On the plot of Die Zauberflöte

(Side material for a posting in preparation about Julie Taymor’s Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte)

Opera plots are notoriously packed with preposterous and incomprehensible details, but at least at first glance, The Magic Flute would win some sort of grand prize in the problematic plot department. But some of it makes sense when you understand it as a fairy-tale (so accommodating many of the fantastical elements) in which someone (the prince Tamino, with whom the opera opens) undertakes a quest and undergoes an ordeal to achieve some prize (admission into the wizard Sarastro’s (S’s) Brotherhood of the Sun); it’s also a love story, with Tamino (T) falling in love with the princess Pamina (P) — daughter of the otherworldly Queen of the Night (Q) — through seeing a portrait of her brought to him by his quest-companion (acquired in the early scenes of the opera), the bird-catcher Papageno (Pg); T&P become a couple, undergo the trials together, and so join S’s band.

Summing up this much, there are five central characters:

three ordinary mortals (in the order of their appearance): T, Pg, P (T&P become a couple; Pg picks up a mate along the way, instead of undergoing the trials)

two otherworldly mortals, S and Q

More of the details become comprehensible if you know that the opera is full of allusions to and symbols of Freemasonry; Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder were both active Masons, and they seem to have viewed Die Zauberflöte as their “Masonic opera”. The Taymor production is way overloaded with Masonic symbolism. But unless you’re a Mason or read analyses of the opera, you’ll miss all this.

But we’re still left with two sources of audience bewilderment: the nature of S and of Q, which appears to shift dramatically between the two acts of the opera; and a sixth character, Monostatos (M), a third otherworldly mortal character, who keeps cropping up in a creepy subplot that stretches through a considerable span within the opera. A Moor in the original, in the Taymor production M is white but bizarre, hawk-beaked and grotesquely fleshy (with a troupe of Turkish followers). But the question is what M’s intrusions are doing in the opera at all; they might just be Mozartean effusions of dark and dangerous Turkishness, with M replaying the character Osmin from Mozart’s earlier German Singspiel opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). A bit more below.

The problem of S and Q. In both acts of the opera, S is the priest of a temple. He’s far grander in Act II (where he’s benevolent, all-seeing, and all-powerful, and decked out as the Sun God), but the big difference is what the ordinary mortal characters think of him; at first, they have only Q’s characterization of him as a monster, a tyrant, an evil wizard, but things are made clear for them towards the end of Act I. Meanwhile, Q presents herself as a grieving victim, S having (in her story) taken her daughter; she enlists T to set P free — in her Act I aria, sung to T, which begins (with the McClatchy translation used by Taymor):

Zum leiden bin ich auserkoren,
Denn meine Tochter fehlet mir.

Grievous Fate’s decree has stung me.
My daughter has been stolen from me.

Q’s Act II aria is something else again; she’s possessed with vengeful rage. This aria is sung to P, who she’s enlisting to murder S. Again the first couplet:

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!

Hell’s blood surges through my breast,
Despair and death now blind my eyes!

Ever since 1791, people have wondered how the sad and grieving mother of Act I turns into the vicious bitch of Act II.

(#1) The German soprano Diana Damrau as the Queen of the Night (one of her signature roles) in Julie Taymor’s Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s Zauberflöte in November 2007 (photo: Beatriz Schiller / Metropolitan Opera)

The Queen of the Night aria. From Wikipedia:

“Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (“Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”), commonly abbreviated “Der Hölle Rache”, is an aria sung by the Queen of the Night, a coloratura soprano part, in the second act of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte). It depicts a fit of vengeful rage in which the Queen of the Night places a knife into the hand of her daughter Pamina and exhorts her to assassinate Sarastro, the Queen’s rival, else she will disown and curse Pamina.

Memorable with its upper register staccatos, the fast-paced and menacingly grandiose “Der Hölle Rache” is one of the most famous of all opera arias. This rage aria is often referred to as the Queen of the Night aria, although the Queen sings another distinguished aria earlier in the opera, “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn”.

The problem of M. From the Black Central Europe site (“We bring you over 1000 years of Black history in the German-speaking lands and show you why it matters right now”) on the character Monostatos (quoting Kira Thurman):

Described as a Moor, the character of Monostatos in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute (1791) represents an amalgam of racist stereotypes surrounding Blackness in the late eighteenth century. Being Black, Monostatos, the overseer of Sarastro’s temple, is not to be trusted and has dark and evil tendencies. He appears in most productions as grotesque, dirty, and buffoon-like, incapable of being truly loved by another.  His name alone – Greek for “standing alone” – implies that he is an outsider or an outcast. He desires the heroine of the opera, Pamina, who Mozart portrays as beautiful, pure, and white, but his pathetic love for her cannot be requited.

In the Taymor production, M is still a lecherous monster (with Turkish underlings), but he’s white and grotesque, as here:

(#2) Robert Brubaker (as Monostatos) and Janai Brugger (as Pamina) in a holiday-season 2016-17 revival of the abridged Taymor production of The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera (photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)

His Mozartean antecedent is the character Osmin, the Moorish overseer for Pasha Selim in Mozart’s 1782 opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Think 18th-century Turkishness. (In Zauberflöte, M is the overseer of S’s temple.)

Lord knows how I would frame the character M in a production of Zauberflöte; he appears to be a magnet for unfortunate stereotypes (if not of Blacks, then of the obese, the effeminate, the toxically male, the Jews, or whatever). But it would be the very devil to cut him out of the opera, since he crops up in so many places. He does provide an avenue for S to demonstrate that he is all-seeing and benevolent: “Ich weiss alles” ‘I know all’ he says to M and P, before exiling M and welcoming P into the Brotherhood, after she couldn’t bring herself to murder him. But I’d be happy to see him gone.

4 Responses to “On the plot of Die Zauberflöte”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I know the story that DIe Zauberflöte is full of Masonic references, but I don’t get it, and I’m a Mason, as were my father and both my grandfathers. (I have both the Scottish Rite and York Rite degrees.) German Masonry diverged early from Masonry in the UK, though, and the Masonic references may be entirely German.

    I should read over the libretto, and then see what I can find out in German Masonic resources on the Web. I read some excellent Masonic web sites in German several years ago, and should have a go at it there.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    For a further complication, in the 1975 Ingmar Bergman film of the opera, it is implied that Sarastro is Pamina’s father.

    The Monastatos becomes even more acute if one uses the original German text for his Act II aria, which includes the line “Weil ein Schwarzer häßlich ist” (“Because a black man is ugly”); in a modern production, the subtitles simply have to lie about what’s being sung, leaving only German-speakers to wince.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’m pretty sure that the text doesn’t support the idea that Sarastro is Pamina’s father. Ah, here it is, Act II Scene 8:

      Pamina to the Queen: With your protection, I will defy every danger.
      Queen in response: My protection? Dear child, your mother can no longer protect you. When your father died, my power ended.
      Pamina: My father —
      Queen: He freely surrendered the sevenfold Circle of the Sun to the Brotherhood. Sarastro now wears the great Circle around his neck. When I asked your father about this, his brow furrowed, “Wife, my last hour is at hand — all my treasure belongs now to you and our daughter …”

      As for the ugliness of black men, the McClatchy translation softens the message:

      But because my skin is black,
      All these joys are mine to miss.

      I doubt that the line is preserved in the Taymor production (since M’s skin is very much not black there), but I *really* don’t have the time to search for that scene in the video.

      • Robert Coren Says:

        Yeah, it’s pretty clear that the idea of Sarastro being Pamina’s father is sheer invention on Bergman’s part.

        I’m fairly sure I’ve seen the Taymor production on video, and there’s no reference whatever to Monastatos’s blackness. (I am in no way expecting you to do anything i response to this observation.) This includes dropping Papageno’s line of monologue after his initial encounter with M (in which each is terrified by the other’s “strange” appearance), in which he muses that, after all, there are black birds, so why shouldn’t there be black people?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: