Opera - Mozart's myth

Atlanta Opera transforms The Magic Flute into a Brazilian adventure

Blame it on the unicorns and the garden gnomes if you like: In modern America, fairy tales are only for children. Small wonder then that Mozart's The Magic Flute, opening Feb. 27 at the Fox, has developed a reputation as a "children's opera."

The story, which the Atlanta Opera has set in the Brazilian rainforest, follows the adventures of Prince Tamino (Matthew Chellis) through a miraculous realm of playful spirits, secret temples and a powerful sorceress, a land where tree frogs and monkeys dance on the forest floor to the music of an enchanted flute.

Tamino, whom the production has revised as an Indiana Jones-style anthropologist, is saved from a serpent by three magical maidens who serve the powerful Queen of the Night (Jeanine Thames), though the clownish bird catcher Papageno (played to vaudevillian effect by Jeff Morrissey) initially claims the credit. The Queen gives a magic flute to Tamino and a set of magic bells to Papageno, then sends the two on a quest to rescue her daughter Pamina (Kelly Kaduce) from Sarastro (Kurt Link), a priest who holds her captive in the temples of a forest grove.

All quite fabulous stuff, and the story that follows bursts with life, love and laughter. "It appeals to this basic, simple, child-like wonder," says director Lorna Haywood. "All the things that get squashed in this world." Children are usually entranced by the spectacle, but pity the child (and save the prodigy) who tries to track the rest of the labyrinthine plot or find a simple moral in its menagerie of metaphors.

Modern interpretations of The Magic Flute have typically divided into two extremes. Either the story is told as a child's fairy tale about two men who charm wild beasts and fair maidens with their music, or it is cast as an Illuminati's codebook, an esoteric exercise in numerology, cryptic prophesies and alchemical recipes for the Sorcerer's Stone.

Mozart was a Master Mason, the highest order in the Freemason movement. His librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, was also an active member of the secretive society. The rituals and philosophy of Sarastro's followers are indeed those of the Freemasons. (An apocryphal story has it that Mozart, who died shortly after the premiere of The Magic Flute, was poisoned by his brethren for revealing their secrets.)

Those who care to look can find hidden significance in the three solemn chords at the beginning of the overture, in the number of musical pieces (21, or 3x7, conveniently excluding the overture), or the resemblance of the Queen of the Night to the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who was attempting to suppress the Freemasons at the time Mozart was composing.

But at its heart, The Magic Flute is both more sophisticated than a child's fairy tale and simpler than a cabalist's cryptonomicon. The Magic Flute is that artistic entity too rare in our time: an adult fairy tale, a mature myth.

The Atlanta Opera's production gives the audience a Wizard of Oz choice. Haywood has her serpent (known behind the curtains as "Jake the Snake") bite Tamino and send him into a sleep of strange visions where the erstwhile companions of his anthropological adventures reappear as spirits and other characters in the fable. Believe, if your rational mind refuses the fantasy, that all which follows is only a dream.

It's an easy out that children won't need and adults might do better to refuse. When we abandon myths to childhood, we live by childish myths: good vs. evil, us against them, my way or ... my way, damn it! It's the Rambo mythology of gun-blazing certainties that lead both to great acts of heroism and horrid errors of hubris.

This is the mindset of Tamino early in the opera. When he sees a picture of Pamina, he falls instantly in love. Drawing his gun, he vows to kill the priest and rescue his unmet love.

The situation proves more complicated than Tamino's convictions. Sarastro, who turns out to be Pamina's father, claims that the Queen of the Night is the villain and Pamina was taken for her own protection. Passion and heroic action, Tamino quickly discovers, are insufficient to the task before him. He is by stages disarmed, both physically and figuratively, with counsel that violence is a poor path to love and rage the wrong way to wisdom.

To win Pamina's hand, Tamino agrees to endure the trials of initiation in Sarastro's order, which begin with a time of silence and temptation. In an interesting gender twist for the social realities of the time, Pamina later leads the way through the hardest trials — passage through fire and water — with Tamino playing his flute to calm the elements.

Tamino and Pamina emerge from the trials united by a wiser moral code: Truth is best spoken after a time of silence. Reluctant warriors must sometimes be steadfast. Heroes must sometimes forebear. Individual actions impact whole communities, and freedom is best found in union with others.

Are these childish morals? Simplistic ideals? Flights of silly fantasy? If so, let the unicorns and the garden gnomes rule the world a while.


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