The Mikado Trivia

The Mikado Trivia No. 1.

The chorus “Miya Sama, Miya Sama” in Act II of The Mikado is an adaptation for Western voices and instruments of an authentic imperial Japanese war song. The words mean: “Honourable Prince, what is the thing fluttering in front of your Highness’s horse?” (The last line “Toko tonyare tonyare na” is an onomatope for the sound of trumpets and drums, like Gilbert’s “Tantantara tzing boom!”) The answer to the question, given in another verse, is “It is the Imperial banner of silken brocade, the signal for the punishment of rebels”. The line used elsewhere in the opera “O ni! Bikkuri shakkuri to!” is meaningless, though the actual words are Japanese: o, ni and to have various meanings, but no permutation makes more sense than “Oh two! Surprise hiccup door!”

The Mikado Trivia No. 2.

Yum-Yum’s mysterious line “And for yam I should get toko” was explained in a D’Oyly Carte glossary as meaning “Instead of something nice I should get something nasty”, but the reference is much more specific. “Toko for yam” was a familiar Victorian slang expression for punishment, derived from British colonial rule in the West Indies. “Toko” is a word for a beating borrowed from Hindi, and yam (sweet potato) was given as the staple food to native servants. A servant who displeased his master was liable to get a thrashing and be put on a starvation diet – that is, for yam he would get toko.

The Mikado Trivia No. 3.

During the final dress rehearsal of The Mikado, Gilbert shocked the cast by announcing that he had decided to drop the Mikado’s song “My object all sublime…”. He was persuaded to change his mind by a deputation of the entire company which greeted him the next day as he arrived to supervise the preparations for the opening performance.

The Mikado Trivia No. 4.

At the time of The Mikado, the rapidity and success with which Japan was transforming itself into a modern industrial state had led to a widespread popular interest in Japanese culture and a fashionable craze for collecting Japanese artefacts: Bunthorne’s line in Patience “I do not long for all one sees / That’s Japanese” is a sarcastic comment on this vogue. While the opera was being rehearsed, an elaborate Japanese exhibition opened at Knightsbridge, traditional arts and crafts being demonstrated by native Japanese in replica Japanese settings; and Gilbert hired members of this exhibition to teach Japanese movements and gestures to his cast.

The Mikado Trivia No. 5.

In 1907 the Lord Chamberlain banned all performances of The Mikado in view of a state visit by the Japanese Prince Fushimi, a move which prompted widespread ridicule.  Helen D’Oyly Carte, who had been running the Savoy company since her husband’s death in 1901, staged a single performance which was attended by a Japanese newspaper correspondent.  He wrote: “I had a pleasant evening, and I consider that the English people, in withdrawing this play lest Japan should be offended, are crediting my country with needless readiness to take offence.”  Gilbert’s response to the ban was: “In three years we shall probably be at war with Japan about India, and they will offer me a high price to permit The Mikado to be played.”

The Mikado Trivia No. 6.

Gilbert’s “Bab Ballads”, a series of comic poems written for the magazine Fun, contain many ideas which he later re-used in the operas.  A verse in the ballad “King Borriah Bungalee Boo” lists the subjects of this “man-eating African swell”:

There was haughty Pish-Tush-Pooh-Bah,
There was lumbering Doodle-Dum-Deh,
Despairing Alack-a-Day-Ah,
And good little Tootle-Tum-Teh:
Exemplary Tootle-Tum-Teh.

“Pish-Tush-Pooh-Bah” was split to provide names for two characters in The Mikado.

The Mikado Trivia No. 7.

A curiosity in The Mikado is that a character called Go-To, bracketed with Pish-Tush as “Noble Lords”, appears in the cast list of some productions but not others.   The explanation is that the light baritone voice of the original Pish-Tush, Frederic Bovill, proved inadequate for the bottom line in the madrigal “Brightly dawns our wedding day”, which has a low tessitura and includes a bottom F.  In the course of the original run, therefore, another performer was drafted to sing in this number alone, and the necessary change made to the cast list.  The inclusion of “Go-To” became standard practice in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, but in most amateur productions the madrigal is simply included in Pish-Tush’s part.

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