In January 1885, London was in the midst of a new craze; to be interested in Japanese customs and art was the height of fashion. Indeed a Japanese Village exhibition opened in Knightsbridge, not far from the home of W.S. Gilbert. It was thanks to this late Victorian craze that perhaps the most famous of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas was born. I am of course talking about The Mikado. So the story goes, a Japanese executioner’s sword, hanging on the wall of Gilbert’s home suddenly became dislodged and clattered to the floor – this “short, sharp shock” neatly implanting the idea of a comic opera set in Japan in Gilbert’s mind.
The title itself The Mikado, literally means “the honoured gate” of the palace, used in this instance to refer metaphorically to the occupant also.
The Mikado opened on 14th March 1885 to a packed house at the Savoy Theatre, London. It went on to do an astonishing run of 672 performances, which was the longest ever run of any of the Savoy Operas. Such was its popularity, that on 4th September 1891 a Royal Command Performance was given at Balmoral for Queen Victoria and her family.
The first non-D’Oyly Carte professional production was given by the Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1962. The Mikado is one of the most frequently played pieces of musical theatre in history and it is unlikely that a year passes without a number of performances of The Mikado from both professional and amateur companies.
Since its advent in 1885, there have been various adaptations of The Mikado. It has been both “Hot” and “Cool”; it has been “Jazz” and “Swing”. In 1975, The Black Mikado adapted the story to be set on a Caribbean island. In 1986 the English National Opera moved the setting to a 1920s seaside town and more recently Opera Della Luna perform a version involving only 7 actors and set in a Japanese fashion house.
The Mikado has immersed itself in popular culture, with phrases such as “let the punishment fit the crime” becoming a well-used phrase. In fact references to The Mikado appear in such diverse areas as popular music (“short, sharp shock” is sampled in the Pink Floyd track Us and Them, which features on the Dark Side of the Moon album), television and film (such as Blackadder Goes Forth, Chariots of Fire, Magnum PI, The Simpsons, Frasier, The Muppets), in politics itself, with Peter Mandelson famously being referred to as “the Pooh-Bah of British Politics” due to the vast array of positions he held, and countless references in literature.
On 20th April 2015, Bingley Gilbert and Sullivan Society open their newest version of The Mikado which will be a traditional homage which Mr Gilbert himself would have been proud of.
We look forward to seeing you there.