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In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

BLO's Interpretation of The Magic Flute

Sep 27, 2013 4:21:00 PM
By BLO Staff

by BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor of Dramaturgy at Emerson College, Magda Romanska
The Magic Flute is considered one of Mozart’s
most enduring masterpieces. The story of how it developed and what it meant at
the time it was written has captured people’s imaginations almost as much as
the work itself. The story behind The Magic
Flute
is one of mystery, suspense, and twists and turns that paint a vivid
and complex picture of Mozart’s Vienna in the Age of Enlightenment. The opera embodies many philosophical ideals of
its era: the quest for self-knowledge, personal growth, and enlightenment; the
passionate pursuit of wisdom; the cultivation of the questioning spirit and the
open mind; and the need to find balance and moderation and to accept the
duality of our lives fully conscious of their powers. Because the opera is
structured around a medley of various rituals, some believed to be based on Masonic practices, throughout the centuries,
the spectacle of successive productions was built around the perceived
notoriety of the enigmatic brotherhood. Boston Lyric Opera’s new version of The Magic Flute strips the story from
the accoutrements of the Masonic rituals by recontextualizing the mythical
settings. Thus, we attempt to restore the tale to its profound philosophical
roots by refocusing on the personal journey toward adulthood and enlightenment.
Through trials and tribulations, Tommy (Tamino) finds himself entangled in
matters of life and death that force him to rethink his most basic assumptions
about love, lust, and commitment, and that teach him how to “think with his
heart” by finding a perfect balance between “instincts” and “reason.” To quote
Joseph Campbell: “Desire and fear: these are the two emotions by which all life
in the world is governed. Desire is the bait, death is the hook.” Throughout
the centuries, The Magic Flute has
undergone many transformations and rewrites, but our version is the first
modern attempt to reclaim the story’s original philosophical and moral
dimensions in a way that’s relevant to contemporary viewers. To fully
understand, however, the impulse behind such re-imagining of this iconic work,
we need to understand the context in which it was initially conceived.
With its new adaptation of The Magic Flute, Boston Lyric Opera attempts to move the story away
from the perceived dark magic of the Masons, as many have previously interpreted
it, and to restore it to its roots in the ideals of the Enlightenment. Our
adaptation focuses on the duality of human nature and the world, as it
oscillates between light and darkness, day and night, sun and moon, reason and
irrationality. Each character in the story belongs to and symbolizes a
different realm, and the story is a parable of the eternal struggle between the
dual aspects of our nature. This duality captures the spirit of the
Enlightenment, particularly its attempt to find balance and moderation while
pursuing the noble cause of reason and self-knowledge. Tamino’s quest for
greater self-awareness reflects the classical dictum that “the life which is
unexamined is not worth living.” Our story focuses on the hero’s personal
journey, which spurs him to summon his “courage to face trials and to bring a
whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for
other people to experience” (Campbell, 1988). The hero must face his demons and
overcome personal weakness in order to reach a higher consciousness. It is a
story of self-revelation and of growing up, of transformation and acceptance.
It is both intimate and mythical.
The majority of past productions of The Magic Flute have tended
to focus on the solemn spectacle of the initiation and trial, wrapped in an
aura of Masonic secrecy. Thus, for centuries, the opera’s style and form
overshadowed its content. The moral and philosophical dimensions of the story
of personal growth and enlightenment were lost in the enigma of the brotherhood
as interrogated and spectacularized through stagecraft. Although we preserve
Mozart’s music almost intact, we move the setting away from its original
Egyptian context into Mayan ruins as a way to decontextualize the well-known
story and thus to make it fresh and to reclaim its initial philosophical
intent. The ruins of the Mayan temple, as mysterious and magical as the ancient
Egypt, defamiliarize an all too familiar story, forcing us to listen to it
again with renewed attention. The rich mythology of the Mayan culture allows us
to refocus our production on universal symbols, such as the power of the snake.
With multifaced symbolism, the dominant image of the snake reflects the
multifaceted reality of the protagonist’s quest and his ultimate transformation.
Snakes regularly shed their skin, leaving the old shell behind and reemerging
renewed and different. In Mayan mythology, Quetzalcoatl is a deity whose name
means “feathered serpent.” His image adorns many Mayan temples and places of
worship. The three different layers of the set of our production symbolize the
three cardinal elements—wind, water, and fire. With the modern world steeped in
violent conflict between opposing ideals, we attempt to reclaim the idealistic
legacy of The Magic Flute, to remind
us of the enduring principles of the Enlightenment that placed individual
responsibility and authority over the self at the center of the discourse on
which our modern state was founded and that came to define our modern
consciousness.
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