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Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' as a portal, at The Met Opera & beyond

The Met Opera

I distinctly remember the first time I heard the vengeance aria, “Der Hölle Rache,” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It was during Miloš Forman’s film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus in 1984, at what is now Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Wolfie’s mother-in-law starts berating him for not being a good provider, and her anger morphs into a performance of the opera as the Queen of the Night urges her daughter Pamina to slay Sarastro. The effect on my 16-year-old ear, brain, and soul was magical. The glittering, bell-like qualities of soprano June Anderson’s voice literally took my breath away. I’d never heard anything like it. The aria was a pivotal entry point for me into the world of opera.

The opera is such a great onramp for new and younger audiences to opera that The Metropolitan Opera used it to inaugurate its holiday opera offerings in 2006 with Julie Taymor’s spectacular production in a family-friendly 100-minute abridgement in English. The Met continues to offer that production during the holidays, retiring it from use beyond December performances.

In its place is director Simon McBurney’s acclaimed 2012 Dutch National Opera production, which will be heard this Saturday, June 3 at 1 p.m. on 90.1FM WRTI or at wrti.org as part of the Toll Brothers - Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network. If past productions of the opera at The Met by Marc Chagall (1967), David Hockney (1991) and Taymor (2004) were brilliantly colorful, McBurney’s production may seem dark — but it emphasizes the opera’s music-theater roots.

The Met Opera

The Magic Flute premiered at the Theater auf der Wieden, Vienna in 1791. Its composer had known the theater’s founder, Emanuel Schikeneder, since about 1780, when Schikeneder befriended the Mozart family during a stay in Salzburg. Schikeneder was highly regarded for his theatrical skills, and was one of the most-renowned German-language interpreters of the role of Hamlet in his day.

The Theater auf der Wieden performed plays, operas and singspiels; Schickeneder had an uncanny sense for what audiences wanted and liked. He worked with Mozart on the allegorical, Masonic-themed plot for The Magic Flute, which would feature actors from the Theater troupe that could sing, and opera singers who Mozart knew intimately. The role of the Queen of the Night was played by Mozart’s sister-in-law; Tamino was played by one of his best friends; and the part of Pamina, who was only 17 at the time, had premiered the role of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro when she was merely 12! The opera was a spectacular success with 100 performances within 14 months of its premiere. But Mozart did not live to see this success, dying just over two months after the opera’s premiere.

If Mozart and Schickeneder captured the imagination of Vienna’s audiences with the opera’s fantastical elements and extraordinary music, Simon McBurney’s production brings the audience into the work by breaking the fourth wall with musicians coming out of the pit to play Tamino’s flute and Papageno’s chimes, raising the orchestra pit so that the players are easily visible throughout the performance, and starting the overture with the house lights still on. Costumes bring us into the story, too, with the cast in recognizably contemporary clothing that illuminate their characters — from the businessman Sarastro, the elderly wheelchair-bound Queen of the Night, and Pamina in athleisure wear.

For all its allegory, Flute has problematic elements today. Act I tells us that the Queen of the Night is good and Sarastro is bad, yet in Act II we confusingly learn the opposite is true.The opera treats the Moorish character of Monastatos with racist overtones that are downplayed or ignored today. And the libretto is decidedly misogynistic: at one point, Sarastro tells Pamina that “A man must guide your heart, for without that, every woman tends to overstep her natural sphere.” But aside from any dramaturgical or content challenges, McBurney sees the story as a fairy tale, a flight of the imagination, and more.

Still, at the heart of any Flute is its music. It is a work of musical extremes, from the aforementioned Queen of the Night’s Aria,with its vocal acrobatics, to Tamino’s noble utterances and Papageno’s earthy comedic moments. Within those extremes is a central musical energy of profound goodness and love. We can hear that in Pamina’s duet with Papageno in Act I, “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” (In men, who feel love) and in Sarastro’s profundo “In diesen heil'gen Hallen.” (Within these sacred halls.) The intensity of Pamina’s love for Tamino is easily sensed when she fears that all might be lost between them in “Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden.” (Ah, I feel it, it is vanished).

There are undeniable riches in Mozart’s final opera. The cast for this performance could not be bettered, with Lawrence Brownlee (Tamino), Erin Morley (Pamina), Thomas Oliemans (Papageno), and Stephen Milling (Sarastro). Soprano Kathryn Lewek has sung the Queen of the Night at The Met more than any other soprano in the company’s history. She took to YouTube to share a little bit about the role and this production.

And if the Queen’s vengeful aria was a pivotal entry point for me into the world of opera, it is certainly familiar to many on Earth — and beyond: soprano Edda Moser’s iconic dramatic-soprano interpretation was the only recorded opera excerpt to be included in a collection of music from Earth on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft. Maybe extraterrestrials will fall in love with Mozart, too!

In my teens, the movie Amadeus changed my life forever. It introduced me to classical music and opera—I couldn’t get enough of it.