October 20, 2013

Magic Flute: the masterpiece almost no one "gets"

Mozart as drawn by Doris Stock in 1789
The Magic Flute is a weird opera to wrap your brain around. For such a popular crowd favorite, an opera that traditionally does good box office, it draws a lot of fire even from confirmed opera-lovers. Granted, any audience will have a percentage who wallow in the attractiveness of the score, who thrill to the sublime moments, tap their toes to the tuneful numbers, giggle at Papageno's shenanigans and simply enjoy the spectacle of it all. Many of those folks, I suspect, just choose to ignore the more baffling aspects of libretto and music and focus on "the good parts".

Others are not so generous.

Here is a round-up of the standard criticisms aimed at Mozart's epic Singspiel:
  • "The characters are such a disappointment, especially in comparison with the gallery of complex, fully developed, three-dimensional characters encountered in The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. I mean, Tamino is a handsome prince who falls in love with a girl just by looking at her portrait? And her mother is a fairy queen who asks the prince to rescue her daughter from an evil wizard? Give me a break. These aren't real people at all - they're cartoons. Stick-figures. 
  • It's the worst libretto in history. Mozart must have been desperate for money to accept it. It's like a badly-written fairy tale that doesn't even make sense. Illogical, inconsistent, full of boring parts, and a lot of the jokes are really sophomoric. 
  • It's a children's opera, right? A merry bird-man, a dragon, and forest creatures that dance to a magic flute? Well, I'm a grown-up. Give me Aida, thanks.
  • This is an opera that can't decide what kind of opera it is. Silliness alternates with some sort of boring quasi-religious ceremonial crap that no one's interested in. Needs a red pencil worse than bad.
  • It's racist. Monostatos is usually portrayed as a black man. Guess which character is depicted trying to rape the nice lilly-white princess? Yup, that would be Monostatos. Bah.
  • It's sexist. These supposedly noble priests are misogynists, saying horrible things about women. Bah.
  • And what is the deal with that weird duet for two priests that souinds like a chorale prelude by Bach when he was feeling particularly constipated??
So what's the answer? Was Mozart too broke and sick to give a damn any more? Was he reduced to taking a racist, sexist, illogical, shoddy, cartoonish story and providing it with the best music he could under the circumstances?

If you have ever expressed any or all of these reservations about this opera, generally included among the composer's "masterworks", then please read the next several blog posts carefully.

Your attitude just may get adjusted, big-time.

VERY FEW people who come to The Magic Flute have any clue as to what Mozart's objectives were; what he was trying to achieve; in short, what it all means.

Once understsood, every possible objection melts away into insignificance and becomes moot. That's because the entire opera is symbolic; it's all an allegory. Take it at face value, like Figaro, and you end up with a skewed perspective, regardless of whether or not you enjoy it. Every word of the libretto is symbolic. Every bar of the score is symbolic. The "characters" are not people at all; they are symbols. 

And it all has to do with the life-event that transformed the last half-dozen or so years of Mozart's life: his acceptance into a Viennese Masonic lodge. This happened in 1784, and it dramatically altered his view of himself and of life in general. Freemasonry filled a void in Mozart's life. After years of being treated with disrespect in his court position in Salzburg and the Archbishop Colloredo in Vienna, Freemasonry finally provided the opportunity to be regarded as an equal by educated men: scientists, aristocrats, educators and the like. He was indeed a "born-again Mason", a reference that's actually quite appropriate, since candidates for membereship underwent a symbolic "death", leaving behind their old secular way of life in favor of this sacred fraternal order. 

The trouble was that, by the late 1780'a (Mozart joined up in 1784), the tide of public opinion was beginning to turn against Freemasonry in and around Vienna. Emperor Joseph II, perhaps fearing a move by Masons to grab political power, slashed the number of lodges and set a tight cap on total membership. Freemasonry was (and more or less is still) a secret society; their initiation rites and ceremonies were strictly hidden from the rest of society. Human nature being what it is, non-members began harboring dark suspicions of what went on behind those closed doors, regarding Masons much as we think of cults in our times.

As we'll point out in this series of posts, The Magic Flute was Mozart's attempt to -just slightly! - pull back the curtain and demonstrate (if symbolically), the benign and high-minded benevolence of Masonic beliefs and ideals. The music demonstrates his passionate devotion to those beliefs and ideals. To preserve a modicum of secrecy, the opera avoids direct mentions of anything Masonic, instead depicting a temple of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris.

So if you find yourself wondering how all the criticisms above can be addressed via Masonic symbolism, check back over the next few weeks. (Blog clarification: I, Your Humble Blogger, am not a Freemason and am in no way advocating or proselytizing for Masonry. All discussions of Freemasonry will have the sole purpose of shedding light on Mozart and The Magic Flute.)

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