Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Mozart's The Magic Flute, Or Genderbent Paranormal Romance

I took myself to the opera recently, as Mozart's The Magic Flute was playing at the local theater and it's one of my favorite operas. I love it for its bonkers story and beautiful music, and any production of it I've seen has always gone as all-out as it can on the fantastical story and characters. It also may be because I saw this afterschool animation version of the story when I was young. Nostalgia is a powerful force after all. According to my research, the opera can be as shallowly or deeply read as one desires. From thoughts of it being a political commentary to symbolically portraying freemason ritual, this fairy tale opera has withstood the test of time and continues to capture audience attention.

As I've been enjoying scathing commentaries on badly written paranormal romances recently, both Jenny Trout's 50 Shades of Grey reading and Nella's reading of The Tiger's Curse over on Chez Apocalypse, I was inspired to do a similar commentary of Mozart's famous opera.

Feel free to follow along with one of the many recorded operas on the internet, although for best chance of experiencing both the music and the story, I recommend this playlist of the opera with accompanying English subtitles (does not include the Overture). It is quite strict to the source material, too. Afterward, I'll talk about some of the additions made to the story over time, particularly to the Queen of the Night's character.

Act 1
In the land of fantastical, wherever, the story opens as our brave hero, Prince Tamino, is running for his life from a monster and screaming for help. He promptly faints and the monster is slain by three women in service to the Queen of the Night.
No really, that's what happens. He's our hero, the brave and cunning warrior who will go on this big epic quest and save the day, yet the first experience the audience has of him is passing out and needing to be saved.
The three women then spend a music number gushing about how hot the prince is, and argue about who will go tell the Queen of the Night, and eventually agree to all go so no one is left alone with the prince (hur hur).
During this part I kept thinking of how pretty much any paranormal romance marketed as YA these days has a similar part, wherein the heroine spends an inordinate amount of time spewing about how amazing and beautiful their love interest is.
The second best character in the story then enters, Papageno. Papageno captures birds for the Queen of the Night, but longs for a girlfriend/wife to cuddle and love oh so tenderly. He is a simple soul, a touch cowardly, and a great comic relief aspect in the story.
Depending on the theater company, he is either a bird person, or just a wild man who likes nature and imprisons it for the entertainment of his rich patron (*insert commentary on exotic animal poaching/trapping here). He has even been featured in his own short animation! Either way, if this role is miscast, the whole story suffers, as he must be both effective comic relief and taken seriously throughout his character arc. His whole libretto is so fun! Also depending on the production, all the romance talk can be very creepy, misogynistic, or sweet. Sometimes all at once. 
I know he just sang about catching girls in a net to find a wife, but he looks so sweet and hopeful! #Conflicted
When Tamino wakes, he comes to the conclusion that Papageno slew the beast pursuing him. Brilliant AND brave, our hero! Papageno of course does not discourage this belief. The three women return and punish the bird man by giving him water and stones instead of his usual treats, and also lock his mouth to prevent him telling any more lies.
Again, depending on the production, this bit is either really creepy or mildly funny.
The women then present Tamino with a picture of the Queen's daughter, Pamina, saying she was kidnapped by the wicked Sarastro and won't the brave prince please rescue her? Tamino in response belts out a solo of love at first sight that would put those pop chart teen boppers from any decade to shame. After promising that if Tamino rescues Pamina he can totally marry her, the best character in the opera makes her grand entrance.
The Queen of the Night has hands down the best arias in the whole work, an effective singer and actress really carries the production through. Plus her costume is usually the most badass. 
The Queen's aria here is a mother's grief and plaintive begging for her daughter's return. After praising Tamino, calling him her daughter's gallant saviour, she gifts Tamino with the titular magic flute to help him on his quest and exits.
Although gotta wonder if the Queen has such powerful warrior women and magical resources at her side, why she would think a fainting prince would fare any better at rescuing her daughter, unless the hapless Tamino is supposed to be bait.
Papageno is then freed, and a musical interlude preaching about how wonderful the world would be if all liars wore a lock on their mouths. Also Papageno is roped into helping Tamino, because every prince needs a handy servant friend when going on an adventure. They gift the cowering Papageno with magical chimes (a glockenspiel!) to help with the quest.
I really hope Tamino and Papageno have levels in bard or ranks in the perform skill, or those magic musical instruments won't be of much help in fighting the demons they're being sent against. 
They also bequeath three helpful spirits to guide the two heroes to Sarastro's domain. In this production the three spirits are played by three boys in a balloon, but I've also seen them played as animals, nature spirits, and even fairies.
I wasn't kidding about the balloon
The three spirits promptly get the teleport spell wrong and separate the two. The next scene we finally get a glimpse of Pamina and the men who've kidnapped her. This scene is also an uncomfortable glimpse into the casual racism in the story, and this particular production amped it up to 11:
Blackface, y'all. When having an actual person of color is too difficult.
This unfortunate character is Monostatos, a "Moor" in service to Sarastro. He's clearly one of the bad guys, as his prime motivation in kidnapping Pamina is to have her for himself. It's one of the lazy tropes of writing from days of yore that is still unfortunately very present in modern storytelling: the person of color besmirching the virtue of some poor white girl because the writer needed to show who was the bad guy in an obvious way.
Papageno ends up meeting this fearsome man, and in a marvelously comedic exchange the two scare each other, with Monostatos running away. What luck right? Then there is another funny scene with Papageno attempting to identify Pamina, but thinking she's not the right lady because her picture lacks arms and legs.
 The two share a nice little conversation with some humor thrown in, before taking another musical break to preach at the audience, this time about how great love is! Of course, keeping it totally Christian and implying the best expression of love is being married as man and wife...
Tamino meanwhile is being preached to be steadfast, patient, and use discretion by the three not helpful spirits. He finds Sarastro's sanctuary and proceeds to monologue about vanquishing the evil within. What follows is a rather funny sequence in which Tamino tries to find the portal to face Sarastro, only to have bodiless voices warn him to turn back. So instead of questioning these warnings, he continues to try different portals until he meets with one of Sarastro's brotherhood. As his actions have established thus far, Tamino is not the sharpest tool in the shed. 
Upon finding out that Sarastro is basically the head priest and rules with virtue and wisdom, Tamino starts to question his quest, as it would be totally hypocritical for an evil guy to be a ruler in the good religion of the land. The priest guy has a point though, in asking Tamino why he hates Sarastro so much without any evidence. This part and many of the scenes with Sarastro are highly evident of how 18th century this opera is, for not only do the characters get preachy about virtue, masonic ritual, and the enlightenment of reason in the middle of the plot, but it gets really misogynistic as well. I do like the end of this conversation, though, as Mr. Priest basically says "I can't tell you any more info cuz my oath to my secret club forbids it, so unless you join the secret club we're done, lol"
In fairy tale logic, asking the air if Pamina still lives, it answers back in the affirmative. Overjoyed, Tamino decides to play his magic flute in prayer and gratitude, to which all the animals of the forest are attracted to (and for those following along with the English subtitle version I rec'd, holy cow does it get trippy). Hearing Papageno's flute, Tamino runs off toward the sound. It's weird and hilarious that in this version Tamino never actually plays the flute, just waves it around and it makes noise like the Doctor with his sonic screwdriver on Doctor Who.
Meanwhile, Papageno and Pamina are still running from the bad guys who had caught her earlier. In a hilarious sequence, Papageno takes out his magic chimes as they are captured, and the bad men dance away in a hypnotic fog, the music is so fine. Yet, they do not escape, as Sarastro finally makes his appearance!
Dang, what an entrance.
After Sarastro's entrance chorus (and wow do I want one of those for special events!), Pamina explains that she was only running away because, Monostatos, the guy he hired to kidnap her, was coming onto her and that was just icky, nevermind being kidnapped from her mother's home. Don't worry though, Sarastro is totally cool, he'll punish Monostatos, but Pamina can't go free. Here is another skeevy bit, as during his libretto Sarastro calls the Queen of the Night a vain and arrogant woman, saying that women need to be guided by men in order to be virtuous. Ugh, 18th century gender politics. Still, the abrupt turnaround of events has left more than one opera critic scratching their head. Despite earlier hints that things are not all they seem in this strange fantasy land, Sarastro is a kind and wise ruler seems really sudden.
Tamino enters, and it's love at first sight for both he and Pamina. Sarastro sends Monostatos away to be punished, and if Tamino really wants to wed Pamina, he and Papageno will need to pass three trials to prove their virtue and enter Sarastro's brotherhood. Psst, this is freemasonry stuff! Papageno is understandably less than thrilled to be roped into these shenanigans.
And thus ends Act 1!

Act 2
Beginning where Act 1 left off, Sarastro is leading the ceremony to welcome Tamino and Papageno into the brotherhood. I have read more than one critic who is really moved by Sarastro's song here. The spirituality and baritone range creates and incredible experience, especially live in the theater. Their first trial is is about to begin, and in the very next scene this production continues to be unintentionally funny:

Teleporter malfunction, again?
I think the production team was shipping Tamino/Papageno
Okay, okay, back to the story. Tamino is all ready to risk his life for the sake of friendship and love, Papageno not so much. At least until he's given the promise of his heart's desire: a wife to love and cherish *wink, wink. This part is really where the contrast between the two men is most emphasized. Tamino is willing to seek higher on the hierarchy of needs for spiritual fulfillment, while Papageno is firmly rooted in earthly concerns. In order to pass the first trial, they both must keep silent. No, specifically, they must keep silent toward women. Again, unfortunately, deception is characterized as a feminine trait, and the priests leave. The three warrior women in service to the Queen of Night turn up though, and what's this? The queen has snuck onto the temple grounds! For a trial of silence, there's an awful lot of singing/talking that goes on here. Still, the men succeed by ignoring the women and refusing to talk to them.
Next scene, we spy Monostatos, as he bemoans his appearance as ugly, but questions why he can't find love too. I am still cringing over the blackface, so piling more offensive bullshit here isn't doing any more to sympathise me with this character. Hearing someone enter, he hides to overhear the Queen of the Night enter and perform the best damn song in the whole opera, which is an angry command to her daughter to murder Sarastro. By the way, Diana Damrau is forever the bar by which I measure any Queen of the Night:

Ahh, that voice, the fury of her performance! I love it. 
As an aside, though, is anyone else weirded out by the tree people in the background of the follow along video?
The trees always remember

After the queen leaves, Monostatos pops out and tries to blackmail Pamina into loving him lest he reveal the murder plot to Sarastro. But who should enter and again discard all this built up drama, but Sarastro himself! Seriously, this part is why so many people believe Mozart was making direct political commentary with The Magic Flute. Sarastro was built up in Act 1 as this scary, evil king, but here he explains that no evil or traitorous impulses can exist in the sanctuary, because he and his brethren radiate virtue, love, and forgiveness!
Meanwhile, Tamino and Papageno continue their trials. Or it's the same trial, since they both must still maintain silence. It's possible though that this trial is about dedication considering what's about to happen. Papageno of course, can't shut up to save his life. It's amazing. Though, knowing Papageno isn't all about attaining higher wisdom and all, it's my firm belief that Sarastro's brotherhood decide to test Papageno's dedication in another way. An old woman enters and the two playfully flirt a bit before Papageno realizes this is the woman promised to be his wife and freaks out just a bit. After she leaves, the three spirits return and give the two men their magic instruments as well as some food. Tamino is advised to remain strong, while Papageno once again is told to remain silent. Gotta admit though, without his chatter there wouldn't be much action at this point in the story.
Pamina then enters, and what follows is, I kid not, some of the most angsty conflict I've ever had to witness in theater, and I've seen performances of Romeo and Juliet. She tries in vain to get Tamino to speak with her, even pleads with Papageno to say just one word. Instead they both ignore her. The thing is though, THIS WAS ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY. Tamino and Papageno were instructed to keep silent, not entirely ignore any woman who entered. Still, this is some Bella being rejected by Edward Cullen level angst here: 

Pamina, dejected, sings that if Tamino no longer loves her, then only death can free her from such suffering. I feel I must remind both readers and audiences that Pamina has known Tamino for about 3 minutes of screen time. Yes, yes, fairy tale logic and love at first sight and all. But really!? Suicide because he won't speak to you? The devastation of true love y'all. Another question I have at this part is doesn't Pamina know they are undergoing religious trials or something? That's why I want to think that this is all an illusion constructed by Sarastro to test Tamino's resolve, except it turns out to be completely serious.
Next scene all seems well, Tamino is greeted by Sarastro and his brethren, and Pamina is brought in to say goodbye before Tamino leaves on his last trial.
Next we return to Papageno as he is once again wandering around lost somewhere. Seriously, he needs a magic compass. In another hilarious exchange, a priest comes out and again tries to solicit Papageno to buy into seeking heavenly wisdom. Papageno would rather have a glass of wine.
ALONE, thank you!
He sings again of having a lovely woman to be his wife. I confess, it's really cute, despite being really shallow. The old woman shows up again, and declares that if he won't take her hand in marriage, he'll be lost in darkness forever. Grudgingly, he agrees. AND GUESS WHAT HAPPENS.
This is some Wife of Bath-level inception here. Predictably, Papageno now actively works for his reward now that he knows what that will be.
Next scene the three spirits are hanging around when they spy Pamina about to commit suicide with the dagger her mother gave her. They talk her down and bring her to where Tamino is undergoing his final trial.
So now we are at the scene of Tamino's final trial before being declared Enlightened and accepted into Sarastro's brother...wait what.
What are these costumes!?
Okay distraction over, let's continue. Tamino must be cleansed by the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. Conquering his fear of death, he will achieve Enlightenment and ascend to heaven, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, Pamina shows up, and Tamino is allowed to speak to her. So, happy and overjoyed to be together, the loving couple enter the temple to face whatever the future brings with only their love and the magic flute to protect them. After they walk through fire and water, the two are considered consecrated and may enter the temple. I know the green screen effects aren't too dramatic, but most stage versions aren't any flashier. Also, the way Tamino still holds the flute like its the Doctor's sonic screwdriver is just as amusing as it was before.
Back to Papageno, he is frantically searching for his Papagena. After shouting in vain for awhile, he decides that life is too painful to live without her. In either tragic comedy or comical tragedy, he sets up a rope to hang himself from a tree, but can't seem to make the final jump and end it all. This part involves a lot of audience participation usually, it can be really fun. Luckily the three spirits find him and help him out before he hurts himself. He uses the magic bells to call his lovely lady to his side. The two celebrate with a love duet and start discussing having a large family. If well acted, this performance is really funny.
Next, we see Monostatos leading the Queen of the Night and her three warriors to attack the temple. Monostatos had bargained to help the queen if he got Pamina. However, something...happens...and their power is destroyed and they're sent to hell, or something. This is literally the writers going, "Oops, gotta wrap up this loose end! Uhhh, they lose their powers because reasons, so they just leave!" And yes, I know this act is actually metaphor, it's spelled out in the last song: sunshine disperses the night and takes the power of fraudsters. IT'S STILL SUDDEN AND WAY TOO CONVENIENT.
Sarastro and the chorus congratulate the new initiates and welcome Tamino and Pamina into the temple.
The End!

There are many, many essays online right now analyzing Mozart's opera, ranging from the structure of the music to the symbolism of masonic rituals. One thing I keep seeing, though, is adding different story elements to try and make sense of the plot. Especially with the Queen of the Night's motivations. In comics and cartoons where being able to follow a cohesive story is important, such changes when adapting the opera are understandable.

For instance, in this BBC animation special, the Queen is shown to be jealous of Sarastro receiving the dying sun king's source of wisdom and power. Therefore when she spies a prince wandering on the border of her kingdom, she hatches a plot to send the prince to kill Sarastro. Having the queen be the one who sends the monster after the prince in the first place and make him indebted to her by saving him with her "warrior women" is kind of brilliant. It makes the twist during Act 1 that Sarastro is not the villain a lot easier to swallow. Plus, it's one of the better depictions of Papageno that I've seen, for all the weird stylistic choices in art. Another aspect to the story as may have been noticed from this afterschool animation version of the story I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, is that Pamina is Sarastro's daughter, making the whole opera a drawn out custody battle. This addition to the queen's character is often seen in graphic novel adaptations as well. When the story is done well, it fleshes out the Queen's character more, without detracting from the fact she's an evil woman full of  spite.
Unlike some others I could mention
Regardless of how deeply you read into it, Mozart's The Magic Flute is an enjoyable fairy tale with wonderful music. And I can certainly admire the spirit of the drama even if it's content is not always palatable to my 21st century sensibilities.