October 22, 2013

Mozart's Queen of the Night and her need for snopes.com

Moritz von Schwind's "Queen of the Night"
As we stated in last week's initial Magic Flute blog post, every character, every plot point and every musical number in this opera functions as symbolism rather than any kind of simulated "reality" as in The Marriage of Figaro. Since the characters are frequently dismissed as inferior creations, amounting to cartoonish stick figures, I'd like to address that issue in this post and the next one or two.

Today, let's introduce you to THE most misunderstood and misinterpreted character in all of opera: the Queen of the Night. She is widely regarded as, well look: this is a PG-rated blog (mostly), so let's just go with "rhymes with witch". Everyone seems certain that she's a lying, conniving, manipulative, evil, would-be murderess.

If I may play prosecuting attorney for a moment, let me make the case for this view. If it please the Court; ladies and gentlemen of the jury:

  • She ain't called the "Queen of Sunshine, Rainbows and Candy Canes", yo! Night = Evil, right? BANG. She's the villain.
  • Like the sociopath she is, Queenie does a smooth job of spinning a web of lies to Tamino, her "mark", in her Act 1 aria. "Poor me, my daughter Pamina was abducted by the evil wizard Sarastro. She was terrified and screamed for help. I was heartbroken." No wonder Tamino is all in on playing hero-rescuer, the poor sap.
  • Then, in Act 2 when Tamino has wised up and figured out that Sarastro isn't an evil wizard at all ("Why, that lying rhymes-with-pitch!", we can almost hear him exclaim) but rather a benevolent priest, the Queen shows her true colors by sneaking into Sarastro's turf, giving her daughter a dagger and ordering her to kill Sarastro!!!  CALL THE COPS! PSYCHO-KILLER ON THE LOOSE!
  • And, at the end, when her evil plans are foiled, Sarastro banishes her and her goons (yes, they're also ladies, but for our purposes: totally goons) to eternal darkness. And we know what THAT means, right?
In conclusion, O Jury, you have no choice but to return a verdict of GUILTY EVIL WICKED AND BAAAAAD!

There. Now I'm no longer playing Mr. Prosecutor; I'm once again Your Humble Blogger. In that regard, I've got a couple of questions for you. IF the Queen is evil, that makes the Three Ladies also evil, since they roll with her, right? Now IF the Three Ladies are evil and bad...

...then how come they 1) punish Papageno for lying, 2) join with Tamino in primly telling the audience that liars should always be punished and that if only men could practice honesty, we'd all be happy; and 3) give Tamino and Papageno their gifts of a magic flute and magic bells, tools they end up using to achieve a happy ending? Hmmmmmm? Lying about lying, are they?

Actually, no.

Let me rock your world. In her Act I aria, the Queen of the Night doesn't lie even once. Sarastro DID abduct Pamina, who WAS terrified. The Queen WAS heartbroken - wouldn't you be, in her place? The only thing she says that isn't true is that Sarastro is evil. That, as we come to learn, isn't the case; he's good.

But she wasn't lying; she was only mistaken. Big difference.

You see, in this opera, "night" does NOT mean "evil"; neither does "darkness". In The Magic Flute, darkness and night symbolize ignorance; lack of wisdom; the opposite of "Enlightenment". You'll recall that the goal of the fraternal order of Freemasons to which Mozart belonged was wisdom, represented as light, or Enlightenment. In Masonic lodges of Mozart's day, new initiates were led to the entrance blindfolded or hooded, to symbolize their confused, unenlightened state. Once admitted, the blindfold was removed and the initiate was dazzled by brilliant light - a blazing fire, perhaps, or a brilliant chandelier - representing the light of Masonic wisdom and truth.

The Queen of the Night and her coterie of fairies believe that they are on the side of the angels. They look at Sarastro's band of priests of Isis and Osiris as a cult. Ever see a TV show or film in which a distraught parent hires a private detective to snatch a child from the clutches of some nefarious cult? That's what Queenie thinks she's doing in recruiting Tamino to bring Pamina back to her.

So who or what does SHE symbolize? That's easy. For Mozart, the Queen of the Night represents that segment of his well-meaning Austrian neighbors who were suspicious of Freemasonry; neighbors who now included the Emperor himself, Joseph II. The secrecy in which Freemasons went about their business turned the tide of public (and governmental) opinion against them, which frustrated Mozart no end, as passionate about his Masonic life as he was.

When the Queen gives the knife to Pamina, it's not to be taken literally as attempted murder. It symbolizes the movement afoot in Mozart's community to curtail Freemasonry and prevent it from growing. And when Sarastro, near the opera's finale, dispatches the Queen, the Three Ladies and his own renegade employee Monostatos to "eternal darkness", we must remind ourselves of the meaning of "darkness".

They aren't dead; they merely remain in ignorance. Mozart understood that, just as some doubters of Freemasonry might be capable of changing their minds (like Tamino), there would always be some who remained blind to the "truth" of the altruistic and idealistic aims of the Masons. They would never "get it".

But now... just maybe... you do? We all have a really important lesson to take away from this in the age of social media, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest.

Does it make your blood boil when you see rumors spread on the Internet platform of your choice about the politician you think is a good guy? Especially when you know for a fact that the accusations about him/her have been documented to be completely falsle? We've all gone through that, regardless of our individual politics. That's because we live in the Age of Mis-information. Have you ever looked up a rumor on the website snopes.com to verify it's truth or lack thereof? Have you ever used that website to set a friend or relative straight about a rumor they'd posted online? 

If only Queenie had looked up "priesthood of Isis and Osiris" online at snopes, she would have had a big ol' attitude adjustment. When Tamino encounters the Speaker upon his initital attempt to enter the Temple, our hero repeats the false rumors he heard from the Queen. The Speaker responds: "What is your reason for believing this? What proof is there of what you say?", to which Tamino can only respond with hearsay. 

So you see, Tamino symbolizes that sort of educated, virtuous Austrian man who IS capable of changing his mind when presented with the Truth. And so, I suspect, are you.



  1. Very nice analysis. I would go a little further though.

    1) There's some history between Sasrastro and the Queen. Remember how she bemoans that when her husband died he left some objects of power to Sasrastro rather than her. I think she does know what he's about, and still doesn't like it, and she may be justified, because....

    2) He IS a creepy cult leader. What are the marks of a cult: brainwashing, cutting members off from family and friends, and preventing them from leaving. Check, check, check. He kidnaps a young woman against her will, leaves her in an unsafe situation where she almost gets raped, tells her her mother is a bad person and she needs a man's guidance, and puts her through an ordeal that almost drives her to suicide. Even the happy-go-lucky Papagino is also almost driven to suicide by the mindgames of the "initiation", which both he and Pamina are experiencing under duress. Only Tamino can be said to have agreed to the process, the other two are along for the ride and find it horrifying. Sure, everyone seems happy in the end, but I have to wonder for how long.
    Sarastro is given the lines to preach benevolence and wisdom, but don'e all cult leaders talk up a good storm? You have to judge them by their actions.

    This may not the be the interpretation Mozart intended, but maybe Mozart would have drunk the Koolaid.

    1. Absolutely agree with everything said in point 2. As a 21st century person, when I first saw the opera without knowing the plot at all I expected the table to all turn at the end with Tamino and all the priests realize they have been brainwashed by Sarastro's mindgame. Stupid, I know. But I did not buy for a second Sarastro is a good person throughout the opera. Have to accept as the opera ends that they think things differently in 18th century.