Whenever you look at a libretto by William Schwenck Gilbert (whose middle name makes a good pub quiz question), you can be safe in assuming that it will be full of satire of contemporary public life. This means that you can also safely assume that politics won't be far behind, whether Gilbert is lampooning specific political figures of his time or making a more timeless point. In 1907, the government closed down the run for the six weeks of a state visit to London by the Crown Prince of Japan: they feared, wrongly, as it turned out, that the Crown Prince would find the production offensive, and Japan was an important ally. Gilbert found the ban bizarre since the music was actually being played on Japanese warships at the time.
In The Mikado, the best political vehicle through the ages has been the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko's song "I've got a little list" (of people who he doesn't think would be missed if he chops their heads off). The original libretto is deliberately coy about naming names:
Such as - What d'ye call him - Thing'e-bob, and likewise - Never mind
In spite of Gilbert's dislike of anyone changing his lyrics, current performance practice is quite the opposite: Ko-Ko names names a-plenty in the hope of gaining a good laugh from a news-conscious audience. According to David Nice's splendid programme notes, listees of the past have included anything from Hitler to Harold MacMillan to Margaret Thatcher; at last night's ENO performance, we had Silvio Berlusconi, the Speaker of the House of Commons and his wife who dresses up in a sheet, and (rather improbably) Serena Williams.
Clearly, this particular form of humor (sic) isn't one that goes down well in the United States. A 2001 New York City Opera production had to be hastily rewritten to remove "George Dubya's on my list", and just this month, the MCT Community Theatre in Missoula, Montana was forced to issue a formal apology to Sarah Palin after her name appeared. One senses from the news articles that the show's director was unimpressed.
To my surprise, it seems to be difficult to pin down any of Gilbert's specific targets in The Mikado. There are some good generic attacks on arbitrary, pompous tyrants, vain courtiers, nobility with an exagerated sense of their lineage and incompetent or venal government servants, but I can't find any articles which pin down anyone in particular, and contemporary critics describe Gilbert's characters as "detached from humanity, creatures of his own, whimsical, preposterous, remote."
Whimsical and preposterous, perhaps - but remote? I think we all enjoy filling in the blanks with the public figures of our time.
Or, for a musical version from Sir Thomas Allen at the 2004 Proms, try this:
27th February 2011