The Magic Flute and I go way back, all the way to 1958, when, as a bright-eyed boy of 12, I saw it at Vienna's Volksoper Wien. It was my first opera. My family had recently moved to Vienna, and I was just beginning to soak up the bottomless ocean of musical culture in that old European city. I remember sitting there between my mom and dad, about 10 rows back from the stage, wondering what the heck I was in for, even though I already knew I really liked Mozart. Then the conductor appeared, and within seconds, the overture's three massive opening chord fanfares were ringing in my startled ears, and the music that followed sent chills racing up and down my spine.
Then the curtain rose, and, according to my parents, I let out an audible, open-mouthed gasp as the strange set appeared. There stood our hero, the young noble prince Tamino, cowering and singing desperately for help as an obviously fake but still menacing dragon-like monster closed in on him. Three ladies, minions of the villainous Queen of the Night, then arrived to vanquish the serpent just as Tamino fainted. Presently, a strange man appeared, dressed in an absurd, feathery bird-suit: Papageno, the queen's official bird-catcher (he's kind of feather-brained). As Tamino awoke, Papageno (a liar and coward too) told him in plain speech that it was he who had valiantly killed the monster, whereupon the three ladies returned to punish him by locking his lips shut to prevent any further lies. From there, all he could do was comically hum his lines.
You get the idea. Unfolding before me was an obvious fairy tale, and a funny one, perfect fare for youngsters. I couldn't yet understand the German being spoken and sung, but my dad had found me a plot synopsis beforehand, so I pretty much knew what was going on. Right from the start, I was swept up into a strange, irresistible new world of magical objects and deeds, characters both serious and weird, plus nonstop musical delights. While it wasn't apparent right away exactly who the good guys and the bad guys were, even a kid could peg the goings-on as a basic tale of good versus evil, along with love stories and plenty of slapstick and buffoonery.
As a child, I didn't tune into the deeper meanings of this most unusual opera. Like, for instance, the fact that The Magic Flute happens in threes: three chords in the overture, three ladies, and, as the opera unfolds, three boys, three priests, and three slaves appear.
The number three figures prominently in Masonic symbolism. This — plus assorted subtleties in the storyline — makes it a work that can be seen as a potent allegory of the sort of "enlightened" governmental philosophy espoused by Freemasonry. After all, Mozart was a Freemason, as was his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder.
The music conveys moods ranging from lighthearted and whimsical to dramatic and menacing. Its originality and sophistication captivates kids from nine to 90. Despite my tender age, the wicked Queen's vocal acrobatics in her two famous (and beastly difficult) arias left my jaw on the floor. Indeed, if it's done right, this is an opera that will not only enchant any sensitive child, but touch the inner one of most adults, while giving their more grown-up sensibilities something a bit meatier to chew on between bouts of laughter.
The Magic Flute is a rather sophisticated example of the German "singspiel" (song-play), a popular form of light comic musical theater in Mozart's day that employs both singing and spoken dialogue. The singspiel was musical theater for the masses rather than the upper classes and royalty, fairly lowbrow, inexpensive, even undignified entertainment. Ordinary folks would often bring their entire families to see them, so there had to be something to keep the kids from getting bored and unruly. Magic Flute has all of these characteristics and more, yet the genius of Mozart somehow transcends the bourgeois form, raising the piece to such a level of artistry that it's now considered a grand opera. But to its creators, it was not so much a matter of producing great art as it was of producing cold, hard cash, a factor that this production's co-directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, emphasized in a recent interview. Schikaneder's theater had run out of money, and he desperately needed a smash hit; Mozart's music had fallen out of favor with the fickle Viennese public. Both were flat broke, and they threw the piece together, intending to make quick money. To capture the public's fancy, there had to be magic — lots of magic.
For this Magic Flute (already seen in Europe), Leiser and Caurier sought to amplify the work's inherent magic, employing as many tricks as they could find. "Or at least as many as we could afford," they say, declining to be specific. "It won't be magic if you explain in advance how it's done, and we want you to be as shocked and surprised as everybody else in the audience. Only then can you tell us afterward if it worked."
To emphasize the magic, the set will be minimal with very few props, leaving the stage mostly empty. As the directors explain, "With an empty stage, magic can happen anywhere. You never know where it's going to come from." Achieving a lighthearted, consistently humorous atmosphere is also one of their goals. "Sure enough," they say, "there's lots of Masonic content and symbolism — but we mostly make fun of it. And there's no hidden Masonic agenda."
To them, The Magic Flute boils down to a timeless, fantastical coming-of-age story of an adolescent youth and the various trials he must undergo as he adjusts to adult society, including the very confusing matter of young love. The hormone-wracked lad falls helplessly in love with a portrait of Pamina, his heroine, early on. But this is the idealized, noble love of a young aristocrat, distinctly different from that of Papageno, the commoner bird-man. He just wants a woman to feed him and, er, you know. Thus is revealed the parallel theme of class distinction, a common feature in the singspiels of the day, one of the only ways you could get away with lampooning high society back then.
The directors also point out that the line between good and evil is rather blurred. The supposedly nasty Queen of the Night has her virtues, while Sarastro — the alleged patriarchal embodiment of human goodness and wisdom — has his flaws. Maybe that's why, even as a kid, I had a hard time telling the good and bad guys apart. Sure enough, Sarastro's bright sunshine vanquishes the Queen's dark night in the end, but his victory ends up ringing a bit hollow.
All else appears to be in order: the young and comparatively unseasoned singers are the rising stars of tomorrow. "Just wait 'til you see and hear our Papageno," the directors say.
The opera's "three boys" roles will be performed by genuine boy trebles, something not often heard in America, where a general lack of capable and experienced boy singers means that women are usually hired to play the roles. The orchestral support will come from members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
Finally, as the directors took pains to point out, "When all is said (or sung) and done, perhaps the ultimate magic is to be found in the music. After all, music is what the opera's magical artifacts (flute and glockenspiel) produce. And the precise effect of music upon the human psyche remains something mysterious that we still can't pin down."
For me, I'll be there at the Sottile on opening night, perched on the edge of my seat, my inner child revved up and ready for some real magic as the curtain rises. And I fully expect that neither of us will be disappointed.