Ruminations on the Role of the Chorus in The Mikado

OK, I’ve been living with this work of light opera for a number of weeks now. Famously, actors are stereotypically known for asking, ”but what’s my motivation?” This is supposed to be an aid to carrying off their role in a convincing and emotionally connected way.

It’s hard for the person who sings an occasional line and dances an occasional step to really land emotionally in the part, or even, sometimes, to understand why we are singing the lines we’re singing.

But, as I said, I’ve been singing and thinking about the part for awhile now, and I’ve come to a disturbing conclusion: my role is that of a “good German,” one who goes along to get along, one who blithely endorses lies for his own safety and security, one who rejoices in the misfortunes and sorrow of others when it aligns with his own immediate self-interest.

Within the space a single song, for instance (the Finale of Act I), the chorus changes its allegiance at least three times: we begin in fear for our own lives; rejoice when a victim is found (Naki-Poo); accuse that victim of forswearing his bride-to-be, Katisha; tell his alternate bride (Yum-Yum) that she is sure to die for her seduction of Nanki-Poo; and then turn on Katisha, shouting her down when she tries to expose the truth of the situation—literally drowning her out; and, finally, rejoice in the impending, if doomed, marriage of Yum-Yum and Naki-Poo.

In another song, we cower and play toady to the Mikado himself when he happily sings and dances as he recounts his brutal plan to torture criminals in an appropriate manner suited to their “crimes.” We laugh along with him at the prospect of the grim fates that will befall minor criminals. Indeed, the entire premise of the play, that those who flirt should be condemned to die, seems perfectly reasonable to all of us.

One further example: we are complicit in the lie of Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bette when they construct their elaborate lie to the Mikado regarding the execution of Nanki-Poo, making us subject to the same fate they are threatened to share—execution for “compassing the death of the heir to the throne.”

The Mikado may be “light opera,” but its dark message is anything but. And the role of the chorus is a cautionary tale for all who live within the boundaries of any regime that relies on its citizens for complicit agreement with its policies and practices. We, the chorus in this play, are a pack of pampered cowards, enjoying our stay at this resort with no regard to actual virtue, nobility, dignity, or any of the other adjectives we incorporate into our songs. I’m not sure we convey that to our audience, but if they consider us at all, I think they would be forced to dislike us intensely.

(I’m sure these are not original thoughts, but they are my thoughts, having not read too extensively about G&S. Now I will go do some research to see if this has already been the subject of someone’s thesis or dissertation….)

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