Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


General thoughts about the Opera

1.1.1. Invisible eponymous character
1.1.2. The wettest Tenor in the canon
1.1.3. A nauseating soprano
1.1.4. Inadequately developed promising character
1.1.5. A stereotypical fatman
1.1.6. Endless encores
1.1.7 Subsidiary female ciphers.
1.1.8. An unbelievably unbelievable Ko-Ko
1.1.9. Katisha introduced too late
1.1.10. A ridiculous denouement.
1.1.11. A vomit inducing duet.
1.1.12. A ridiculous 'list' song.
1.1.13. A pile of sentimental tosh

[The role of moderator at the time of the discussion was undertaken by Rica Mendes-Barry who also made some significant contributions to the proceedings.]

1.1 Mikado - Aaaargh!

Ian Hollamby, as an up-front Devil's Advocate, wrote: The Mikado! Well, I suppose we had to get to it eventually! Hmmmmm! Why is this work so popular? This is an opera which contains the following:-

[All replies to Ian's specific points have been interpolated in his posting to maintain the ongoing threads. Anything leading to a new thread has been moved to the relevant section as noted.]

1.1.1. Invisible eponymous character

An eponymous character who doesn't appear until the thing is nearly over.

Nick Sales: Agreed. But it doesn't matter a bit. The suspense is well worth it. Plus, it means you can use your best bass voice to bolster the chorus in Act 1.

Jeff DeMarco: Is this common practice? If so, does the Mikado sing from offstage, or is he present, like Nanki-Poo, in disguise?

Michael J. Rice replied: In productions of The Mikado as well as Pirates that I participated in, I was in the men's chorus for the first act and then donned new makeup and costumes for the second.(I was the Mikado and the Sergeant) It was not only to "bolster" the sound, but because I wanted more to do!

Gerry Howe: But don't you think that this works, dramatically? There is this terrific build-up, with the letters and so forth, long before he arrives. IMHO, the most dramatic song is "A more humane Mikado". And what an opportunity for characterization! Audiences in the 1920s, when Darrell Fancourt first took over the part, complained that his performance was nothing like the "suave and oily" Mikado created by Richard Temple. I believe both Donald Adams and Darrell Fancourt used to grumble about this opera because it took them so long to make up. And from the player's point of view it at least works better than King Gama, who appears early on and then spends much of the rest of the show waiting in the green-room for his entrance in Act III!

Charles Schlotter: But whose presence looms over the action from the second number ("Our great Mikado, virtuous man") One of Gilbert's greatest "coups de theatre" was to build up this character for an act and half and, when he finally appears, he lives up to his publicity.

1.1.2. The wettest Tenor in the canon

A tenor 'hero' who HAS to be the wettest in the canon.

Arthur Robinson: He's not the most interesting character, but others are wetter. There is stiff (or limp?) competition for the role of wettest.

Jeff DeMarco: I don't understand this term - can anyone elaborate?

Nick Sales: Hmmmm...a close one, this; however, on reflection I would probably vote for Hilarion as the slightly more amphibious tenor.

Gerry Howe: Oh, I dunno... how about the Duke of Dunstable?

Charles Schlotter: Nay. Alexis is surely the wettest, assuming that the vestigial tenor role in Patience doesn't count. Any tenor who can get through a bravura number like "A wandering minstrel, I," which parodies several different musical genres, is immediately established as un-wet, practically he is dry. And if he is dry, why not say so?

David Van Arnam asked: What means 'wettest'? (I need to know whether I shall wax as indignantly wroth about this description as at most of your others!) And Sandy Rovner pleaded: One of the first things I learned in journalism was "don't be afraid to ask the dumb question." in light of which: Would someone explain the state of humidity of tenors? What is dry (no vermouth?) or wet--I can only think of Iolanthe and Strephon's first 25 years?

Andrew Crowther replied: Is it a purely English expression? "Wet" here means, basically, having all the character and backbone of a damp flannel. As in the expression, "Don't be so bloody wet!" [Andrew went on to develop this - see Section 5.2 below.]

Janice Dallas replied: I haven't encountered this expression before in New England. The closest we come might be calling someone a "wet blanket" for depressing people who are enjoying themselves. Thank you for explaining that one.

1.1.3.A nauseating soprano

A soprano whose twee self regard is nauseating.

Jeff DeMarco: Ditto, as above.

Nick Sales: Agreed without question. I'd probably add excruciatingly cringe-worthy.

Arthur Robinson: Or funny, depending on how you look at it. (Actually I consider Rose Maybud much funnier.)

Charles Schlotter: Nah. She's just another variation on one of Gilbert's favorite targets - the sweet young thing who is really a ruthless egotist.

Janice Dallas asked: Now that I know all about the humidity of tenors, how about "twee". At first, I figured it was a typo, but it seems to have something to do with coyness?

Ian Hollamby replied: It was me what used the word Guv! As I use it, it means affectedly dainty, pretty and innocent, in a way that one suspects may be contrived! Hope this helps.

Neil Ellenoff added: The American equivalent of twee is cutesey.

1.1.4. Inadequately developed promising character

A promising character (Pish-Tush) who is not adequately developed.

Arthur Robinson: Agreed.

Gerry Howe: Do you feel that he needs to be? Surely he is Pooh-Bah's sidekick, the man who has no real existence except as toad-eater to the Great Man. If I'm right in this, then his character cannot develop!

Charles Schlotter: Developed just enough, I should say. He is the smooth bureaucrat who keeps his head down and survives all regimes. WSG characterizes him neatly and economically but doesn't get so carried away with creation as to allow him to overrun his dramatic function.

1.1.5. A stereotypical fatman

A stereotypical fatman/politician (Pooh-Bah).

Arthur Robinson: Yes, but stereotypes have been around since ancient comedy, and Pooh-Bah is funnier than most. And Nick Sales: Can't agree here. One of the best characters in the canon. Capable of practically stealing the show if well acted.

Gerry Howe: Ah yes - but Pooh-Bah is the epitome of every pompous, asinine, self-important petty official who ever occupied an office. He is the man every Englishman loves to hate. It is tempting to wonder whether Gilbert had anyone in particular in mind when he wrote the part.

Charles Schlotter: A killingly funny stereotype with some of the best lines in the piece. Also, numerous as the Pooh-Bah characters have been in subsequent drama, how many precedents are there? The run-of-the- mill bio-copied-from-prior-Xerox-copies-of-prior-bios inevitably cites one prior verse by an earlier writer which touches on the same multiple-jobs joke but with much less wit and polish. Practically, Gilbert created the stereotype. And if he did create the stereotype, why not say so?

1.1.6. Endless encores

Endless unnecessary and unwelcome encores.

Nick Sales: Not if you're in a David Craven production!

Gerry Howe: Only if the MD lets them! Both Isidore Godfrey and Flash Harry were pretty stern about this.

Charles Schlotter: That's the fault of the performers. G&S didn't write the encores.

1.1.7 Subsidiary female ciphers.

Subsidiary female characters who are mere ciphers.

Nick Sales: ..such as irrepressible Pitti? Piffle and poppycock, sir! And besides, it never did Pinafore any harm, did it?

Gerry Howe: You ever seen Peggy-Ann Jones as Pitti-Sing?

Charles Schlotter: As opposed to the vivid characterization of Lady Saphir? Of Celia, Leila and Fleta? Of Fiametta, Vittoria and Giulia? Actually, Pitti-Sing is one of the largest and most rewarding of the secondary female characters.

1.1.8. An unbelievably unbelievable Ko-Ko

Ko-Ko; A character whose unbelievability is unbelievable!

Nick Sales: Me not quite equal to intellectual pressure of that last remark!

Arthur Robinson: Believability isn't WSG's strong point. It's when he tries to be believable that he fails most badly.

Charles Schlotter: Mmm. Not sure what you are getting at, here. No character in G&S fits into a strictly realistic, kitchen-sink drama. Within the infernal machine of a Gilbert plot, Ko-Ko is more consistent than most.

1.1.9. Katisha introduced too late

A sole interesting character (Katisha) who is introduced too late.

Nick Sales: Not true, similar comments as for Mikado.

Charles Schlotter: Nay. If she turned up earlier, there would be no second act. As it is, she threatens to run away with the piece and you might argue that it is strange that she visits Titipu as early as the finale to Act One. Practical question: What do we need to know about her (for dramatic purposes) that we don't get as the piece stands?

1.1.10. A ridiculous denouement.

Arthur Robinson: Yes, I've never been happy with it; I prefer Ruddigore's.

Nick Sales: Yes. Agreed. Oh, is there a problem with that? It's GILBERT and Sullivan, remember?

Charles Schlotter: Ah, here is where I think that analysis based on naturalistic drama completely misses the point with Gilbert. Bear with me, here. Why is it that appreciation of Gilbert is so great among lawyers and law school graduates (you ask?) Because the ridiculous denouements of his plots are almost always based upon an absurdly literal application of legal principles. Seen from this point of view, the denouement of Mikado is the best of all of Gilbert's equity dodges. Ko-Ko's argument amounts to, "Almost good enough is good enough for government purposes" and it arrives at a decision that pleases all the parties involved (except Ko-Ko himself, to some extent.) Ergo, even for the Mikado, the embodiment of mindless application of The Law, "nothing could possibly be more satisfactory."

PLUS: Songs which include:

1.1.11. A vomit inducing duet.

A vomit inducing soprano/tenor duet.

Arthur Robinson: I find it funny (in concept-it does slow down the action).

Nick Sales: If you don't like soprano/tenor (love) duets, I suppose that's your problem; and they're probably all "vomit inducing" to a greater or lesser degree. I do like them; immensely, for what I hope are obvious reasons; that said, it's probably my least favourite one to perform - you do tend to feel a bit of a twit. On the other hand, it does contain one of my most favourite Sullivan bits - the part following the "toco toco toco" bit, and particularly the sweep to top A on "would I kiss you fondly thus"; sublime just about sums that up; I love singing that bit.

Charles Schlotter: As I observed in another message, the duet is pure legalism. I never threw up hearing it, even once.

Neil Ellenoff quipped: Don't forget the primordial ooze

1.1.12. A ridiculous 'list' song.

A ridiculous and contrived 'list' song.

Arthur Robinson: No-TWO ridiculous and contrived list songs.

Gerry Howe: That one's all right unless somebody mucks up the words! If there is one thing I wish more than anything else, it's that people wouldn't try to make this song 'topical'. It works and it spoils some brilliant and subtle Victorian humour.

Nick Sales: Oh. So "modern major general"' isn't ridiculous? hello? HELLO? it's a comic opera; it's supposed to be ridiculous. I don't see that it's any more contrived than any number of other numbers. Colander-type argument, IMHO.

Charles Schlotter: A clever and witty list song, I should say.

1.1.13. A pile of sentimental tosh

A pile of sentimental tosh about a 'tom-tit'.

Nick Sales: Yes, but I think that's intentional.

Arthur Robinson: Bless you, it all depends (on your point of view). [This gave rise to the discussion in Section 3.2.1 below.]

Gerry Howe: But surely the whole idea is that it sentimental - it is that which causes Katisha to break down and accept Ko-Ko! The cream of the joke is that this tough-as-a-bone harridan is overwhelmed by sentimental tears at this affecting if perhaps rather improbable tale.

Charles Schlotter: Ko-Ko is lying his head off and "Tit-willow" is a satire of sentimentality. When sung straight, it is not sentimental tosh, it is a song by a man threatened by imminent death fabricating sentimental tosh to save his own life. Funnier yet, the most ruthless, murderous character in the entire piece falls for it. With all my talk about Gilbert, I almost forgot to mention that Sullivan's score, whether it is his best or not, hits every number right on the button, without a single weak moment.

Bruce Miller enthused: Charles Schlotter's is an absolutely first-rate analysis, whether or not it's in response to a devil's advocate. To take Charles's last point about the music a bit further; Sullivan's work in Mikado is perhaps his most satisfactory in the genre. Yeomen may be more virtuostic, Ruddigore more adventurous, Gondoliers more sparkling, and so on -in Mikado he was as one with his collaborator. The result is probably the most evenly balanced as to words and music, whether or not it is Sullivan's absolute peak. (Iolanthe takes a close second if this criterion is applied, IMO).

Arthur Robinson observed: In general, I consider The Mikado G&S's masterpiece (not perfect, but great). And Rowan Donoghue wrote: The Mikado cannot be faulted. The music is great and the story holds its humour still today. I just hope that I can convince 80 or so adolescents to hold the same opinion!

Page created 7 March 1999