Friday 24 November 2017

Classical: Eastern promise: how Gilbert and Sullivan devised a real treat – 'The Mikado'

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert
Sir William Schwenck Gilbert
English composer Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan

George Hamilton

The names Gilbert and Sullivan are bywords for the kind of light operatic entertainment that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Gilbert's humorous lyrics and Sullivan's jewels of musical wit and whimsy are the perfect match.

The crowning glory of their collaboration was The Mikado, a comic opera of such enduring appeal that, since its premiere in 1885, it's reckoned to have become the most performed piece of theatre in the English-speaking world.

Strange, then, to recount that there was every chance The Mikado might never have happened, for strains had developed between the writer and the composer. Gilbert's plots, all love potions and magic spells, however relevant the social commentary behind them, were losing their appeal for Sullivan, who wanted to concentrate on more serious music. There was a real risk of a split.

The day was saved when William Schwenck Gilbert came up with a theme that sparked Sullivan's interest again. Why not set the next opera in Japan?

The Orient had opened up to the West. There was huge public interest all over Europe in all things Japanese.

Gilbert told the story of how an old Japanese sword he had as an ornament inspired him. There's even a yarn that the idea was born when it came crashing down off the wall of his study.

The tale is of the Japanese king – The Mikado – and the executioner who's actually next in line to have his own head cut off, with love interest provided by the delectably named Yum-Yum.

With a cast list including Nanki-Poo, Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush it couldn't fail. The Times summed it up in its review of the opening night: "It was as near perfection as a first performance can be."

No surprise, then, that The Mikado was chosen when the R&R – the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society – first took to the stage, 100 years ago next month, in the old Queen's Theatre in Dublin.

The R&R was the brainchild of an energetic young man named CP Fitzgerald, the organist at the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar, who lived in Rathmines. What started out as a means of bringing music to the locals soon made a name for itself as a benchmark for excellence.

Now regulars on the stages of the Gaiety and the National Concert Hall, the R&R put on at least two shows every year, a sizable commitment for a society of entirely amateur musicians.

They'll be in action on the stage of the National Concert Hall from Tuesday to Saturday of next week, celebrating their centenary with a fully staged production of – what else – The Mikado, all colourful costumes and a chorus singing from the choir balcony.

With Derek Ryan singing the title role and Jean Wallace as Yum-Yum, The Mikado is on each night at 8pm. More at event/gilbert-sullivans-mikado. Booking at

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

Irish Independent

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