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The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu is the most popular of the operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. Sir William Schwenck Gilbert wrote the libretto, and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan composed the music. The Mikado was their ninth operetta together, following Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant. The Mikado premiered in London at the Savoy Theatre, Richard D’Oyly Carte’s theater, on 14 March 1885.
Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado, the ruler of Japan, had met Yum-Yum in the previous year, and they fell in love. Their love was thwarted by the fact that she was engaged to her guardian, Ko-Ko, a tailor, and so Nanki-Poo had gone back to court, where his father threatened him with death if he did not marry the elderly and unattractive Katisha. Faced with this, Nanki-Poo has run away from court and is wandering the countryside disguised as a wandering minstrel.
Having learned that Ko-Ko has been sentenced to death for flirting under the Mikado’s draconian law, Nanki-Poo returns to Titipu. Here, he discovers that Ko-Ko has been reprieved, but elevated to the role of Lord High Executioner because, so it was reasoned, he could not cut off anybody else’s head until he’d cut off his own, thus ensuring the continued life of those who flirt and getting around the problematic law.
Ko-Ko makes his first appearance as Lord High Executioner, and tells of the list he’s been drafting of potential victims. Yum-Yum and her schoolmates enter, and Nanki-Poo confesses his love for Yum-Yum to Ko-Ko, who takes it in stride. Having the opportunity for a private conversation, Nanki-Poo reveals his identity to Yum-Yum. They leave unseen when Ko-Ko enters, and he is soon interrupted by a letter from the Mikado, with an ultimatum to behead someone within a month, or lose his rank and have the city of Titipu demoted to a village.
Ko-Ko rejects the suggestion that, as he is already under sentence of death, he cut his own head off, and his attempt to appoint one of his adviser’s to the position of Lord High Substitute, to be executed in his stead, backfires. Nanki-Poo, distraught at the idea that he cannot be with Ko-Ko, enters with a rope, planning his own suicide. Ko-Ko has the idea that Nanki-Poo might help him out by agreeing to be beheaded instead, at the end of the one month grace period. Nanki-Poo agrees on condition that he be allowed to marry Yum-Yum in the meantime, and they come to terms.
Katisha, enters and recognizes Nanki-Poo, but is prevented from revealing his identity, so she leaves to seek revenge. Yum-Yum is torn between joy at marrying her beloved, and sorrow at his impending death.. Her heart is not eased by the news from Ko-Ko that when a man is beheaded, his wife is forced be buried alive. Yum-Yum cannot face this, and declines to wed Nanki-Poo under these conditions. Nanki-Poo, in turn, says he can’t live without Yum-Yum and returns to his plan for suicide, which upsets Ko-Ko terrifically.
The imminent arrival of the Mikado is announced, and Ko-Ko fears he’s coming to check on whether an execution has been committed. Nanki-Poo offers to be beheaded, but it turns out that Ko-Ko has not even killed an insect, and cannot go through with it. He instead, creates an affidavit saying that Nanki-Poo has been executed, and Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum go off to wed. When the Mikado arrives with Katisha, Ko-Ko is happy to inform him that the execution has happened, and hands him the affidavit. The Mikado, uninterested, asks after his son who has been wandering around Titipu under the name Nanki-Poo. He is told that Nanki-Poo has gone abroad, but Katisha, reading the affidavit, concludes that he has been killed, as all in the vicinity are sentenced to the appropriate punishment for killing the heir apparent.
Ko-Ko tries to get Nanki-Poo to agree to meet his father, but Nanki-Poo is still afraid of being forced to marry Katisha. To avoid this, he insists that Ko-Ko marrying Katisha is the only thing that can secure his happiness, which will in turn, encourage him to reappear so that Ko-Ko-s life is spared. Ko-Ko convinces Katisha, Nanki-Poo reappears in the nick of time, everyone is pardoned, and Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum celebrate their wedding.
Mikado is also the Japanese word for emperor.