A wandering minstrel I – A thing of shreds and patches, Of ballads, songs and snatches, And dreamy lullaby! My catalogue is long. Through every passion ringing, And to your humours changing I tune my supple song!
So sings Nanki-Poo near the beginning of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic Opera, ‘The Mikado’. This opera is essentially a satire and whilst it appears to be set in Japan, it is in fact designed to be in a fictional place. By doing this Gilbert felt able to more sharply critique British society and institutions. The opera’s settings draws on Victorian notions of the Far East, gleaned by Gilbert from the glimpses of Japanese fashion and art that immediately followed the beginning of trade between the two island empires.
The starting point of The Mikado is an invented Japanese Law against flirting, which is designed to represent the sexual prudishness of British culture. Similarly the characters names are not Japanese names but instead dismissive exclamations. For instance, a pretty young thing is named Pitti-Sing; the beautiful heroine is named Yum-Yum, whilst the pompous officials are Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush.
Surprisingly the Japanese were always ambivalent toward The Mikado. Some Japanese critics saw the depiction of the title character as a disrespectful representation of the revered Meiji Emperor. Japanese theatre, was prohibited from showing or depicting the emperor on stage. However, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the opera proved just as popular with Japanese nobility as with the British public. Despite this, during a state visit in 1907 by Prince Fushimi Sadanaru, the British Government banned performances of The Mikado in London for six weeks. Apparently, however, this backfired when the Japanese Prince expressed disappointment that he was not able to see a production of The Mikado during his stay in London.
A number of Japanese visitors to London during this time, who did manage to see performances of The Mikado were often disappointed as they were expecting real insults. Instead they found only cheerful songs and a lot of fun. Nevertheless since the 1990s some productions of the opera have been subject to criticism from the Asian-American communities as promoting “simplistic orientalist stereotypes”.
Despite all of this, The Mikado has become the most frequently performed Savoy Opera and has been translated into numerous languages. It is now one of the most frequently performed musical theatre pieces in history. Not surprisingly it is also one of the most recorded musicals of all time, the earliest recording of which was made in 1914. If your school happens to be performing The Mikado, or indeed any other musical, then you might consider recording your own CD. And if you do, Recordings 4 Schools would be delighted to help you!