The Mikado: Synopsis, Songs & Characters

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  • 0:04 Introduction to 'The Mikado'
  • 1:21 Characters of 'The Mikado'
  • 2:17 Synopsis of 'The Mikado'
  • 4:05 Songs in 'The Mikado'
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

What is a mikado and where is the town of Titipu? In this lesson, you'll find the answer to these questions while exploring a humorous romantic triangle involving a cast of characters with some rather silly names.

Introduction to The Mikado

Meet Gilbert and Sullivan, two men who collaborated on 14 musical projects, but by many accounts, argued regularly due to their strong, sometimes conflicting artistic ideals. Their musical projects were called operettas. Operettas are short, comic operas that usually included spoken dialogue, songs and dancing. William Gilbert wrote the librettos, while Arthur Sullivan set Gilbert's words to music. The term libretto refers to the words of an opera or operetta.

Previously, Gilbert had used his and Sullivan's operettas as a way to poke fun at British life and period politics, which helped make their collaborations so successful. However, there are several accounts of how Gilbert came to write The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan's ninth project. One explanation involves a Japanese sword falling from the wall in his home. A local Japanese exhibition may have also influenced Gilbert's thinking; 19th century Brits were fascinated by Japanese culture. There were also Japanese immigrants living in his area, and their regular presence might have served as an inspiration. Whatever the reason, Gilbert's new story was set in Japan and featured a sword-wielding character known as the Lord High Executioner.

Characters of The Mikado

Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu, premiered in 1885. A Mikado was a Japanese emperor, while Titipu refers to a fictional Japanese town in which the story takes place. The Mikado focuses upon a humorous romantic triangle that revolves around its three main characters: Ko-Ko, who is the Lord High Executioner; Nanki-Poo, who is Ko-Ko's friend; and Yum-Yum, who is Ko-Ko's fiancé, who eventually marries Nanki-Poo.

In addition to the characters involved in the love triangle, Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta includes: the Mikado, the Imperial ruler; Katisha, an older woman who wants to marry Nanki-Poo; Pooh-Bah, a haughty town official; Pish-Tush, a town noble; and Yum-Yum's two sisters, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo. Chorus members who portray schoolgirls, other town nobles, guards and local workers round out the cast.

Synopsis of The Mikado

In 19th century Japan, death was the punishment for the capital crime of flirting, and a man named Ko-Ko has been so condemned. When his friend, Nanki-Poo, learns of this, he returns to Titipu and finds that, not only has Ko-Ko been granted a reprieve, but has also been promoted to the post of Lord High Executioner. The reason? Well, since Ko-Ko was next in line for execution, he could not cut off the head of anyone else until first doing so to himself. As a result, the executions cease. The Mikado is not pleased about the halt to executions and threatens, by way of a letter, to take away Ko-Ko's new status unless an execution takes place within the next month.

Ko-Ko, who does not want to take his own life, looks for a substitute. He learns that his friend, Nanki-Poo, is determined to commit suicide because his love interest, Yum-Yum, is already engaged to Ko-Ko. So, Ko-Ko and Nanki-Poo work out a plan. Nanki-Poo will marry Yum-Yum instead. However, when the Mikado's 30-day deadline comes to an end, Ko-Ko will execute him and marry his widow.

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