On this date in 1885, The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu, a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert, opened in London, where it ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performances, which was the second-longest run for any work of musical theatre and one of the longest runs of any theatre piece up to that time. Before the end of 1885, it was estimated that, in Europe and America, at least 150 companies were producing the opera. I first saw a school production of The Mikado in South Australia when I was 12. I had already seen an amateur production of H.M.S. Pinafore, so I was aware of Gilbert and Sullivan. Mikado cemented my interest, and when I moved to England a few years later I saw the D’Oyly Carte company at the Savoy Theatre in London several times. I can sing most of the famous male arias from memory even now, although my interest in the music has faded quite considerably.
The movie Topsy-Turvy does a halfway decent job of evoking the era when Mikado was first produced, although it commits numerous historical errors. Gilbert and Sullivan had had remarkable success with their previous collaborations but interest in their work had reached a plateau. The opera immediately preceding The Mikado was Princess Ida (1884), which ran for nine months, a short duration by Savoy opera standards. When ticket sales for Princess Ida showed early signs of flagging, the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte realized that, for the first time since 1877, no new Gilbert and Sullivan work would be ready when the old one closed. On 22nd March 1884, Carte gave Gilbert and Sullivan contractual notice that a new opera would be required within six months. Sullivan’s close friend, the conductor Frederic Clay, had suffered a serious stroke in December 1883 that effectively ended his career. Reflecting on this, on his own precarious health, and on his desire to devote himself to more serious music, Sullivan replied to Carte that “it is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself”. Gilbert, who had already started work on a new libretto in which people fall in love against their wills after taking a magic lozenge, was surprised to hear of Sullivan’s hesitation. He wrote to Sullivan asking him to reconsider, but the composer replied on 2nd April 1884 that he had “come to the end of my tether” with the operas:
…I have been continually keeping down the music in order that not one [syllable] should be lost…. I should like to set a story of human interest & probability where the humorous words would come in a humorous (not serious) situation, & where, if the situation were a tender or dramatic one the words would be of similar character.
Gilbert was hurt, but Sullivan insisted that he could not set the “lozenge plot.” In addition to the improbability of it, it was too similar to the plot of their 1877 opera, The Sorcerer. Sullivan returned to London, and, as April wore on, Gilbert tried to rewrite his plot, but he could not satisfy Sullivan. The parties were at a stalemate, and Gilbert wrote, “And so ends a musical & literary association of seven years’ standing – an association of exceptional reputation – an association unequaled in its monetary results, and hitherto undisturbed by a single jarring or discordant element.” However, by 8th May 1884, Gilbert was ready to back down, writing: “am I to understand that if I construct another plot in which no supernatural element occurs, you will undertake to set it? … a consistent plot, free from anachronisms, constructed in perfect good faith & to the best of my ability.” The stalemate was broken, and on 20th May, Gilbert sent Sullivan a sketch of the plot to The Mikado. It would take another ten months for The Mikado to reach the stage.
Topsy-Turvy repeats numerous historical inaccuracies concerning how Gilbert conceived of Mikado’s setting. He was not inspired by an exhibition of Japanese culture in Kensington, which began after he had already mapped out the first act. Nor was he prompted by the accidental fall of a Japanese sword in his study. Both tales have been debunked numerous times. It is more likely that he simply found Japanese culture appealing given that in the 1860s onwards, Japanese artefacts and photography were popular in London. It should also be noted that the plot has very little to do with Japan. The purpose of the opera was to lampoon British politics and culture, but by setting it in Japan, Gilbert avoided being entirely direct about his intentions.
Gilbert did take advantage of the presence of the Japanese exhibition to imbue the performance with some authentic cultural notes as illustrated in this clip:
Mrs Beeton supplies this recipe which contains a note about Chinese or Japanese origins of endive. Later she also comments on the use of soy sauce in cooking, although at the time it was generally unknown in Britain. She claims that Japanese soy sauce is superior to Chinese, but I doubt that she knew anything about the matter. It is her birthday today, anyway, so I felt it fitting to include one of her recipes.
- INGREDIENTS.—6 lbs. of shin of beef, a knuckle of veal weighing 5 lbs., a few pieces or trimmings, 2 slices of nicely-flavoured lean, ham; 1/4 lb. of butter, 2 onions, 2 carrots, 1 turnip, nearly a head of celery, 1 blade of mace, 6 cloves, a hunch of savoury herb with endive, seasoning of salt and pepper to taste, 3 lumps of sugar, 5 quarts of boiling soft water. It can be flavoured with ketchup, Leamington sauce (see SAUCES), Harvey’s sauce, and a little soy.
Mode.—Slightly brown the meat and ham in the butter, but do not let them burn. When this is done, pour to it the water, and as the scum rises, take it off; when no more appears, add all the other ingredients, and let the soup simmer slowly by the fire for 6 hours without stirring it any more from the bottom; take it off, and let it settle; skim off all the fat you can, and pass it through a tammy. When perfectly cold, you can remove all the fat, and leave the sediment untouched, which serves very nicely for thick gravies, hashes, &c.
Time.—7 hours. Average cost, 1s. per quart.
Seasonable all the year.
Sufficient for 14 persons.
ENDIVE.—This plant belongs to the acetarious tribe of vegetables, and is supposed to have originally come from China and Japan. It was known to the ancients; but was not introduced to England till about the middle of the 16th century. It is consumed in large quantities by the French, and in London,—in the neighbourhood of which it is grown in abundance;—it is greatly used as a winter salad, as well as in soups and stews.