Great moments in opera: The Mikado

February 6, 2012

If there is a spectacle of song and stage more delightful than The Mikado, I do not know what it is. Oh sure, the premise is ridiculous, the plot is inscrutable, and the characters — bearing names like Pish-Tush, Yum-Yum, and Nanki-Poo — are, at best, caricatures. But the music is so good, and the text is so witty, and it is all served up with such warm-hearted humour that audiences have found it irresistible ever since its 1885 premiere.

The story is set in Japan, in the town of Titipu. The ruler of Titipu, The Mikado, has decreed that in his jurisdiction flirting is to be punished by death. I forget why. The people of Titipu, naturally distressed by this decree, have contrived a clever remedy. They arranged for . . . well, they thought about it, you see, and . . . just a moment. Oh yes, they . . . hmm. How about I let Pish-Tush explain? Here is Our great Mikado, virtuous man [text]:

They are right, I think you’ll say, to reason in that kind of way. So that’s clear enough.

We are soon introduced to three young ladies, Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, and Pitti-Sing, who, judging from their song, are on their way home from school. This, I must say, is one of the most memorable of all of Gilbert & Sullivan’s songs. In fact (if I may make a private disclosure), on those not infrequent occasions when I spontaneously burst into song, it often happens that this is the song I sing. In any case, it seems that few can hear it without making remarks. (i.e. “Stop singing, Daddy.”) Here is Three little maids from school [text], excerpted from the film Topsy Turvy:

Yum-Yum, it turns out, is betrothed to Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, but she loves the minstrel Nanki-Poo, who loves her in return. Clear? This puts Nanki-Poo in a bit of a tough spot, for not only is he tempted to flirt, he is tempted to flirt with the Executioner’s fiancée. The situation calls for tact, and Nanki-Poo hits on a brilliant tactic: flirtation under cover of the subjunctive. Here is their love duet, Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted [text]:

These happy affairs are interrupted by a directive from the Mikado: at least one person must be executed within the next month. I forget why. Talk around town turns to the question of who it ought to be. In this trio, I am so proud [text], each of Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko, and Pish-Tush argues that it ought not to be him. I am especially fond of the closing section of this excerpt:

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!

Complications ensue. Deals are made. New, but still distressing, bylaws are discovered. Things fall out, as they will. Along the way we are treated to a few quiet moments with Yum-Yum, in which she sings The sun, whose rays are all ablaze [text]. I consider this to be among Arthur Sullivan’s greatest achievements as a melodist. It is a lovely song that would not, I think, be out of place in a grand opera.

In the end, Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo somehow obtain the blessing of the Mikado for their marriage. I will not attempt to explain how this happens; it is one of life’s little mysteries. It is enough to simply enjoy the closing chorus, For he’s gone and married Yum-Yum [text], which is as rousing and joyful a chorus as you are ever likely to hear. Here again is an excerpt from Topsy Turvy:

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