Sunday, December 13, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Magic Flute

These thoughts were a part of a conversation on Facebook about the meaning of the Magic Flute.  The bibliography includes the following - "Mozart's Last Year - 1791" by HC Robbins Landon; "Mozart and the Enlightenment" by Nicholas Till; "The Magic Flute Unveiled" by Jacques Chailley.

The issue of the plot - there is seemingly a break in the plot between the 1st and 2nd acts where the QotN goes from being good to bad and Sarastro goes from being bad to good. I would suggest that while that appears to be the case on the outside actually it is not the case. First, the QotN was the wife and heir of Sarastro's brother who was the master of the Masonic community, otherwise known as the Brotherhood. She inherits everything - except for the disk of the Sun and the leadership of the community. This is what infuriates her and prompts her actions. So in all of the Tamino stuff she is not at cross purposes with Sarastro. She would just like to include the capturing of the Sun Disk and the displacing of Sarastro, and getting Pamina back, though she also knows that Sarastro has taken Pamina so that she can be initiated. So the 3 Ladies are not working against Sarastro at first until the Queen's lust for the Sun Disk becomes so overwhelming that it takes over her motivations. Note the 3 Spirits work for both sides.

But the thing that the Queen and her ladies do not completely accept is that what they are trying to achieve by capturing the Sun disk and taking over the community is that they are working against nature - at least the way enlightenment and Masonic understanding defines the place of women in society. I have a problem with the term "mysogeny" because this is not a term that I think is fair to throw at 18th century thought. But on the other hand they certainly did have a very clear view of the place of women and it was not as equals. In fact, this dimension of the opera is uncomfortable - even though at the time it would have been seen as espousing relatively progressive views on this point. Descartes had a very elevated view of women - he would put them on a pedestal as worthy of honor and reverence, but also in need of protection. This is a view that DaPonte hated and takes on directly in Cosi (but that is an argument for another time - See my essay "In Defense of Cosi" from 2014). The Masons adopted this view, but by Mozart's time women and some men were beginning to challenge this. And so within 18th C Masonry a group arose of women who adopted masonic practices and saw themselves as standing alongside. This caused a huge debate among the men - for women were still banned. In actuality the women's group was more or less like what we would consider to be an auxillary, but still it was challenging and threatening to some of the men and the lodges. Others, like Mozart, were willing to adopt this new way of including women - provided that that continued to take a subordinate role. So MF has the women - Pamina and (to a lesser extent) Papagena undergoing trials as well. But yes, submissiveness to men was still expected and women still needed guidance from wise men - so went the understanding. Of course we reject this out of hand today. Stuff and nonsense - and we rightly consider it to be misogynistic because it denies women opportunities. But this is the culture of the times and this is something will be pretty hard to eradicate from the libretto.

Regarding Racism - It is there and it is odious. No sense in pretending. The Moor Monostatos and his race is symbolic of human baseness. This is wrong - and is usually revised out of the libretto - rightfully so, IMHO. It has been a long time since I have seen a production where Monostatos was depicted as dark skinned and that is fine by me. Very little is lost in my opinion - and what is lost is not that important. Now we have other cast members of all kinds of races and cultural backgrounds - that is as it should be.