The Magic Flute, K. 620, was written in 1791 in the shadow of the French Revolution. This upheaval and the events that followed were extensively covered in the Viennese press. In Austria-Hungary, the Revolution strengthened the hands of conservatives; in 1790 Joseph II imposed more rigid censorship and backed away from some of the more important reforms of his earlier years. Political and satirical themes all but disappeared from the theater and books and conversation in Vienna’s famed coffee houses as people become more cautious and pessimistic.
The Magic Flute is the product of a collaboration between Mozart and Emanuel Schickaneder. It was first performed in September 1791 at Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden. The opera drew a full house and had over one hundred performances. Mozart expressed his delight at its success in his last three letters, to his wife, in Baden bei Wien with her sister. He went almost every night with friends and relations to hear his opera.97Magic Flute is a Singspiel, which is itself as an amalgam of different traditions: Jesuit drama in southern Germany and Austria, Hanswurst comedies in the Viennese Theater and commedia dell'arte, brought to Vienna by touring troupes from elsewhere in Europe.98 Joseph II was favorably disposed to German-language theater and opera and created the Deutsches National Theater in 1776. He hoped that comedy would engage more serious and ethical themes. Singspiel moved to cheaper suburban theaters, closer to its audience. Schickaneder's Theater auf der Wieden competed with the rival Leopoldstadt Theater, and his involvement in the Magic Flute may have been motivated in the first instance by commercial considerations.99
The Magic Flute’s libretto had its roots in Jakob Liebeskind’s Lulu, oder Die Zauberflöte. It was based in turn on Christoph Martin Wieland's Dschinnistan, a collection of fairy tales. In this latter work, a prince enters the realm of the "radiant fairy" who inspires him to rescue her daughter and capture an evil sorcerer. She provides him with a magic flute to help in accomplishing both tasks. The queen is benign and the story is pure entertainment.100 Schickaneder also drew on Jean Terasson's Egyptian tale Sethos, written in about 1777.101 The eponymous hero is subjected to trials of fire and water and emerges through a passageway flanked with statues of Isis, Osiris and Horus. Papageno, presumably a play on Papagei, the German word for parrot, is Schickaneder's invention.
Schickaneder was born in Straubing, a small Danube port, in 1751. His father died when he was young and his mother supported them by selling devotional objects in front of the Regensburg cathedral. Emanuel was sent to a Jesuit school for several years but ran off with a traveling acting troupe. He was a versatile singer, dancer and impresario, and had a flair for managing people and money. He was widely read and a man of sophisticated taste. He learned by heart and performed most of the classics of German theater, but his first love was Shakespeare, and especially Hamlet. He was very much into gadgets and special effects, including dramatic lighting, elevators, fires, waterfalls and flight machines. Schickaneder worked in the ensemble at the Burgtheater and was later able to open his own theater with money his wife inherited from the man with whom she had earlier absconded. When her lover died, she returned to Vienna and went into partnership with Schickaneder, who, with additional backers, built the 2,200 seat Theater auf der Wieden.102
Magic Flute breaks new ground musically. Mozart no longer relies on harmonic color, so prominently exploited in his other mature operas; chromatic inflexions are confined within a transparent diatonic framework (the standard seven note musical scale of whole and half notes comprising an octave). The overture, with its fugal design, is simple but achieves a remarkable degree of local and overall coherence.103 It opens with three solemn chords in E flat major. This triadic structure is taken up in sequence by trombones, cellos, basses and finally, the violins. They establish a mystical aura and return in the same form later in the opera to herald the arrival of the priests. They also reappear as dotted triads that are developed in diverse ways. As in Don Giovanni, the dialogue, singing and music are mutually supportive, move the plot forward and explore the core themes of the opera. Mozart moves away from the standard arrangement of distinct recitative and singing, allowing voice and song to flow into one another as the action requires. Because it is a Singspiel, there are strophic songs, three of them sung by Papageno. These innovations reflect Mozart’s gradual move away from classical form after 1786.104
Ever since its premiere, the Magic Flute has been considered the most enigmatic of operas. Critics contend that it changes course in mid-stream. Tamino encounters a mother – the Queen of the Night -- mourning her daughter, who has been abducted by a seemingly evil wizard. Later we learn that Sarastro, who is not exactly a wizard, is wise and the Queen of the Night evil, leading Tamino to switch sides, but without losing his romantic interest in Pamina. Hero and heroine are cardboard characters, who fall in love at first sight, or in the case of Tamino, from merely viewing a portrait. They undergo an ordeal of water and fire and are subsequently united by Sarastro. We witness a confrontation between the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, Papageno’s quest for a wife, a Moorish palace guard stalker and would-be rapist, various priests, lady attendants, slaves, boys, men in armor, a rather ineffectual dragon and wild animals made tame by magic flute or bells. An early twentieth century music historian proclaimed: “To go through the opera taking the libretto simply at its face value is to justify all the unintelligent criticisms of the last hundred years.”105 This may be one reason why from the beginning Mozart aficionados have treated the libretto as an allegory and have looked behind its plot and its characters for deeper meanings.
By the early nineteenth century, Austro-German commentators had discovered conservative, revolutionary and Masonic Deutungen in the opera. The Masonic reading continued to find support in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.106 The most extreme formulation of this thesis, by Jacques Chailley, finds Masonic symbolism in every detail of the libretto and insists that Tamino and Pamina must be understood in terms of the duality represented by Sarastro and the Queen of the Night.107 Many twentieth century readings are influenced by psychoanalysis. Joscelyn Godwin deploys the Jungian archetypes of animus and anima to understand the opera as an allegory about esoteric organizations.108 Michael Levey makes the case for Pamina as the focal point of the opera and radically different from Mozart's other women. In Act I she is largely passive and offered by her mother as Tamino's reward for an heroic quest. In Act II, she becomes a figure in her own right by embracing an abstract, even Platonic form of love. It becomes a vehicle for her personal growth, while Tamino loses stature as his fate merges with hers.109
Pursuing a parallel line of inquiry, Dorothy Koenigsberger constructs Tamino and Pamina, and all the principal characters, as constituent components of one psyche and soul.110 Bauman treats Tamino and Pamina as co-equal personalities that ultimately merge. In contrast to many earlier readings, based entirely on the libretto, Bauman complements textual with musical argument. He finds special meaning in the ritornelli (An instrumental interlude after each stanza in a vocal work) used to establish the principal characters.111 Nicholas Till, also drawing on music and libretto, sees the opera as Rosicrucian allegory.112 Feminist readings have also proliferated. Brigid Brophy maintains that despite all its sexist stereotypes, Magic Flute is really feminist because Pamina symbolizes women's independence.113 Kristi Brown-Montesano portrays the Queen of the Night as an über-antiheroine.114 Rose Subotnick builds her interpretation around the Queen and her "unnatural" role in an opera that otherwise stresses the natural.115
One of the striking features of these interpretations of the Magic Flute is the narrow range of characters on which they base their arguments. Their focus is overwhelmingly on Tamino and Pamina as a couple, and secondarily, on Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. Hardly a thought is devoted to Papageno, who is dismissed as a standard issue buffo clown. Lesser figures, like the three ladies in waiting or Monostatos and his henchmen, are all but ignored. Analyses of Don Giovanni naturally focus on the eponymous Don, but devote appropriate attention to other characters. The difference, I believe, reflects traditional understandings of opera libretti. Opera seria and later romantic operas often revolve around the fate of couples. They were originally tenor- castrati pairs, and then tenor-sopranos, once women were allowed on stage. Baritones and basses were given supporting roles. As we have seen, Don Giovanni mixes opera seria with opera buffa and stretches many of the rules of both genres. Its complex textual and musical structure require interpreters to engage all the major characters. Moreover, these characters interact much more with Don Giovanni than with one another and these interactions bring out their qualities as well as those of the Don. The Magic Flute is a German Singspiel, although Mozart transgresses genre by mixing upper class, opera seria characters with rustic folk from Hanswurst and commedia dell' arte, and aristocratic minuets with the folksy Ländlers.
In the hermeneutic tradition, E. D. Hirsch maintains that a valid interpretation should be reproducible, stable over time and capture its creator’s intentions.116 Contemporary scholars have moved away from the idea of definitive interpretations and are more inclined to expose multiple "layers of meaning."117 They also recognize, as Nietzsche observed, that the wealth of texts far exceeds the intentions of the authors and cultures that produced them.118 Although deciphering a text at temporal distance is a difficult exercise, there are compensating advantages. Generations of engagement with a written or musical work identify anomalies, draw out allegedly hidden meanings and find new questions that can promote more complex readings. Over time, these interpretations, which include commentary and criticism of earlier interpretations, establish a tradition that provides readers with insights and understandings unavailable to their creators.119 The claim that we might understand a text better than its authors sounds arrogant but rests on solid ground. Historical distance put authors and their creations into perspective by allowing us to situate them along broader trend lines and to see implications of their arguments, art or music that they not have envisaged or intended "Depth hermeneutics" acknowledges that authors may purposely embed meanings for readers to tease out, as so many interpreters of the Magic Flute allege. Such a process can also be unconscious, or only partially deliberate, and reflect tensions in the creator’s mind or culture. Paul Ricoeur advocates a "hermeneutics of suspicion" to ferret out meanings buried deeply in authors' unconscious but accessible through their texts.120 Hermeneutic philosophers are divided in their opinion about whether the search for hidden meanings can lead to better understandings, as Apel and Habermas suggest, or merely, as Gadamer insists, a plurality of interpretations.121
Following Ricoeur, I offer a reading of the Magic Flute consistent with text and music but not necessarily reflective of all their authors' conscious intentions. I start from the uncontroversial assumption that Schickaneder and Mozart produced a libretto – it was very much a joint effort -- that drew on existing texts to create a world that incorporated features of golden age and utopian discourses. The world of Sarastro and his priests was utopian in its embodiment of Enlightenment principles, above all the role of reason as the vehicle for individual growth and maturation and the basis for a just society. It qualifies as a golden age because it was set in the past, seemingly in an ancient Egypt that never was. On a superficial level, it represents the triumph of light over darkness and reason over emotions. Sarastro personifies reason and the Queen of the Night destructive emotion. This male-female characterization builds on age-old gender stereotypes, and the association of light with reason and darkness with disruptive emotions is also deeply rooted in Western culture. This symbolism is most evident in the final scene when the Queen of the Night and her henchmen are dispatched to the underworld and Pamina and Tamino united by reason-informed love. As dawn breaks, Sarastro proclaims “The sun's rays drive out the night, destroy the ill-gotten power of the dissemblers!” Before the curtain comes down, the chorus turns to Pamina and Tamino and sings:
Hail to you on your consecration!
You have penetrated the night,
thanks be given to you,
Osiris, thanks to you, Isis!
Strength has triumphed, rewarding
beauty and wisdom with an everlasting crown!
This dénouement and chorus’ fulsome praise of Sarastro should leave us with an uncomfortable feeling. It is one of many entry points that encourage reading the opera as a dystopia, and it is this darker side on which I concentrate. Mozart, and possibly Schickaneder, were undoubtedly aware of many of the contradictions in their libretto. Sarastro deprives a mother of her child and maintains a sadistic, would-be rapist as head of his palace guard. When Sarastro discovers Monostatos’ evil doings, he subjects him to the bastinado, a punishment at odds with progressive thought of the day. Any self-professed eighteenth century Aufklärer [disciple of the Enlightenment], let alone a Free Mason, would recognize these and other contradictions between ideology and practice. I contend these contradictions are neither incidental nor arbitrary, but inescapable features of a political system whose rulers are unconstrained by elections, checks and balances, courts and other democratic institutions. The Magic Flute envisages an authoritarian, even quasi totalitarian, society that effectively undermines the Enlightenment vision of a reason-based order.
Schiller, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, maintains that purely rational plans for reform in a society where citizens have not yet achieved moral maturity are certain to lead to oppression. His Don Carlos (1783-87) which Verdi among others, set to music, shows how reforms authored by the best intentioned of men can result in despotism. Mozart and Schickaneder clearly had a precursor, if not a model, but neither they nor Schiller could possibly have imagined the true horrors of modern, so-called totalitarian, regimes. We who have experienced the twentieth century can read between the lines – or beyond the lines, if necessary – to grasp the darker features of their libretto and see disturbing parallels between the dictatorship of Sarastro and those of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. These leaders – and they are not alone -- have made us painfully aware of the baneful consequences of the cult of personality. We can accordingly approach libretto and music with sensitivities and foreknowledge unavailable to Mozart, Schickaneder and their contemporaries. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century Magic Flute can be read as a dystopia in which the seeming order, tranquility and happiness of its finale is more apparent than real and the product of brainwashing and coercion.
The best way of illuminating the dark side of Magic Flute is by direct comparison with one of the horrendous regimes of the past century. If we can map the characters and plot of the opera on to one of these regimes without doing injustice to them or sacrificing the magic, color and slapstick features of the libretto, we can make a credible case that Sarastro’s world presages theirs. I accordingly ask readers to participate in a thought experiment: the staging of Magic Flute in China during the Cultural Revolution. This setting – intended as the quintessential totalitarian regime -- encourages a novel, but I believe, compelling, interpretation of the three principal dramas of the opera: the struggle between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, Tamino’s quest for love and enlightenment, and Papageno’s longing for a wife.
Sarastro is presented as the personification of a wise and benevolent ruler. He dispatches the evil Queen of the Night and her co-conspirators to the underworld and unites Tamino and Pamina in marriage after they prove themselves worthy. Papageno gets the consolation prize of Papagena and the promise of a family. Sarastro is a philosopher-king, unlike any ruler of Mozart’s day, and Schickaneder and Mozart appear to be suggesting that the wisdom and justice that distinguish Sarastro’s domain can only be achieved in a world where men are enlightened and ruled by selfless leaders. There is considerable evidence that Mozart was drawn to this vision of human perfectibility; he was a Mason and Magic Flute is filled with Masonic symbolism. Many Masons and other Aufklärers believed that properly constructed governments could use laws and education to bring out the best qualities of human beings. Marxism would became the most powerful institutional expression of this vision, and for the most part brought to power leaders who governed in their own interest, not that of the masses. The cult of the personality -- which leaders like Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung imposed by fiat and maintained by terror -- led to suffering on an unprecedented scale.
Viewed in this light, the opening scenes of Act Two are absolutely chilling. Sarastro, followed lock step by uniformed priests, marches into the temple where, with unbridled arrogance, he declares “with clear conscience [reiner Seele] that today’s gathering is one of the most important of our time.” He praises Pamina as gentle and virtuous but denounces her mother as an enemy of the state. She is a proud woman who “hopes by delusion [Blendwerk] and superstition to destroy the firm structure of our temple.” A priest arises to acknowledge this pronouncement as more words of wisdom from our dearly beloved “Great Sarastro.” Such a scene could have taken place at any party congress in the days of Stalin or Mao.
If Sarastro represents Mao Zedong, the Queen of the Night and her three assistants are the “Gang of Four.” Like Madame Mao, the Queen had a familial relationship with the Great Leader, but was purged. She is hatching a plot to gain power; and, like Madame Mao, attempts to enlist disgruntled members of the palace guard to stage a murderous coup. The Queen of the Night has a great sense for drama; her entrances are elaborately staged, her dialogue is emotional and her gestures are theatrical. But then, Madame Mao was a film actress.
In most productions of Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night is cast as a villain who rebels against the legitimate and admirable rule of Sarastro and ends up with the punishment she so richly deserves. But the Queen of the Night has a legitimate grievance, even if her methods of redress are extreme. Sarastro has banished her, abducted her daughter and is trying to “brain wash” Pamina into accepting his authority and severing any ties to her mother. The perverse character of Sarastro is equally apparent in his need to maintain a phalanx of vicious “Red Guards,” headed by the notorious Monostatos. He uses them to guard Pamina and keep her prisoner within the walls of his “Forbidden City.” Sarastro is aware of Monostatos’ abuse of his authority, but turns a blind eye when it is convenient. Like many dictators, this is how he guarantees the loyalty of his palace guard. Only after Monostatos’ second attempt to rape Pamina does Sarastro order him punished -- tortured, actually -- with no more than seventy-seven lashes on the soles of his feet. There is little to distinguish Sarastro from the Queen of the Night. Their conflict, like that between Mao’s successors and the Gang of Four, is little more than a power struggle.
Pamina has been successfully “reeducated” by Sarastro. Caught by Monostatos while attempting to escape, she confesses to Sarastro: “I am a criminal; I wanted to escape from your power.”122 She nevertheless retains her bond with mom and does not refuse outright to join her plot against Sarastro. Pamina accepts a dagger from her mother's hand but cannot bring herself to plunge it into Sarastro’s heart. Her strongest feelings are for Tamino and she risks her life to lead him through his ordeals of fire and water -- more about these in a moment. Sarastro has, of course, planned their relationship; it is all part of his well-conceived strategy to weaken or break Pamina’s ties with her mother. He has reduced Pamina to such a state of emotional dependence that she contemplates suicide when Tamino, sworn to silence by Sarastro, will not speak to her. Sarastro triumphs in the end. Pamina is so overjoyed at being reunited with Tamino that she accepts Sarastro’s authority and does not utter a peep when her mother is sent off to the underworld, the equivalent of some awful communist Gulag.
Tamino’s and Pamina’s enchanting duet," Mann und Weib und Weib und Mann” celebrates spiritual as well as physical union; the music soars to suggest a higher level of relationship. They are wed to the Party and its ideals, not just to each other. Their relationship provides an interesting contrast to non-Party members Papageno and Papagena, who share an ordinary physical union. Tamino is the most enigmatic figure in the opera. He first appears on stage fleeing a dragon and faints from fright. Three women Valkyries conveniently arrive, kill the monster and tell the revived Tamino that he has been chosen to rescue the Queen of the Night’s daughter. They show him Pamina’s picture; he falls immediately in love and sets off to save her from the evil Sarastro. As for Papageno, they place a padlock on his lips to punish him for falsely claiming to have killed the dragon. They sing: ”If all liars were to receive such a padlock over their mouths! Then instead of hate, calumny, and black rancor, love and brotherhood would reign.” Doublespeak must replace free speech.
When Tamino arrives at Sarastro’s palace, he learns that Sarastro is the high priest of wisdom and begs to be initiated into his order even if it means putting aside his earlier goal of rescuing and fleeing with Pamina. In the ordeals that follow, he displays the courage he lacked when pursued by the dragon. How do we make sense of all these changes in goal and character? One solution is to see Tamino as the typical, pusillanimous intellectual searching for answers but unable to find them on his own. Like many of his real-life twentieth-century counterparts, he needs the answers and discipline provided by the Party and gains courage through his commitment and subservience to it. Tamino’s weakness is evident in his fainting fit in the first scene. The beast, a “running dragon of imperialism,” symbolizes the temptations of egoistic materialism from which the young Tamino is trying, without noticeable success, to escape. His ambivalence is signaled by his repeated stops to look back at the dragon, essential if he to stay on stage long enough to sing his aria. These are hardly the moves of someone intent on escaping from a life-threatening predator.
Tamino’s weakness is further revealed by how easily he is manipulated by the vying contenders for power. The Queen of the Night makes her grand appearance after Tamino has been primed by seeing her daughter’s picture. She sings her famous aria, in which she rages against Sarastro and promises Pamina’s hand to Tamino to strengthen his resolve to undertake the dangerous mission she demands. For most of Act One, Tamino does the Queen of the Night’s bidding. With Papageno, he locates Pamina and almost succeeds in escaping with her from the Forbidden City. Sarastro conveniently appears, lectures Tamino on the evils of the Queen of the Night, orders Monostatos disciplined and decrees that Tamino and Pamina undergo trials to test their worthiness.
In Act Two, Tamino falls completely under Sarastro’s sway. He risks his life to prove his steadfastness, constancy and courage. Sarastro then welcomes the lovers into the Consecrated Band, perhaps as "candidate members." The real test of Tamino is not the flimflam of fire and water but his loyalty to the Great Leader. Tamino is sworn to silence. Pamina, who does not know of his vow, is heart-broken when the two first meet and her expressions of love are met by stony silence. Pamina’s suffering is clearly visible to Tamino, who nevertheless remains speechless even when his beloved, now in a state of utter despair, hints at suicide [Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen, so wird Ruh’ im Tode sein!]. Sarastro has set up this little encounter to see if Tamino will not only forsake his love, but allow Pamina to take her life, if that is what he and the Party demand. In 1948, Stalin ordered his closest associate, foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, to divorce his wife, Polina Zhemchuzina, on the spurious charge that she was part of the fictitious “Jewish Doctors’ plot.” Molotov did as instructed, and the following year, when Polina was arrested, he abstained in the vote against her. He further abased himself by writing a note to the Central Committee acknowledging the wisdom of their decision and that it was “in the interests of the Party and the state.” Polina was liberated only after Stalin’s death in 1953. Sarastro is more benign -- or simply more secure and smarter than Stalin -- and reunites the lovers as soon as he has established mastery over them. Has Tamino found enlightenment? Or, like so many idealistic twentieth century intellectuals, has he foolishly committed his life to the Party and its Leader, who will ultimately betray him and his ideals? If so, Tamino is not the hero of the opera but its dupe.
Papageno offers a striking contrast. A simple Naturmensch, he wants nothing to do with politics or enlightenment. He is nevertheless drawn into a relationship with the Queen of the Night because she provides the necessities of life in return for the birds he catches. Papageno is an informer; his colorful, singing birds being allegorical references to anyone who stands out, speaks his or her mind or acts independently and thereby constitutes a threat to the system, or at least that part of it controlled by the Queen of the Night. Papageno’s hopes and energies are focused on obtaining a wife and living with her free of the Queen’s interference. He helps Tamino to liberate Pamina only because he cannot afford to antagonize the Queen. He subsequently keeps Tamino company during the first of his ordeals because of his sense of loyalty to his new-found friend. We are supposed to pity Papageno because he lacks the intelligence, imagination and moral fiber to become one of the Consecrated Band. But in the land of Sarastro and party discipline, caught in the midst of a no-holds-barred power struggle, the upwardly mobile man is the fool. During Stalin’s purges and Mao's Cultural Revolution, workers and peasants were much more likely to survive than Party members, and mortality was highest among those in leadership positions.
Papageno is wise in another way. Food, drink, companionship, sex and access to the beauty of nature -- the simple pleasures of life -- may be the most profound. Love and loyalty, and the thoughtfulness and self-sacrifice they encourage, may constitute the real road to enlightenment. If so, the world needs more Papagenos and fewer Taminos, a judgment with which Mozart would almost certainly have agreed. His operas consistently reveal a preference for lower class figures over aristocrats, in large part because they are without pretension and more in touch with their emotions and needs. This realization casts the final scene of the opera in an even more jaundiced light. Having foiled the plot against him and condemned the conspirators to their fate, Sarastro proclaims in front of everyone else that the rays of sunshine -- the sevenfold circle of the sun is the symbol of Sarastro’s power -- have driven out the night and destroyed the hypocrites who obtained their power by fraud [Die Strahlen der Sonne vertreiben die Nacht, zernichten der Heuchler erschlichene Macht!]. All we are missing is a show trial.
Papageno also offers a nice contrast with Pamina. He too contemplates suicide because he is deprived of love, and life without love has become intolerable. He yearns for a Papagena, a boon companion, with whom he can make love, cuddle at night and raise children. Papageno is nevertheless reluctant to throw away his life; after putting his head in a noose, he desperately prolongs his count to three in the hope his fortune will miraculously change. Sarastro has toyed with Papageno by initially sending him Papagena in the form of an old hag and then snatching her away when she reveals herself to be a young, voluptuous and hot-blooded woman. Only when Papageno is willing to sacrifice himself is he rewarded. The three young boys intervene at the last moment, and Papageno gets his Papagena. They sing their joyous duet celebrating their love and politically incorrect commitment to a large family.
The boys deserve a sidebar. They are prepubescent, sing with as yet unchanged voices, provide sustenance and advice to Tamino and Papageno and save Papageno from suicide. Their noble behavior, presumably inspired by Sarastro, is intended as a counterpoint to the three women who work for the Queen of the Night, lust after Tamino, send him on his quest for love, punish Papageno by locking up his lips and assist the Queen in her attempted assassination and coup. A distinguishing feature of communist regimes has been their effort to indoctrinate children from a young age, infuse them with loyalty to the state and even turn them against their parents. It is no surprise that Sarastro uses young, impressionable minds to do his bidding.
Papageno’s fate can be read as a cautionary political message. Sarastro may be an absolute ruler, but even he requires the acquiescence of the masses. Toward this end, he must provide them with the necessities of life -- as the Queen of the Night does for Papageno -- and also some hope of joy in their personal lives. Pushed to extremes, the masses will take dramatic steps, even rebel. But when their needs are satisfied, they are generally too focused on their own lives to become truly loyal and self-sacrificing supporters of the system. They will do what is expected of them as part of a calculated strategy to minimize the intrusion of authority into their daily lives.
In a production of this kind a few changes must be made in the text. An obvious example is early in Act I when Tamino tells Papageno that he is of princely blood, and that his father rules over many lands and peoples. References to gods and royalty would never do in Communist China, so Tamino’s father must become a regional party secretary. In Act Two, the priest-speaker, now a member of the Central Committee, will describe Tamino as a worker’s son. Sarastro’s castle in the mountains will become the Forbidden City, and some party-appropriate substitution must be found for the temple of trials. Appeals to Isis and Osiris will be to Marx and Lenin. The odd reference to Red Guards, imperialist enemies and the toiling masses can be inserted where appropriate. And then, of course, there is the famous duet of Papageno and Papagena where they imagine producing a score of little Papagenos and Papagenas. In one-child- only China, this is unacceptable, and Party officials must quickly put an end to this joyous but politically incorrect fantasy.
Costumes offer considerable opportunity to reinforce the theme and message of the production. The orchestra will wear Mao suits. This will signal the venue even before the curtain rises. Most of the cast will also don Mao suits; drab uniformity being a central feature of Communist China in the 1960s. Sarastro and his Central Committee will do the same. Sarastro will be distinguished by the color of his suit -- gray rather than blue -- and the large Order of Lenin on his chest. Members of the Central Committee will carry Mao books at their side at all times. Monostatos and his henchmen will dress as Red Guards. So will the Queen of the Night and her three women assistants. As Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are sworn adversaries but fundamentally alike, it is important that they wear the same garb. Like Sarastro, the Queen of the Night will sport a blue Mao suit to distinguish her from her assistants, but might have a red silk scarf in lieu of an Order of Lenin, and a black veil, to hide her face, in her opening aria.
Visual contrast will be provided by Papageno, Papagena and the dragon. The bird catcher and his future bride will be clad in the usual brightly colored finery, replete with requisite feathers. Papageno, of course, needs a bird cage. The “running dragon of imperialism” must be a long, slinky dragon of the kind featured at Chinese New Year’s celebrations. It will have some additional distinguishing features. Its scales should be colored to reveal the patterns of the American and Taiwanese flags. Elsewhere, it should have clearly visible logos (e.g., Coca Cola, SONY, Mercedes) representing the kinds of Western products Chinese with materialist inclinations aspire to own. Portable radios might hang from the dragon’s scales and swing back and forth as it slithers across the stage. At the risk of historical anachronism, it might even sport a baseball cap with a Nike swoosh.
Removing Magic Flute from its make-believe, pseudo-Egyptian context and staging it in a real and recent setting makes it possible to show the universality of its underlying themes. Chief among these are the conflicts between freedom and authority, and loyalty to friends and family versus allegiance to the state. Schickaneder and Mozart, like Rousseau and Marx, hoped that these conflicts were not innate to human existence; that they could be resolved in a just social order upheld by an enlightened authority. Marx and Lenin nevertheless expected these conflicts to be more acute during the period of building socialism; those with a vested interest in the old order would resist any change and mobilize support by appealing to family ties and the base instincts of the corrupt. This is what happens in Magic Flute. Marx and Lenin -- neither was known as an opera lover -- would be cheered to learn that the Queen of the Night, Monostatos and their accomplices end up in the dust bin of history. My interpretation suggests that these conflicts are neither so one-sided nor so readily resolved.
My production undeniably has a tongue-in-cheek quality to it, although in its defense, it does considerably less injustice to the opera in question than many modern stagings. It has the virtue of drawing out the tensions in The Magic Flute and using them to critique the Enlightenment vision of a reason-based, just social and political order. These tensions are important to foreground because they have been missed by scholars who have studied the opera and producers who have staged it.123 One of the more notable ironies of this quintessentially Enlightenment opera is that is has become so prominent in the post-war era, an age whose intellectuals and artists have all but rejected the Enlightenment. There is a sharp contradiction between the contemporary standing of the opera and rejection of the values on which it is based. The second unremarked irony - - central to my analysis and staging -- is the tension between Enlightenment visions of progress and the likely consequences of real attempts to implement their vision. And then there is the ironic failure of commentators and impresarios to recognize and build on either of these tensions in their analyses or productions.
The last irony may be attributable to the iconic stature Magic Flute has achieved in the postwar era. Like Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker,it has become the kind of event to which children are routinely brought, encouraging box-office conscious managers to play up the animals, humor and romance and recoil in horror from any suggestion of an edgy staging. Perhaps disenchantment with the Enlightenment paradoxically stokes enchantment with the opera. Max Weber described Entzauberung [disenchantment] as a defining feature of modernity. Those who have become disenchanted, who adopt secular, more self-centered and cynical attitudes toward politics and life more generally, undoubtedly welcome the occasional opportunity to escape into sentimentality from the burdens, responsibilities and depressing news of the world. What better way to do this than a night at the opera where one can be transported by magical music and text into a fairy tale world where good is rewarded and evil gets its comeuppance? If so, opera managers and directors, jejune children and sophisticated adults share a common interest in not confronting the dirty little secrets this opera encodes.