the best character in the entire opera. If I was putting on a production of The Mikado, it would be built around Katisha. Auditioning for the part would be very simple. I would line up all the aspiring contraltos and choose the one who could sing the words “Bow!! Bow!!” the loudest. I didn’t include a clip of the above because I couldn’t find a Katisha that meets my lofty standards!
One memorable character in The Mikado has gone so far as to donate his name in perpetuity to the English language. Pooh-Bah is a self-important functionary whose many formal titles include Lord High Everything Else. Pooh-Bah personifies the bureaucrat who occupies a high position with wide-ranging authority. We’ve all come across a “grand Pooh-Bah” at some point in our careers, but it was Sir William Schwenck Gilbert who invented the original! At one point in the Mikado, KoKo – the Lord High Executioner – is expected to have carried out at least one execution, but hasn’t. So when The Mikado unexpectedly demands to hear the gory details, he and his friends, including Pooh-Bah, have to come up with an impromptu account of a fictitious beheading. Although they all nominally stick to the story, each of them can’t help but exaggerate a little, in a self-serving way. And when it comes to Pooh-Bah ….
Now though you'd have said that head was dead,
for its owner dead was he,
it stood on its neck, with a smile well-bred
and bowed three times to me!
It was none of your impudent off-hand nods
but as humble as could be.
For it clearly knew
the deference due
to a man of pedigree!
Arguably, all the best operas feature a really good arch-villain – consider Scarpia of Tosca, Iago of Otello, or Don Pizarro of Fidelio – and Katisha is the arch-villain of The Mikado. One of Katisha’s arias serves as a perfect illustration of how the talents of Gilbert and Sullivan come together to achieve a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Katisha makes her entrance at the end of act one, storming in like a category 5 hurricane to interrupt what appears to be the act’s up-beat finale. “Your revels cease!!!”, she thunders, “Assist me! All of you!”. She intends to marry Nanki-Poo, but discovers that Nanki-Poo is instead marrying Yum-Yum, scuppering her plans. Katisha simmers.
But before events unfold and run their course, Gilbert provides Katisha a short and poignant aria to express her emotions. And here is the brilliance of Gilbert. Instead of writing a villain’s lament for her to deliver, where she might bemoan how all her plots and schemes have failed her, he instead produces a deeply dignified and heartfelt aria, one that would normally be reserved for a benighted heroine. The only concession to villainy is that he keeps it short, so that we do not develop any more sympathy for Katisha than would be altogether appropriate:
The hour of gladness
is dead and gone;
In silent sadness
I live alone.
The hope I cherished –
all lifeless lies.
And all has perished,
all has perished,
save love, which never dies!
How does Sullivan elect to score this sad song? Sullivan was a masterful technical composer, and one of the attributes of the Savoy operas is that the overall musical style is far from being a homogenous expression of “Sullivan”. He enjoys inserting passages in the style of well-known composers, or musical tropes of the day, and he delivers these with genuine skill, perfectly integrated into the fabric of the opera. They sometimes appear in specific response to the libretto, but as often as not he would just pop something in when you least expect it. In this case, Katisha’s short aria pays homage to Schumann, and could easily pass for one of the German composer’s works of classic Lieder. Just imagine it, if you can, sung in German with a simple piano accompanist, in a salon somewhere in Victorian England. Sullivan’s orchestration even manages to sound like a transcription of a Schumann piano accompaniment. Here is Monica Sinclair in a recording from 1956 with the Pro Arte Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent (who, incidentally, was for a time the musical director of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company).
The Mikado raises the genre of comic opera to pretty much its grandest level. Gilbert’s libretto is keenly observed, and Sullivan’s music matches it to perfection. In fact, the contributions of each are so exceptionally well crafted that both Gilbert and Sullivan began to imagine that it was their particular contribution – and not the other’s – that was primarily responsible for their enormous success. In reality, it was the peerless combination of the two that produced the creative pinnacle of The Mikado.
The partnership only lasted a dozen years, from 1877 to 1890. There was the one early opera from 1871, and two later ones in 1893 and 1896, neither of which achieved great success. But the core of 11 comic operas remain in widespread and continuous production in English-speaking countries worldwide, and even in translation. The two men generally got on well, but towards the end relations got a little strained as each became more convinced that the other was receiving an undue proportion of the credit for their combined work. This was exacerbated by Sullivan’s knighthood in 1883, at the height of their popularity. Gilbert himself wasn’t knighted until 1907, shortly before his death. [I should point out that, at the time, a knighthood for ‘contributions to music’ was a well-established basis for recognition, whereas ‘contributions to drama’ was not. When Gilbert finally received his knighthood, his was the first ever for ‘contributions to drama’.]
Additionally, relations became fractious between the pair and their partner, producer/impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte. D’Oyly Carte’s name is forever associated with the opera company that bears his name, and which is the spiritual home of Gilbert & Sullivan. His purpose-built theatre, The Savoy, lent its name to Gilbert & Sullivan as a genre – they are widely known as the “Savoy” operas. D’Oyly Carte was in fact quite a slippery customer, and would not have found himself out of place in today’s world of music promotion and management. Gilbert ended up suing him, an episode known as “The Carpet Affair”, essentially for mismanaging moneys that were due him and Sullivan. This lawsuit was a major factor in the split between Gilbert and Sullivan, the latter being firmly uncomfortable with suffering the social indignity of being a party to a tawdry lawsuit. In the end Gilbert did win the lawsuit, but their partnership came to an end.
It was inevitable that, in the final assessment, the legacies of both men were intertwined with the legacy of the Savoy Operas, and neither man’s names see frequent mention outside of that context. Gilbert produced other written works – including other libretti. Sullivan wrote other music – including other operas. But neither achieved any significant recognition for their ‘solo’ careers. By all accounts they spent their last 10 years on poor personal terms, although Gilbert sought to dispel that notion. Sullivan, the younger of the two, suffered poor health throughout his life, and died in 1900, aged 58. Gilbert passed away in 1911, aged 74.
I included a couple of YouTube clips from the 1985 English National Opera production of The Mikado, famous for starring Monty Python’s Eric Idle as KoKo, and directed by the much-lauded Dr. Jonathan Miller. This production places The Mikado in a 1930’s upper-class English setting, eliminating all pretense of being Japanese, up to and including sarcastic reactions to Japanese references in the libretto. The principal soloists are first rate, including Lesley Garrett (who left a successful career as a top-tier soprano to become a TV presenter) and Dame Felicity Palmer, who upstages Idle as Katisha. The production does have its weak points. Idle’s poor singing fails to compensate for his strong stage presence, a contrived “false start” of KoKo’s entrance in Act I falls flat on its face, and the dancing/choreography is particularly laughable throughout, but on balance it was an entertaining production which I found very enjoyable. [Surprisingly, the quality of the alternative choices on YouTube rather disappoints.] So here it is in its entirety on YouTube, one video for each of the two acts. Enjoy: