The Mikado Synopsis

A 2-Act Opera by Gilbert and Sullivan

1924: Opera singers (from left) Aileen Davis as Peep-Bo, Winnifred Lawson as Yum Yum and Eileen Sharp as Pitti-Sing in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Mikado'
1924: Opera singers (from left) Aileen Davis as Peep-Bo, Winnifred Lawson as Yum Yum and Eileen Sharp as Pitti-Sing in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Mikado'. Sasha/Getty Images


Arthur Sullivan


W.S. Gilbert


March 14, 1885 - The Savoy Theatre, London.  The opera was a fantastic success, but it didn't come without its controversies; many of which still exist today.  Learn more about the history of The Mikado and the controversies that surrounds it.

Other Popular Opera Synopses:

Donizetti's Lucia di LammermoorMozart's Cosi fan tutteVerdi's Rigoletto, & Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Setting of The Mikado

Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado takes place in Japan.

The Synopsis of The Mikado

The Mikado, ACT 1

In the fictitious town of Titipu, Japan, a group of men are gathered together socializing when a young trombonist, Nanki-Poo, approaches them to introduce himself. He has been wandering from town to town in search of his girlfriend, Yum-Yum.  After explaining that she is a ward of Ko-Ko, he asks the men if they know where to find her. A man steps forward to tell Nanki-Poo that the Mikado issued a law that forbade flirting. The cities authorities were highly suspect of the law and sought a clever way to keep it from being enforced. Ko-Ko was arrested and sentenced to death after he was caught flirting. However, the city officials who were not keen to follow the law appointed Ko-Ko as Lord High Executioner under the condition that no executions shall take place until Ko-Ko cuts of his own head as described in his sentencing. Knowing that Ko-Ko could never kill himself, there was no way for the Mikado or any other city official to execute anyone. All but one of the city officials serving under the command of Ko-Ko, a poor ex-tailor named Pooh-Bah, resigned from their positions.  Poo-Bah takes delight in the resignation of his colleagues because he gets to collect their salaries. When asked about Yum-Yum, Pooh-Bah reveals that she is supposed to be marrying Ko-Ko soon.

Ko-Ko arrives moments later and begins to read aloud a list of people he doesn't think will missed if they were executed. Yum-Yum enters along with Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, both of whom are also wards of Ko-Ko. When they pass by Pooh-Bah he tells them he doesn't think they were as respectful to him as they should be. Later, Nanki-Poo comes in and meets with Ko-Ko, telling him that he and Yum-Yum are very much in love. Ko-Ko quickly dismisses him, but Nanki-Poo discreetly makes his way over to Yum-Yum and tells her that he is actually the son and heir of the Mikado. He has been living a life in disguise because an older woman named Katisha in his father's court has been trying to marry him. The young couple express their sadness and frustration over the ridiculous anti-flirting law.

It is announced that the Mikado has issued a decree, stating that if no executions are carried out by the end of the month, their city will be downgraded to village status which will surely ruin their lives. Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and the nobleman Pish-Tush discuss the situation. Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush point out the obvious fact that Ko-Ko should be the one to die since he was already sentenced to death. Ko-Ko counters their opinion, stating that not only would it be difficult for him to cut off his own head, committing suicide is vehemently prohibited and highly punishable. Moments later, Ko-Ko hears a rumor that Nanki-Poo is contemplating suicide because he cannot be with his love. Ko-Ko is resolved to execute Nanki-Poo. Ko-Ko meets with the distraught Nanki-Poo and realizes that nothing will change Nanki-Poo's mind, so he bargains with him that he will allow Nanki-Poo to marry Yum-Yum for an entire month, but at the end of the month he must be executed. After that, Ko-Ko will marry Yum-Yum.

After they strike their deal, a wedding ceremony and celebration are thrown. As the guests arrive and the party is started, Katisha arrives to put a stop to the wedding by claiming that Nanki-Poo is her husband. The wedding party and the guests drown out her proclamations with shouts of disapproval. She is forced to leave the party, but decides to get revenge. 

The Mikado, ACT 2
While Yum-Yum prepares for wedding with help from her friends, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo remind her not to forget that it'll all end in one months time. Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush try to remain happy and enjoy the day, they have a hard time trying to forget about the dark day that will soon come upon them. Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah rush in having discovered that the law states that when a married man is executed for flirting, his wife must be buried alive. Yum-Yum refuses to proceed with the wedding, so Nanki-Poo orders Ko-Ko to execute him. Ko-Ko has never executed anyone, his soft-hearted nature has prevented him from doing so. Ko-Ko devises a plan to send the young lovers away to be married in secret by Pooh-Bah. Ko-Ko will lie to the Mikado that Nanki-Poo's execution was successful.

It is announced that the Mikado and his envoy have come to Titipu. Ko-Ko believes that he has come to examine the execution. When the Mikado arrives, Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bah describe to him in detail about the "execution." They provide the Mikado a fake certificate of death, which was signed by Pooh-Bah. The Mikado interrupts them and says that he is there to search for his lost son named Nanki-Poo. They panic and exclaim that Nanki-Poo has traveled overseas. However, Katisha reads through the death certificate and screams in horror that it was Nanki-Poo who was executed. The Mikado calmly states that it must have been the will of the fates for Nanki-Poo's death, but mentions that those who have killed the heir to the throne will be sentenced to die by boiling oil or melted lead.

Ko-Ko and the others frantically discuss their options and how they are to survive. Nanki-Poo is worried that if he reveals himself to his father, but he fears that he'll be punished by death. Nanki-Poo suggests that Ko-Ko marry Katisha instead, then when Nanki-Poo reveals that he is alive, Katisha will not be able to claim him as her husband. Ko-Ko is hesitant to marry Katisha, but in order to save himself, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bah, he agrees to woo her into marriage.

He finds her weeping nearby and begs her for mercy. He then proceeds to tell her that he has been madly in love with her for sometime now and he can no longer bear to keep it a secret. He tells her a story about a little bird who died from a broken heart. Katisha is moved by his passion for her and agrees to marry him. A wedding ceremony for them swiftly takes place, and afterwards, Katisha beseeches the Mikado to spare the lives of Ko-Ko and his friends. Moments later, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum arrive and Katisha's face turns a dark shade of scarlet red out of anger. The Mikado is surprised to see his son alive, especially after receiving such a detailed report. Ko-Ko explains that once a royal death order is given, whether that person is still alive, they're as good as dead anyway, so why not just say that they are dead? The Mikado is happy with Ko-Ko's logic and agrees to let everything be as it is.