3rd Online festival “The Music of Language”
Gilbert and Sullivan
A hilarious exotic opera by the forerunners of Monty Python and Marx Brothers, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885) in a successful co-production of the GNO Alternative Stage with the Rafi music theatre company, conducted and re-orchestrated by Michalis Papapetrou and directed by Akillas Karazisis.
Its creators, William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, leading lights in the field of English comic opera, were inspired by the atmospheric Far East and composed this acerbic satire on the socio-political mores of the 19th century. Violence, corruption, populism, hypocrisy and puritanism are all in the firing line of this ingenious artistic duo, who satirise their times with humour and lightheartedness.
Filmed at the GNO Alternative Stage at the SNFCC on 30 December 2017. Greek subtitles available.
The librettist William Schwenck Gilbert is said to have been inspired to write the work by a Japanese sword he saw hanging in a public library. At that time theatre companies from Japan were touring London, helping spread the sophisticated orientalism which the British public were going mad for.
Setting the action in a remote geographical location made it easier for the experienced writer to talk fearlessly about issues afflicting English society at that time: unending political scandals, abuses of power and the democratic deficit. The specific choice also allowed him to use humour and irony to satirise the prevailing puritanism of the Victorian period, paving the way for writers such as Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw.
In the magical land of Titipu where the Great Emperor (the Mikado) had banned flirting, philandering tailors become executioners so that they don’t have to behead themselves, parliamentary deputies declare themselves “masters of everything”, and flirting, although banned, flourishes in the most unimaginable forms. The composer Arthur Sullivan considered The Mikado to be his masterpiece, where he skillfully blended “light” British operetta and “serious” English opera, where “humour, satire, characters and high quality music exist in marvellous balance”.
It is worth noting that The Mikado also inspired George and Ira Gershwin’s musicals on Broadway and Hollywood. George Gershwin considered the Gilbert and Sullivan duo to be his role models. The work was a roaring success from the very first performance in 1885 (around 150 companies all over the world had included The Mikado in their repertoire by the end of the year) and remains one of the most popular work of music theatre of all times.
In the imaginary town of Titipu in Japan, the Mikado has pronounced flirting a serious crime. Young man Nanki-Poo, the Mikado’s son, disguised as a wandering troubadour seeks after Yum-Yum, a girl with whom he is in love. She is however promised to her guardian Ko-Ko, a humble tailor. When Nanki-Poo hears that Ko-Ko is sentenced to death for having attempted to flirt, he runs to claim Yum-Yum anew. With sorrow he finds out that not only has his rival been granted a pardon, but also that Ko-Ko has been appointed Lord High Executioner of the city and is going to marry Yum-Yum on that same day.
Yum-Yum and her sisters come forward surrounded by a company of female classmates. Yum-Yum takes Nanki-Poo aside and confides to him that she doesn’t love Ko-Ko. However, both of them realise that any attempt to elope would be futile. Thus, Yum-Yum steps back and Nanki-Poo attempts to commit suicide.
Ko-Ko receives a letter from the Mikado, threatening him that he will strip him of his Lord High Executioner title and downgrade Titipu to a humble village, unless at least one execution is soon carried out. Ko-Ko realises that Nanki-Poo is the obvious prospective victim. Nanki-Poo agrees to be executed on the condition that he marries Yum-Yum and enjoys at least one month of wedded life with her, before he is decapitated. After the execution, she will remain a widow and then Ko-Ko will be able to marry her. The plan is overturned by a middle-aged woman in love with Nanki-Poo, Katisha, who is threatening to reveal his true identity. However, the crowd stops her.
Yum-Yum is preparing for her wedding. Yet she soon received the horrible news: the widows of the executed men must be buried alive alongside them. Under these circumstances Yum-Yum refuses to proceed with the wedding and Nanki-Poo challenges Ko-Ko to decapitate him on the spot. Ko-Ko however is not in a position to kill anyone and, upon the announcement of the Mikado’s arrival in the city, he prepares a fake execution certificate for Nanki-Poo.
Once the Mikado reads the certificate, he informs Ko-Ko that he has executed his only son. Ko-Ko begs Nanki-Poo to appear in front of his father, so that he wouldn’t be blamed for his death. However, Nanki-Poo dreads the wrath of Katisha, who is going to ask for his execution, and tries to convince Ko-Ko to marry her: only then would Nanki-Poo dare to appear alive again in front of his father. In the beginning. Katisha, grieving over unjustly perished Nanki-Poo, denis Ko-Ko’s love but, in the end, she is persuaded by his flattery and heartbreaking songs. Katisha pleads the Mikado to grant a general pardon, and although he doesn’t understand how his son is alive, happy as he is, he agrees to do so.
Music Arthur Sullivan
Libretto William Schwenck Gilbert
Arrangement, conductor Michalis Papapetrou
Director Akillas Karazisis
Adaptation Giorgos Tsaknias
Lyrics adaptation Κaterina Schina
Set & costume designer Alexia Theodoraki
Choreographer Hara Kotsali
Lighting designer Yiannis Drakoularakos
The Mikado Marios Sarantidis
Nanki-Poo Thanos Lekkas
Ko-Ko Dimitris Nalbandis
Pooh-Bah Νikos Spanatis
Katisha Anastasia Kotsali
Yum-Yum Lito Messini
Pitti-Sing Lydia Angelopoulou
Peep-Bo Barbara Biza
Pish-Tush Michalis Papapetrou
Guido de Flaviis (saxophone)
Giorgos Krimberis (trombone)
Costas Seremetis (percussion)
Vaggelis Stefanopoulos (piano, keyboard)
Dionisis Vervitsiotis (violin)
Haris Pazaroulas (double bass)
Video recording, TV director Elias Vogiatzoglou
In 1880s London, an author in crisis visits, at the urge of his wife, a Japanese exhibition featuring music, theatre, gastronomy. Until that point, Gilbert, because it’s him we’re talking about, writes librettos dominated by wizards and magic potions.
Far East is unknown to him. We see him watching Noh and Kabuki with his eyes wide open and we realise that in that moment an idea is born in his head, an unprecedented subject: The Mikado – everything that goes on in Mike Leigh’s film Topsy-Turvy. So there we have the work’s first characteristic from its birth. The exotic Far Eastern seed is fertilized in the cosmopolitan Englishman’s gaze on a rainy London evening.
The second characteristic of the work has to do with its subject: the Mikado (Emperor) has forbidden all flirting outside marriage, and the punishment for that is death penalty. When at some point the last person sentenced to death is also appointed executioner, the routine of executions is blocked and that marks the beginning of the comedy.
I start with the second characteristic: I’d say that the associations born by the irrational prohibition and the inhumane punishment don’t have Japanese but Chinese, and in fact Maoist nuances: the “Great Leap Forward”, the period of the Cultural Revolution, both “achievements” of the Maoist era, with their tragic irrationality, exceed all mythological exaggeration.
Now let me return to the first characteristic: a 19th-century Englishman writes a comedy in the Anglo-Saxon style, with a Japanese subject, set and aesthetic. Naturally, the action is set in a timeless, classic Japan, filtered through an Anglo-Saxon colonialist logic. Perhaps, sixty years ago this cocktail would have been drastic in terms of fiction. But what about today? Does something like this work beyond its being folkloristic?
On the contrary, setting the comic action in an authoritarian regime of uniformity and prohibitions exacerbates the work’s irrationality and humour. Besides, the British phlegm, the Far Eastern silent overexpressiveness, as well as the timbre of the Greek language of the ’50s, ’60s (Greek movie actors Avlonitis, Makris, etc), are all variations of the same clown-dieu.
What’s missing from the above, which are thoughts on The Mikado, is Sullivan’s wonderful music. But you’ll listen to that during the performance.
— Akillas Karazisis