A year before the curtain goes up, Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado of Japan, flees the imperial court to escape marriage with Katisha an elderly lady. Disguised as an itinerant musician, he meets and falls in love with Yum-Yum, the young ward of Ko-Ko, a cheap tailor in the town of Titipu. Yum-Yum, however, is already betrothed to her guardian and Nanki-Poo leaves Titipu in despair.
The action takes place in the town of Titipu
The curtain goes up on a group of Japanese nobles going about their business. Nanki-Poo, still masquerading as a musician, having heard the news that Ko-Ko has been condemned to death for flirting, has hurried back to Titipu to try to claim Yum-Yum. Unfortunately, he learns from Pish-Tush that, far from being dead, Ko-Ko has been reprieved at the last moment and appointed Lord High Executioner. There is worse to come as Pooh-Bah, the holder of every other major office of the state, informs Nanki-Poo that Yum-Yum and Ko-Ko are to be married that afternoon.
Ko-Ko appears, and recounts the story of how he became the Lord High Executioner. He seeks Pooh-Bah’s advice as to how much he should spend on his forthcoming wedding. Yum-Yum and her sisters, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, arrive with their school chums. Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo are reunited and he tells her that he is the son of the Mikado. The two lovers realise that their cause is hopeless and Nanki-Poo declares that he will kill himself immediately. Meanwhile, Ko-Ko has received a letter from the Mikado, threatening serious repercussions for the town and the Lord High Executioner if an execution does not take place within a month. On seeing Nanki-Poo about to ‘terminate an unendurable existence’, Ko-Ko offers to do the job for him. Nanki-Poo agrees, on the condition that he can marry Yum-Yum and enjoy one month of married life before he is beheaded. Ko-Ko will then be free to marry the widowed Yum-Yum. All rejoice at this resolution, but the festivities are rudely interrupted by the arrival of Katisha. Furious at Nanki-Poo’s rejection, she attempts to reveal his true identity. She is silenced by the crowd, but vows revenge.
Yum-Yum is happily preparing for her wedding until she is informed by Ko-Ko that, under the Mikado’s law, the widow of a beheaded man must be buried alive. To spare Yum-Yum this grim fate, Nanki-Poo again decides to kill himself, leaving Ko-Ko once more without the requisite head to lop off. At the news of the Mikado’s imminent arrival Ko-Ko sends the young things off to be married while he and Pooh-Bah draw up an affidavit that Nanki-Poo’s execution has taken place.
The Mikado arrives with Katisha and is very pleased to hear that an execution has taken place until he learns that the victim unfortunately was his own son. As punishment, Ko-Ko and his accomplices are scheduled to die after luncheon. Their only hope is to admit the falsehood of the affidavit and produce Nanki-Poo alive and well. But Nanki-Poo, now married to Yum-Yum, is afraid to face Katisha’s wrath so Ko-Ko is left with no other choice but to woo, win, and wed Katisha himself and have her intercede with the Mikado. While Katisha is at first reluctant, being in mourning for Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko eventually wins her over with flattery and schmaltz.
Back from the dead, Nanki-Poo presents himself and his new bride to his father. Ko-Ko devises an explanation for his subterfuge that satisfies the Mikado, who commutes his death sentence to a life sentence with Katisha. All ends with a joyous song and a merry dance.
The Enduring Appeal of G&S by Stuart Maunder
There is no theatrical phenomenon in the Antipodes with the staying power of Gilbert and Sullivan.
New Zealand and Australia’s love affair with G & S (and let’s face it, how many creators are instantly recognised by their initials alone?) is almost as enduring as the works themselves. In the 1870s, when policing copyright was much trickier than it is now, two rival “pirate” productions of H.M.S. Pinafore were playing across the street from one another in Melbourne. After that, Gilbert and Sullivan licensed all G&S productions in Australia and New Zealand to an American actor manager then working in the region: J. C. Williamson. So up to date were we in this regard that the first “official” production of The Mikado was playing here only six months after the London premiere.
G&S were great moneymakers for J C Williamson’s, and often kept the company going when other attractions weren’t doing good business. "If you need money, then put on G&S", became a familiar Williamson’s catch-phrase down the decades.
At the end of 1961, the copyright on the Gilbert and Sullivan operas expired, and companies all over the world relished the prospect of new productions, freed from D’Oyly Carte’s stylistic guideline. Since then, there have been countless ‘modern’ productions, “Hot” and “Black” Mikados, an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ in which Bart sings excerpts of Pinafore to calm a murderous Sideshow Bob and even an episode of The Muppet Show in which a seven-foot-tall talking carrot sang selections from “The Carrots of Penzance”. Each new incarnation seems to confirm the inherent strengths in the original material.
The G & S operettas’ durability is extraordinary but not unexplainable. After all, Gilbert’s dramatic situations are still funny. And Sullivan’s music succeeds in providing a kind of romantic foil to Gilbert’s pervasive drollery and cynicism. This kind of friction was very much at the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan’s creative relationship.
The G & S phenomenon has been part of the basic language of performing in New Zealand for more than a century. People sing the numbers in competitions, musical societies stage the pieces all the time, and not so long ago people sang the songs around the piano or pumped “Selections” from them at the Pianola. The idea that a successful performance of “something from G & S” is within reach for those who want to achieve it is very powerful in the Kiwi psyche.
For generations of New Zealanders, the first Gilbert and Sullivan in the theatre is a kind of icon of experience. I have lost count of the number of people who’ve told me “my aunt took me to see Pinafore or Pirates when I was eight”…and how that got them hooked on G & S.
Here’s to more converts!
The Mikado is without doubt Gilbert & Sullivan’s most famous comic opera.
While set in the imaginary Japanese town of Titipu, the satire is directed fairly and squarely at the British and their love of bureaucracy. This stunning production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic masterpiece transports us to modern-day Japan, where Harajuku fashion, mobile phones and Hello Kitty rule.
Filled with vibrant colour, sharp blades, even sharper wits and an excellent cast of New Zealand and Australian singers, The Mikado was hailed as “laugh out loud stuff” which “fizzes with charm” by reviewers of the Australian season.
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