|In Mozart's The Magic Flute, creepy Nosferatu-lookalike Monostatos climbs into bed with the sleeping Pamina. Then he sings an aria saying, in effect, I'm not a bad guy, just ugly and horny as the next. (Photo: Robert Millard for LA Opera)|
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Sexual Politics in Mozart's Magic Flute?
Mozart’s opera itself is unusual enough – the story is a fantasy allegory about humankind’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. It’s a struggle of good contending with evil based on the ancient Egyptian themes that formed the basis of the secret society of Freemasons in Mozart’s day. Freemasons (the forebears of today’s Masonic Lodge) go through thirty-four degrees, or achievement steps, of ritual. The goal of this process is personal development, community service, and spiritual maturity. In Mozart’s story, the progression is summarized in three trials through which the main characters must pass – the trial of silence, the trial of temptation, and the trial of fire and water. It all seems pretty scary because they are told, if they fail, they will die.
Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee) is a well-intentioned young prince. At rise, he finds himself in a dark wood under attack by a fire-breathing dragon. He’s rescued as the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa) kills the dragon and dispatches three ladies (Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco and Peabody Southwell) to take the prince under their care. But the bewildered Tamino thinks that it is the Queen’s servant Papageno (Rodion Pogossov), a bird-catcher, who has helped him, and together they resolve to make their way out of the dark wood. Along the way, Tamino falls in love with the Queen’s daughter Pamina (Janai Brugger), who has come under the control of the Queen’s archrival and priest of the sun Sarastro (Evan Boyer). The Queen wants Pamina, assisted by Tamino, to kill Sarastro.
All this would seem to be a fairly straightforward good-versus-evil story, right? Of course not. In the allegory, the roles of the characters of queen and dark priest are exactly reversed. The priest Sarastro (his darkness underscored by Boyer’s resonant bass) turns out to be the spiritual master of Freemasonry. The Queen is the proponent of blissful ignorance – she’d like nothing better than for humans to dwell with her in perpetual night. But Miklosa’s heavenly soprano, along with her dazzling white costume, have us thinking she’s the essence of good.
Tamino, Papageno, and Pamina all come under Sarastro’s control, as he is assisted by Monostatos (Rodell Rosel). Monostatos is another character whose stereotype leads us astray. Officially, his role is overseer of Sarastro’s temple. In the story, he’s prison guard to the three protagonists. In fact, despite his terrifying appearance, he explains in his aria at the opening of Act II that he is just an ugly guy doing his job who would like a little nookie. Such is Mozart’s wicked sense of humor, which underlies the story at every turn.
It is Sarastro who forces the three characters through the three trials. And he says they will “pay with their lives” if they fail to meet his standards. He’s so menacing, we fear he will destroy them no matter what. But here’s another reversal – there is no way to fail. In his trials, Tamino is made to confront death and seemingly to forsake his earthly love of Pamina. The wisdom of the trial is that death is an illusion, and there is nothing to fear. So if he failed (which he doesn’t) and he did indeed die, he would emerge in the same place – enlightened, and with Pamina at his side. Comic-relief sidekick Papageno also scores at the end, as Sarastro presents him with a soul-mate, the pretty and birdlike Papagena (Amanda Woodbury).
The stark good and evil roles, and the reversals, might make us think it’s all about men against women. Freemasonry was a society of prominent men, after all. Tamino and Pamina go through the trials together. The lesson of the fable – as Mozart tells it – is that men and women are partners and equals.The concept of the production is rooted in the theater of German Expressionism, as practiced by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil. The two-dimensional movie screen is what those artists would call an alienation effect. It’s done to distance the audience from their emotional reactions – and emphasize a story of ideas. And that’s just what Mozart intended – all with a sense of whimsy and wit that will have you smiling – not only about this delightful production – but also about what it’s like to be a silly human obsessed with needless fears and yet possessed with boundless hope.