November 8, 2013

You - yes, YOU! - are a Magic Flute character, but... which one?

That's right, boys and girls: each and every one of you reading this post is depicted onstage as a character in Mozart's immortal The Magic Flute.

Schickaneder as Papageno
Wow! It's really almost too exciting, isn't it? Whoa - you'd better sit down and take some deep breaths... Easy, there! (Wait til you tell your friends about this!!)

But which one are you? That gets tricky. Depending on your outlook and personality type, you're either a Tamino (or Pamina if you're female), a Papageno (or Papagena), a Sarastro or a Queen of the Night.

And what do we mean by that? What am I saying about you, exactly, if I suggest you might be a Papageno? (Hmmm... this is threatening to become a riff on Jeff Foxworthy's "You just might be a redneck if..." routine. Oh, well!)

Mozart always understood that his music would be heard and processed by a diverse audience. In a letter to his father, he once remarked about a new piano concerto that it contained elements that connoisseurs would appreciate and that less musical listeners would still enjoy it but not be able to articulate why they did.

The same is true of The Magic Flute.

In a previous post we already pointed out that the opera is highly symbolic, with every page of libretto and score representing some step in the journey of a prospective Freemason. On the surface, that would appear to restrict the pool of interested listeners to a niche category of those interested in philosophy and spirituality. No one, however, was more desirous of commercial success and big box-office sales than Mozart and his pragmatic collaborator Emanuel Schickaneder. They made sure that this show would truly have "something for everyone".

Take the opening scene - it pretty much uses the same formula as a James Bond movie. You've maybe seen a 007 flick in your day, so you likely know what I mean: an action sequence devoid of plot or character exposition meant to function as a "grabber" and provide the audience with excitement. Bond jumps from an airplane moments before it crashes into a mountain, parachutes down on a running horse which jumps across a canyon. That sort of thing.

In the same way, Tamino - "James Tamino" (joke) bursts onstage running for his life, pursued by a giant fire-breathing monster or serpent or dragon or whatever. He faints as it draws near with jaws opening wide, when suddenly three fairies appear and kill it dead with a wave of their powerful wands.

COOL!

But there's more to that set-piece than meets the eye. In terms of the implicit Masonic allegory at play, the dragon is not a dragon, and Tamino is not a prince. Rather, he is an educated, high-minded eighteenth-century man in pursuit of realizing his ultimate potential as a virtuous and wise enlightened man. However, he is not equipped to accomplish this goal on his own, unaided; thus, he has no "arrows" (resources) in his "quiver" (life-experience). So the "dragon" of obstacles threatens to prevent him from achieving this enlightened state. When he faints, he is undergoing the symbolic "death" expected of initiates by Freemasons, who apparently borrow the concept from Christianity's "Ye must be born again".

The level at which this scene appeals to you as you watch it (and the rest of the opera) unfold is what brands you as a Papageno, a Sarastro, a Tamino or a Queen of the Night. Here's what I mean:

Papageno symbolizes the blue-collar working class kind of guy. No fancy college education for him; he was content to learn an honest trade (bird-catching, say) and put in his forty hours a week. He prefers meatloaf and mashed potatoes to pate de fois gras and oysters Rockefeller. He'd rather go bowling with the fellas than read a book of poetry or visit a museum of modern art. The Papagenos of the world are pretty happy in general, perhaps because they never torture themselves with questions like "What is the meaning of life?". They are far more likely to ask "What time is lunch?". In the opera, Papageno cheerfully flunked all the trials given him by the priests, indicating he's just not cut out for the Path of Enlightenment. The important thing is that this by no means prevents him from enjoying life to the hilt - on his terms.

Sarastro, on the other hand, is the polar opposite. He is the apotheosis of an enlightened man. Having long since left behind his youthful hedonism, ignorance and trivial secular pursuits, he has chosen the way of sacred brotherhood with like-minded men (i.e. his Masonic brothers) who help one another live lives of compassion, tolerance and unflagging morality.

Between these two extremes we find Tamino and the Queen:

The Queen of the Night is skeptical of Sarastro and, allegoricallyspeaking, the secret fraternity of Freemasons. With "Night" denoting ignorance rather than evil, she jumps to the conclusion that this "sacred brotherhood" is some kind of cult threatening the safety of children (such as her own Pamina). Those men must be up to no good; otherwise, why would they operate in secrecy? That's her stance and she's disinclined to explore the subject any further. Her mind is made up - don't confuse her with the facts!

Tamino, on the other hand, is endowed with more intellectual curiosity than his neighbor and one-time ally, the Queen. Although he is susceptible to "following the crowd" and putting stock in what those around him are saying about any issue, Tamino is capable of recognizing injustice and bias when presented with logical arguments. He is capable of revising his opinions and seeing people and institutions in a new light; of changing his mind and learning. He will make a great Freemason, in Mozart's opinion. His intellectual bent is not contaminated by ego or stubbornness.

So who are you as you become acquainted with The Magic Flute?

You are a Sarastro if you have read up on Mozart's Masonic period (say, just for instance, in a brilliant, erudite, articulate and witty BLOG *cough cough*) and come to the work armed with an appreciation for the layers of symbolism and meaning in music and text. You smile in recognition as each step of Masonic initiation rites and ceremonies are depicted? I now pronounce you a Sarastro.

You are a Tamino if you've known the opera all your life, can hum all the tunes and give a nifty plot synopsis, but were never before aware that the dragon was more than a dragon. Now with these new frames of reference to ponder, you have to admit: you find it all very intriguing. Apparently this opera is deeper than you ever imagined! Now you're wondering what the devil that weird duet for two guards in Act 2 - the one that sounds like a motet by J.S. Bach, for Pete's sake - means. You'd like to do some reading; see what else you can find out.

You are a Queen of the Night if you don't care what anybody says, least of all some know-it-all smarty-pants blogger: you KNOW that The Magic Flute is the worst so-called "masterpiece" in all of opera. A stupid libretto and cartoonish characters are only partially salvaged by a few moments of sublime music. Bah. You'll take The Marriage of Figaro every time, thanks, and twice on Sundays. And finally,

You are a Papageno if you really, really love The Magic Flute but don't need to read a bunch of stuffy books about philosophy and European history to laugh at the jokes, tap your toes to the music and just wallow in the splendor and pageantry of it all. That snake scene? Cool special effects, bro! That bird-dude? Makes you chuckle every time he opens his mouth! And that duet he sings near the end with his bird-girl sweetheart is so darn CUTE you just can't stop smiling! GOLLY, it's a swell show! <insert smiley face>

Here's the thing: Mozart knew that all four personality types would pony up a few coins to buy a ticket and come to his opera. He knew that his Masonic brothers would recognize and smile at every reference to their society. He knew that there would be citizens in the audience who had false information about the nature of Freemasonry. He knew that some of them might be persuaded to approach the subject with an open mind. He knew that others were lost causes who would cling stubbornly to their preconceived notions and prejudices.

And most importantly, he knew that there would be a great many - perhaps the majority - who would be oblivious to any so-called "Greater Meaning" and simply be in search of lively action, special effects, funny jokes and wonderful music; who would take every scene at face value only.

And he was fine with that. Hey - their money spends just like anyone else's.

This is good news for us today. It means that when we come to Mozart's Magic Flute there are no wrong answers; no guilt trips; no missing the point.

It truly is all things to all people.

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