I have just spent a week watching four productions of Mozart and Schikaneder’s 1791 opera. Four in a row! Now we all know that I adore musical theater more than almost anything else in the world. Operetta. Nelson and Jeanette. Fred and Ginger. Broadway musicals (but not the movies made from them that rewrote them completely). But opera?? Certainly not Italian opera seria. It’s just too loud. Besides, why isn’t La Boheme sung in French? Carmen in Spanish? Madame Butterfly in Japanese? Aida in Egyptian? Turandot in Chinese?
All right—yes, these are ridiculous questions. I’ve seen La Boheme and Turandot live. I’ve seen The Magic Flute live two or three times. Mozart is my favorite classical composer. Born in Salzburg (which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire and now is the site of an annual Mozart festival), he began composing at age five, and he and his sister Nannerl toured the courts of 18th-century Europe and performed before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. (BTW, while much of his story is told in the play and film Amadeus, Mozart was not murdered by Salieri. He died from a highly contagious miliary fever.)
Instead of watching TV in the evenings, I watch DVDs. Mostly musicals. Last week, my fingers alighted on The Magic Flute. I have seven productions on DVDs. You know what? As I watched them, I saw things I’ve somehow been missing. I wonder how many other people have also missed them. Before I go into the details, however, let’s listen to the range of Mozart’s music. We hear baroque music in the Queen of the Night’s two arias.
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFktfr1kmHc] We hear sacred music in Sarastro’s temple. His prayer to Isis and Osiris [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eQkgZ-pz1A] is one example; another is the two armed men. (That’s Tamino wandering around.) And we hear what could be folk music when Papageno the bird catcher sings.
The Magic Flute is said to be one of the most performed operas in the world. What I’m focused on today is how Schikaneder’s book expresses the belief system of the Enlightenment and tells several stories. One is the quest story of Prince Tamino, who is wandering through the woods when he’s attacked by a monster. The monster is killed by three women sent by the Queen of the Night, who soon comes to visit and gives him a picture of her daughter Pamina and tells him to rescue her from Sarastro, who kidnapped her. Meanwhile, Papageno, a bird catcher, takes credit for killing the monster, is punished, then goes off and rescues Pamina from Monostatos, who is Sarastro’s black slave. Sarastro forgives Pamina for running away from him, then decides to train the two young men to become priests in his temple, which seems to be quasi-Rosicrucian. (Scholars have long said that the opera reveals Masonic or Rosicrucian esoteric secrets.) Tamino is told to remain silent. He obeys and goes on his quest. But Papageno—my favorite character—would rather eat and drink and find “a little dove,” that is, a wife. He refuses to keep silent and insists on being himself. In my opinion, Papageno is a true, earthy pagan. Like us, he’s grounded and focuses any magic he might possess (like his magic bells) on ordinary life. Meanwhile, Monostatos tries to rape Pamina (for the second time) and the Queen of the Night arrives carrying a knife and tells her daughter to murder Sarastro.
This is not the entire plot, but I’ve touched on important points. First, Sarastro. He’s portrayed as a high priest. But if we listen to his priestly chorus, what we hear over and over again is that women are deceitful and all they do is gossip and all women need to be led and controlled by men. It’s a patriarchal lodge. Given that the opera was written in 1790, this should be no surprise. Men were in charge. Also, Sarastro owns a black slave. Sarastro’s devotion seems to be to the sun, and he is supposed to hold great wisdom. Sure, he is kind and his arias are grand, but I don’t like what he stands for: male domination.
Second, the Queen of the Night. Who is she, really? Sarastro represents light, she represents darkness. Another common patriarchal theme. (Ask Jung about masculine light and feminine darkness.) A modern version of the opera, set in World War I, written by Stephen Fry and directed by Kenneth Branagh implies that Sarastro and the Queen were once married. Following their divorce, Sarastro kidnapped their daughter and took away as much of the Queen’s power as he could grab. No wonder she’s so angry. Does what happened to the Queen remind us of #metoo?
Third, Pamina and Tamino. They’re “fated to be together,” but when Tamino is in training at Sarastro’s temple, she comes to him and he turns away from her because men in training to be priests are supposed to reject women. This makes her suicidal. She sings an aria about suicide, but is rescued by the three little boys, after which Sarastro permits her to accompany Tamino through his ordeals of fire and water. Can’t this girl stand up for herself? How would she behave today?
Fourth, Papageno and Papagena. As I said earlier, he’s a pagan, more interested in eating and drinking and finding a wife than in any esoteric practices. And he just can’t hardly stop talking. While he and Tamino are in their training room, he’s visited by an “old woman” who tells him she’s eighteen years and two minutes old. She explains that if he doesn’t accept her proposal—make that proposition in the sexual sense—he’ll be imprisoned and get only bread and water for the rest of his life. Of course he yields. What’s interesting about these scenes in some productions of the opera is that Papagena seems to be working for or with Sarastro. She comes on stage with the priests, but they prevent her from revealing who she really is and drag her off. Men still dominating women.
Fifth, the flute itself. Before Tamino and Pamina begin their initiatory journeys through fire and water, she tells him that it was her father (Sarastro?) who created the flute out of the roots of a thousand-year-old oak tree and he did this magic work during a dark and stormy night. So the flute is magical. But how is it related to sun worship? I think the Queen of the Night had a hand in making that flute.
I’ve left out most of the opera, which is certainly worth watching. It’s enchanting. Watch it yourself. My favorite—and I think the best—production is from Stockholm’s Drottningholm Court Theatre, which was built in 1754 and still uses authentic stage machinery. The actors are costumed in 18th-century styles, and the musicians play authentic 18th-century instruments. Buy it here and add it to your DVD collection. You’ll love it, too.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.