As you may already know, I'm currently involved in a production of Mozart's Magic Flute at Seattle Opera. There's a few performances left, so definitely check it out!
I've already talked about Magic Flute as a Singspiel in a previous post. I also talked a little about the mixing of religions, philosophies, and cultures in the Magic Flute, and presented and sang Sarastro's first aria, "O Isis und Osiris."
You'll definitely want to check out those videos and the rest of the Singerreise YouTube Channel (current home of the Singerreise Video Podcast) to catch up. But for this article, we'll cover a bit more of the plot of Magic Flute, the Seattle Opera production, and Sarastro's second aria.
Let's get into the story a little bit. Throughout the Magic Flute, there's two opposed groups. The first that we see is led by the Queen of the Night. She has the Three Ladies (that's their actual name) and a slave called Monostatos in her retinue.
On the other side is Sarastro and his fraternity, whose symbols are of the sun and light. In his entourage are the First and Second Priest and the Speaker. (Yes, those are THEIR names. It's all very practical.)
Caught in the middle are Tamino, a prince, and his love, Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night.
Typically, the Queen of the Night is considered the "bad guy" and Sarastro is the "good guy." And over the course of the opera, eventually, Tamino and Pamina are united under the Sarastro banner.
The scenes leading up to "In diesen heil'gen Hallen," Sarastro's second aria, certainly seem to be heading in this direction. Pamina is given a dagger by her mother the Queen, and is told to kill Sarastro with it. The attempt is interrupted first by Monostatos, and then by Sarastro, himself.
Instead of retaliation, Sarastro sings a magnanimous aria about how, in his hallowed halls, hatred and revenge are not permitted. His brotherhood preaches Man loving his fellow Man.
However, there's a quirk in the language here that opens some debate, and it revolves around how you translate the word "Mensch." Mensch and the plural Menschen appear no fewer than four times in the aria. Just like in older English, Mensch can be translated either as Man or Mankind or Humankind or Humanity. It is BOTH gender specific, AND gender neutral.
However, we do have to consider that Mozart happens to have lived in a time when racism and gender inequality were the norm. The brotherhood that Mozart envisioned was likely with his other Enlightened Freemason buddies, free of the chaos of women, of the black, Moorish immigrants, and free from the meddling of the Roman Catholic church.
While that kind of brotherhood sounded idyllic for Mozart, it isn't so good for those on the outside. And obviously, it is problematic for today's audiences.
Most productions just gloss over the most inflammatory language, changing and translating a few words here and there so that Sarastro and his cult remain the "good guys." Seattle Opera's production, however, goes somewhere in-between.
For Seattle Opera, a few unsavory parts of the cult are retained. For example, Sarastro's cult still treats women as second-class citizens, or even as property.
There's a particularly unsavory line (from the original text) where Sarastro says that women need a man to guide them. It gets a boo and hiss every night.
Ryan Bede, whom I'm sharing a dressing room with in this production (and interviewed earlier in Singerreise!) pointed out to me that are always called "Weib" in this opera, which means "wife", and never "Frau," meaning "woman". It puts weight to the notion of women as the property of men.
The cult also beats slaves as punishment, even while speaking of Love and Forgiveness. And Sarastro seems just as willing as the Queen to manipulate others to get his way.
When presented with two options that are both distasteful, Tamino and Pamina choose neither, and go off in their own direction. In the polarized society that we live in, it's a positive, hopeful message.
Seattle Opera's production is also beautiful, colorful and poignant. And, despite what I've said in this article, it's not so dark that kids can't enjoy it along with the adults. It's imaginative and evocative, and I hope you come see it!
Just after you watch me sing this little aria! And try to forget for a moment that Sarastro might not be all he seems to be. Imagine that the idyllic world that he espouses is wonderful for everyone. Despite the context, I think that interpretation is still true to Mozart, if Mozart had lived in our times.
Coming up next for Singerreise is another singer interview, continuing with the Seven Tips for Singer Taxes series, and then it's back to Winterreise!