In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

The Magic Flute: A Conversation with Professor Neal Zaslaw, from Cornell University

Oct 1, 2013 9:14:00 AM
By BLO Staff

Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor of Dramaturgy at Emerson
College, talks to Professor Neal Zaslaw about Mozart’s
Magic Flute. Prof. Zaslaw is a
world-renowned musicologist and the leading expert on Mozart. Between 1978 and
1982 he supervised recordings of all of Mozart’s symphonies by Jaap Schroeder,
Christopher Hogwood, and the Academy of Ancient Music.
Time magazine called the results “one of the most
important projects in the history of recorded sound.” A decade later Professor
Zaslaw was dubbed “Mr. Mozart” by the
New York Times for organizing the 1991–92 Mozart Bicentennial at Lincoln Center, which
staged performances of all of Mozart’s works.
MR: The Magic Flute libretto has undergone many
rewrites and re-interpretations. Can you tell us a little bit about the history
of some of these rewrites?
NZ: The Magic
’s dialogue is never delivered uncut from the stage or on audio or
video recordings. It can be found whole only in earnest scholarly publications.
Between 1793 and 1798 The Magic Flute
was staged in more than sixty central European cities, from Aachen to Saint
Petersburg, from London to Zagreb. In none of these productions, the librettos
of which I’ve been able to examine, was Schikaneder’s text left unaltered: the
dialogue was always cut and revised, and even the texts that Mozart set were
sometimes changed. As early as 1794 the play was systematically reworked by
Christian August Vulpius for Goethe’s theater in Weimar. Just as interesting is
the fact that following Mozart’s death some five weeks after the première of The Magic Flute, and probably even
before that, Schikaneder himself was altering the text. Schikaneder revived the
show on and off over some two decades, during which time he felt free to
'update' the libretto. You have to remember, at that time, the wealthy would go
to the theatre every night, often to see the same show.
They knew the most popular productions by heart and so they would recognize
each alteration to the text. Those who have dealt with the 18th-century opera
and operetta writ large know that such practices were the norm. Stage works
were commonly revised for each new production, to update them and to deal with
local musical and theatrical resources, local audience tastes, reigning
ideologies, and the quirks of patrons.
Our new adaptation focuses on the story of self-discovery: the hero’s quest for
enlightenment and autonomy. It is an allegorical representation of a young
man’s process of growing up, of becoming a man. There is a personal story about
Mozart’s own life that suggests that The
Magic Flute
might be a parable of his own life story. Can you tell us about
NZ: Mozart’s family collected everything having to
do with his childhood, every scrap of paper, diaries, literally everything. One
of the reasons was that Mozart’s father, Leopold, intended to write a book
about Mozart’s childhood, in which he was planning to portray himself as the
wise man who raised a perfect child. The book never was written, because at the
age of twenty-four Mozart ran away from home. It’s not that he didn’t love his
father, but his father was such a powerful figure in his life that he wasn’t
able to establish his own identity without gaining independence from his father.
The model for the intended book was Christian Gellert’s
epistolary book, Geistliche Oden und Lieder
(1758), a compilation of letters from a wise father to his son. That book
inspired Leopold to write his own.
Can we say that it was meant to be an earliest form of Bildungsroman
, a coming-of-age story, chronicling
the moral, emotional and psychological growth of the young protagonist? Or,
more specifically,
Künstlerroman, a story of an artist’s coming to maturity?
NZ: Yes, it was meant to be such a story of education. There
is a famous letter from Mozart to his wife, in which he describes how he
decided to go to the theatre to see The
Magic Flute
to see how it’s doing. He sits in the box of a man who clearly
seems unimpressed. When the  story gets
to the crucial moment at which Tamino is standing in front of temple's three
portals, marked Reason, Wisdom and Nature, Mozart attempts to explain the
scene's underlying meaning, and when the man simply laughs, Mozart calls him a
jackass and leaves the box in a rage. The reason the plot of The Magic Flute seems so inconsistent is
that we see it through Tamino’s eyes, and the world for him is inconsistent. In
the first act, he sees the world one way, and then, things change, and he sees
them the other way. The only scene for which we have a sketch is that scene
with Tamino standing in front of the doors. It means that Mozart had thought long
and hard about how he was going to do it. It was an important scene.
Can we say that this moment of Tamino’s choice is the climactic moment of the
NZ: Maybe you are right. Maybe this scene at the end
of the first act is the climactic scene. In the first act, you have to represent
the hero’s confusion and his naïve idealism and inability to figure things out.
In the second act, he becomes enlightened. In Bergman’s film version, the story
is presented as a custody battle between divorced spouses (the Queen of the
Night and Sarastro), with the daughter, Pamina, trapped between them. This is
one of the best adaptations, which captures in light and color the essence of
the story.
The story is allegorical; that is, it requires the suspension of disbelief for
us to be carried away by it. Different elements have contributed to its
reception. Can you tell us about it?
NZ: Is Magic
a grand opera, a Singspiel, a Hanswurst farce, a fairy tale, a
morality play, a magic show, a Bildungsroman,
a coded political message, Trinitarian symbolism, the Orpheus story retold, or
a Masonic allegory? Because of its complexity and its hybrid nature, The Magic
Flute can support any number of interpretations. It is a fairy tale with a
serious subtext. The music is a whole other element that makes things emotional
and believable, which wouldn’t happen without music. The tension is
melodramatic—you have to suspend disbelief at the terror of trial by water and
fire. Schikaneder’s theatre was equipped with machines for supernatural
effects, such as flying, volcanos, storms, waves, waterfalls, infernos, and
rapid set changes.  These effects, these
illusions, apparently could be surprisingly realistic in the dim lighting of
the 18th-century theaters. The curtain never went down between scenes, so the
mutations must have been the equivalent of 'slow fades' in movies.  The music is the element that makes things
emotional and 'believable.' The tension is melodramatic—for instance, to experience
it you must not only suspend disbelief, but also identify with the tender young
protagonists, empathetically channeling their terror and courage as they pass
through their trials.   The Magic Flute was, and is, a popular
entertainment serving as the sugarcoating on a serious message, but we can
never know precisely what the message was. But even though it made Mozart
angry, his immortal work can also be considered simply a delightful excuse for
an evening of glorious music.
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