You know The Mikado – it’s the comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, with the ‘little list’ of things that won’t be missed that gets rewritten to satirise whatever politicians are in power every time a new production appears. I ask because the English National Opera has six performances coming up at the end of the month, from 21st to 31st January.
Their highly successful Jonathan Miller production sets the whole thing in a 1930’s seaside hotel in Britain. Which makes a lot of sense, as much of the enjoyment in the Mikado comes from poking fun at British customs and institutions. But how Japanese is The Mikado?
Well, not very much, to be honest. W. S. Gilbert knew very little about Japan when he wrote it. He just thought that ‘a Japanese piece would afford opportunities for picturesque scenery and costumes, and, moreover, nothing of the kind had ever been attempted in England.’ About the only authentic thing in it is the song Miya Sama, which is a version of a Japanese military marching song called Tonyare Bushi.
But when The Mikado was first performed in 1885, Gilbert did put a lot of thought into getting the Japanese setting right. The costumes, for instance, which he said were ‘one of the most important features of “The Mikado” production.’ The women’s costumes were made by Liberty & Co from Japanese fabrics, while designs for the men’s costumes were based on ‘Japanese Authorities’.
Some of the principals’ costumes were genuine Japanese antiques and ‘the magnificent gold-embroidered robe and petticoat of the Mikado was a faithful replica of the ancient official costume of the Japanese monarch.’
Gilbert was keen that his cast should move in a Japanese way and had them coached by staff from the Japanese Village in Humphreys’ Hall in Knightsbridge, where “Skilled Japanese artisans and workers (male and female) will illustrate the manners, customs, and art-industries of their country, attired in their national and picturesque costumes. Magnificently decorated and illuminated Buddhist temple. Five o’clock tea in the Japanese tea-house. Japanese Musical and other Entertainments. Every-day Life as in Japan” according to an advertisement in the Illustrated London News. This picture of the Japanese Village was taken by W.S.Gilbert:
‘To their invaluable aid in coaching the company it was mainly due that our actors and actresses became, after a few rehearsals, so very Japanny,’ said Gilbert. ‘The Geisha, or Tea-girl, was a charming and very able instructress, although she knew only two words of English- -“Sixpence, please,” that being the price of a cup of tea as served by her at Knightsbridge. To her was committed the task of teaching our ladies Japanese deportment, how to walk or run or dance in tiny steps with toes turned in, as gracefully as possible; how to spread and snap the fan either in wrath, delight, or homage, and how to giggle behind it.’
I think I’d have liked to see the real thing at the Japanese Village, but audiences at the time lapped up the new operetta and it ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performance
The Ernie Pyle theatre was a Tokyo landmark at the time, but before the Americans requisitioned it and renamed it in honour of a war correspondent who was killed in the Pacific, it was the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre, built in 1932 and home to the spectacular Takarazuka Revue. When the Americans left it became the Takarazuka Theatre once again, as it is to this day, though the original theatre was demolished and rebuilt in 2000.
‘The leads were all American, Canadian and British, but the male singing chorus and the female dancing chorus were Japanese. The costumes for the leads were, with one exception, those rented by the royal court for coronations; even after half a century, I recall their splendour.’ says Joseph Raben, who was in the audience for what must have been a remarkable experience.
If you want to see the ENO production, there are still a few seats left and you can book online.
Sources – I used the excellent Gilbert and Sullivan Archive. Quotes from W.S. Gilbert are from an interview he gave to the New York Daily Tribune (9 August 1885), The Story of a Stage Play. Those from Joseph Raben are from The Mikado in Japan by Joseph Raben.