Thursday, July 10, 2014

What to do about the Magic Flute?

Apparently, Kenneth Branagh directed a beautiful movie version of the Magic Flute that came out in 2006. I found this out recently, because I’d had Bergman’s Magic Flute in my Netflix DVD queue and, through some technical error on Netflix behalf, it became Branagh’s Magic Flute (and available for streaming!)

Branagh’s version of the opera is set in WWI—the dragon pursuing Tamino is chlorine gas, the three ladies are nurses, the Queen of the Night shows up on a tank and Sarastro is running a refugee camp. It’s beautiful—as well acted as possible with such a ridiculous libretto and well sung. But the story is still racist, classist and sexist.

Manastatos is evil just because his skin is black. The queen and her ladies are evil simply because they’re ladies--not gentlemen. Sarastro has kidnapped Pamina, the queen’s daughter to save her from her mother. Papageno is cowardly and fails all his trials because he’s the comic servant. No one points out the fact that he’s the one who got into Sarastro’s palace and saved Pamina from the (equally cowardly) Manastatos while Tamino was playing around with the three spirits.

In act two, as part of the men’s trials Pamina can see Tamino, but he may not speak to her. This wouldn’t be so bad if someone had told Pamina about this in the first place. But, as she has not been informed that this is part of the plan, she runs off to kill herself because Tamino no longer loves her.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice these things. There are other plot problems as well.  For example, all the choruses to songs seem to be trite sayings such as  “A man whose spirit is not weak will weigh his words before he speaks. For some reason the “isms” bother me more than the trite lyrics*

And in spite of all of these things, I love Mozart’s last opera. Not just for the music—for the dragon, the birdman, the magic flute and glockenspiel and the queen of the night. As my dad said when I discussed this with him recently—“It’s a Star Wars kind of Opera” and I’m a Syfy and Fantasy kind of girl.

The theatre group my dad was involved with when I was a kid put on a production of the Magic Flute. I got to be a dancing savage beast. At the time I loved the fact that I got to watch most of the opera again and again as much as the fact that I got to appear in it. Am I syfy geek because I saw the Magic Flute at an impressionable age, or did I love it so because I would one day be a geek? Who knows? I do remember that even though I was only in 2nd(?) or 3rd (grade) I noticed the sexism of the piece—Man=good. Woman=Bad.

And, yes, I know that literature and art are the products of the culture of the time and that 18th century Vienna was probably not a particularly enlightened place by the standards of 2014. It would also be wrong to change the story to be less sexist/classist/racist.

So why do we continue to watch this opera? It’s probably mostly because the music is beautiful but that’s not it entirely. With all its flaws it’s still a good story—the same way that Star Wars is still a good story.

*The opera is in German, which I don’t speak. But I’ve seen several translations and in all of them suffer from this problem so I blame the librettist Schikaneder the librettist and not the translators.

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