The Mikado

From Academic Kids

The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu, is a comic Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in two acts. The music is by Sir Arthur S. Sullivan and the libretto by William S. Gilbert. It was first produced in March 1885, in London, where it ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performances. It remains the most performed Savoy Opera, especially popular with amateur school productions.

It should be noted that the versions of the culture and government of Japan in this work are based on the notions of Victorian era England on the subject, and are further altered by the satirical tone of the work. Indeed, Victorian England is the target of Gilbert's satire, thinly disguised as a strange and distant land. (The song "Mi-ya Sa-ma", however, is an actual Japanese song which Sullivan appropriated for the operetta. The same melody was also adapted by Giacomo Puccini for his opera, Madama Butterfly.)

It is also worth noting that most of the names in the play have no equivilence in standard Japanese – but perfectly understandable as English "baby-talk". The so-called headsman is named Ko-Ko; one pretty young thing is named Pitti-Sing (get it?) and the heroine is named Yum-Yum! The pompous officials are Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush; and our hero, Nanki-Poo (which might be baby-talk for "handkerchief") is fleeing from the awful Katisha!

Gilbert and Sullivan were considered to be in a slump by the time they wrote The Mikado. In search of new ideas, Gilbert is said to have visited an exhibition of Japanese culture that was visiting Knightsbridge at the time. Supposedly he bought a Japanese sword, which he then mounted over a doorway. Later, while he was working, the sword's mount broke, and the sword fell to the ground. Gilbert claimed that the falling sword inspired him to write The Mikado, a comedy about a Japanese executioner. The creation of The Mikado is dramatized in the 1999 film Topsy-Turvy.

The Japanese themselves were ambivalent toward this operetta for years, not knowning for certain if it was making fun of them (it wasn't) or of the English (which it was). In recent years, however, they have apparently come to terms with The Mikado, and have been able to discern quite a bit of satire that unintentially struck close to home. As a matter of fact, the town of Chichibu Japan regularly performs it, having decided that "Titipu" was Gilbert's code name for "Chichibu". This was further cemented by the fact that a 1936 film from Pinewood Studios added a scene showing a nighttime event, surprisingly similar to the annual Night Festival of Chichibu.



  • The Mikado of Japan
  • Nanki-Poo, His Son, disguised as a wandering minstrel, and in love with Yum-Yum
  • Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner of Titipu
  • Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else
  • Pish-Tush, A Noble Lord
  • Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, and Peep-Bo, Three Sisters, Wards of Ko-Ko
  • Katisha, An Elderly lady, in love with Nanki-Poo
  • Chorus of School-Girls, Nobles, Guards, and Coolies


  • Act I is set in the Courtyard of Ko-Ko's Official Residence.
  • Act II is set in Ko-Ko's Garden.


Act I

Leading gentlemen of the Japanese town of Titipu gather for an impending celebration ("If you want to know who we are"). A wandering musician, Nanki-Poo, enters and introduces himself ("A wandring minstrel I"). He has come to search for the maiden Yum-Yum, with whom he has fallen in love. Alas, the officious official Pooh-Bah informs him, Yum-Yum is to marry her guardian Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of Titipu. Ko-Ko is actually a local tailor who was made Lord high Executioner due to a fluke in the law. Yum-Yum appears with two of her friends, (sometimes referred to as her "sisters") Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing ("Three little maids from school"). Nanki-Poo reveals his secret to Yum-Yum: he's actually the son and heir of the Mikado, ruler of Japan, but has fled the court due to the amorous advances of Lady Katisha.

Ko-Ko arrives and introduces himself ("I've got a little list") and rejoices in his upcoming marriage. His enthusiasm is cut short by receiving news that the Mikado will soon be arriving for a visit; as Ko-Ko is behind on his quota of executions (never having performed any at all!), this means someone must be executed at once. The others (Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush, two self-important samurai) look to Ko-Ko himself as the perfect subject ("I am so proud"). Ko-Ko discovers Nanki-Poo, in despair over losing Yum-Yum, is preparing to commit suicide. After realizing that he cannot change Nanki-Poo's mind, Ko-Ko makes a bargain with him: Nanki-Poo may marry Yum-Yum for one month, if at the end of that time he allows himself to be executed. This happy arrangement is nearly spoiled by Katisha, who arrives and tries to claim Nanki-Poo ("Oh fool"). However, she makes such a bad impression on the people of Titipu that her words are drowned out by the shouting of the crowd ("For he's going to marry Yum-Yum"). But though all seems happily settled, Katisha makes it clear that she intends to return.

Act II

Yum-Yum is being prepared by her friends for her wedding ("Braid the raven hair"), after which she is left to muse on her own beauty ("The sun whose rays"). Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum share an affectionate scene, interrupted when Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah enter, and warn them of a twist in the law that requires the wife of an executed man to be buried alive ("Here's a how-de-do"). Nanki-Poo, threatened with the loss of his beloved, proposes to die on the spot, but when push comes to shove, Ko-Ko is a soft soft-hearted man who cannot harm even an insect. Ko-Ko instead sends him and yum-Yum away, promising to send the Mikado news of a fictitious execution.

Missing image

"His teeth, I've enacted,
Shall all be extracted
By terrified amateurs."
(Cartoon by Gilbert)

The Mikado and Katisha arrive for the promised visit ("A more humane Mikado"). Ko-Ko, aided by Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah, gives a graphic description of the supposed execution ("The criminal cried"), only to be stunned by the news that Nanki-Poo was in fact the Mikado's son! Facing a death sentence himself for executing the Heir Apparent, Ko-Ko pleads with Nanki-Poo to return. Nanki-Poo agrees – on the condition that Katisha is safely married off Ko-Ko, of course.

Ko-Ko therefore discovers Katisha mourning her loss ("Alone, and yet alive"), and throws himself on her mercy ("Tit-willow"). He begs her hand in marriage ("There is beauty in the bellow of the blast"). She agrees, and begs mercy for him and his "accomplices" from the Mikado; Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum re-appear, to Katisha's impotent fury; and the inhabitants all celebrate the substitution of marriages for executions ("For he's gone and married Yum-Yum").

There are two ways of interpreting the ending for this story. Either Ko-Ko is assumed to receive the short end of the stick by having married the terrible Katisha, or else Katisha is not as bad as she seems and she and ko-Ko are truly made for each other. Directors have interpreted this ending both ways with equal success.


  • Overture (Includes "Mi-ya Sa-ma", "The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze", "There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast", "Braid the Raven Hair" and "With Aspect Stern and Gloomy Stride".

Act I

  • 1. "If you want to know who we are" (Nanki-Poo and Men)
  • 2. "A Wand'ring Minstrel I" (Nanki-Poo and Men)
  • 3. "Our Great Mikado, virtuous man" (Pish-Tush and Men)
  • 4. "Young man, despair" (Pooh-Bah, Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush)
  • 4a. "And I have journeyed for a month" (Nanki-Poo and Pooh-Bah)
  • 5. "Behold the Lord High Executioner" (Ko-Ko and Men)
  • 5a. "As some day it may happen" (Ko-Ko and Men)
  • 6. "Comes a train of little ladies" (Girls)
  • 7. "Three little maids from school are we" (Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, Pitti-Sing, and Girls)
  • 8. "So please you, Sir, we much regret" (Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, Pitti-Sing, Pooh-Bah, and Girls)
  • 9. "Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted" (Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo)
  • 10. "I am so proud" (Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko and Pish-Tush)
  • 11. "With aspect stern and gloomy stride" (Ensemble)

Act II

  • 12. "Braid the raven hair" (Pitti-Sing and Girls)
  • 13. "The sun whose rays are all ablaze" (Yum-Yum)
  • 14. "Brightly dawns our wedding day" (Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush)
  • 15. "Here's a how-de-do" (Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko)
  • 16. "Mi-ya Sa-ma" (Mikado, Katisha, Girls and Men)
  • 17. "A more humane Mikado" (Mikado, Girls and Men)
  • 18. "The criminal cried as he dropped him down" (Ko-ko, Pitti-Sing, Pooh-Bah, Girls and Men)
  • 19. "See how the Fates their gifts allot" (Mikado, Pitti-Sing, Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko and Katisha)
  • 20. "The flowers that bloom in the spring" (Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bah)
  • 21. "Alone, and yet alive" (Katisha)
  • 22. "Willow, tit-willow" (Ko-Ko)
  • 23. "There is beauty in the bellow of the blast" (Katisha and Ko-Ko)
  • 24. "For he's gone and married Yum-Yum" (Ensemble)

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