Tuesday, April 25, 2017


Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang. Mozart's beloved Magic Flute returns to Seattle this May (nine performances through May 21). Aidan explains the powerful appeal of this great masterpiece and the difference between good and great productions of The Magic Flute.

Hi, everyone! It’s Aidan Lang here, and I’m going to speak to you about Mozart’s Magic Flute, Die Zauberflöte.

Magic Flute is always in those lists of “the most popular operas,” which are really lists of the operas most performed. Why is that? I think it’s ‘cause it’s got something for everyone. Part of its appeal is it’s a very large cast, which keeps its interest going; it’s going a strong, if somewhat diverse storyline; I mean, it’s a hard storyline to encapsulate! But you are engaged, always, in terms of what’s going to happen next, and that’s a great appeal for people. The variety of its music is also so important. It traverses a number of different styles, from the simple, almost folk-like tunes given to Papageno, which is very much symptomatic of the sort of music which was performed in a Singspiel; and then music of huge sophistication, in the arias, say, of Tamino and Pamina; the vocal fireworks of both of the Queen of the Nights arias; and the beautiful, somber gravitas of the music for the priests and Sarastro. So there’s massive variety in this work, of style, of tone, which is not just to do with the storyline, it’s baked into this particular form called Singspiel. At the end of the day I think its popularity is based on the fact that it’s got so much going for it. It’s got famous musical highlights, and a number of highlights (it’s not just a one-hit wonder at all). As you sit through it you’ll go, “Oh, my goodness me!” and “Oh, it’s that one,” and “Oh, that;” they keep coming. And I think that’s part of its appeal. It has everything right. It’s got extraordinary music, familiarity of many of the numbers, and also an opera which demands spectacle and it demands visual élan. It’s got it all.

What I love about Mozart’s work is, at the end of it all there is forgiveness and humanity and an understanding, not only of human nature, but of human foible. It’s no coincidence that over four years we’ve programmed all four of Mozart’s great operas: Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, and next year Così fan tutte. Because these are four great cornerstones of the repertoire. What for me always amazes, in these works and in some of the less-performed works, which I’ve had the great privilege to direct over the years, is the humanity which shines through not only Mozart’s music but also his dramaturgy. I directed one of his pieces of juvenilia, La finta semplice (The Feigned Simpleton) , I think he was 13 when he wrote it. Musically, there was an understanding of human emotion and love which was mind-boggling for a 13 year-old. You just know you’re in the presence of an extraordinary human being, who seems to understand how people interact. For me this is the mark of a truly great human being: that we are aware of our faults, we can hopefully correct them and understand; but we don’t attach blame.

In The Magic Flute, there is an understanding of all aspects of human nature, with the two character-paths of Tamino and Papageno. We have this sense of a man (or two men) starting the opera one way and ending transformed and enriched at its outcome. For me I find that a wonderful thing. You leave the theater a different person from the one who sat down in their seat, just as the characters do. And that for me is what all art should be about. We enter this extraordinary experience, of sitting in a theater and engaging with a happening onstage, but what defines art from simply entertainment is that at the end of it we go out wiser people, better citizens, if you like, we go out renewed and with a higher understanding of ourselves and the way we interact with our society. That is why Mozart is a truly great artist.

The Magic Flute is often hailed as the perfect family opera, and I think that’s right, I think it is. It’s got a very clear and vibrant storyline. I think it is a great opera for young people to attend. It’s a bit like watching Shrek, you can engage at two levels. The parents get jokes which the children don’t, but both have a thoroughly good time. We have Family Days on our Sunday matinees. What I would say to you parents out there is it might be a good idea to fill in your family on the storyline, why not? It’s readily available on our website, or you could go to Google for it. Just to give the background story, to prepare the family for what’s going to happen. Maybe play one or two of the well-known hit tunes, just to ease everyone in and make everyone understand that this is a really enjoyable afternoon at the theater.

It’s an opera where there’s something for everyone, and I think that’s built into it. Mozart and Schikaneder were writing a work which was aimed to speak to a wide-ranging audience. It was performed not at the opera, it was performed at a theater outside Vienna, outside the city walls, which specialized in this German form of Singspiel, a sung play. So the format of Magic Flute is sung sections interspersed with dialogue. Singspiel was considered a middle- to lower-class form of entertainment, as opposed to the aristocratic entertainment, which was Italian opera. I’ll talk in a moment about the higher thought which underpins this work; but Mozart and Schikaneder put in quite simple moments of philosophy, when the characters come out of the action for a moment and give a little moral directly to the audience, then go back into action. You see it for the first time in the quintet after the Queen of the Night’s aria, when Papageno’s mouth-padlock is taken off, and he’s learned his lesson, not to tell lies. Then all five characters—the Three Ladies, Papageno, and Tamino—come forward to the audience and say, “This is the punishment for any liar!” And there are a lot of moments throughout the opera where those moral lessons are given. I think the feeling is that those lessons are given for those members of the audience who may not have been Freemasons, or may not have been versed in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which gets touched in at a higher level of the work. But the educational aspect of the piece is there for all people. So there are simple lessons for the less philosophically minded, and one includes Papageno in that. It’s also an opera with important philosophical points being made, which may be over the heads of people, but is also there for a more intellectual audience as well. That’s actually baked into the piece. The work itself moves at such a lick—it moves very quickly, it travels a long way—so you’re all the time being moved by a multiple story level, as all these characters go on their journeys.

Flute is one of those 18th-century operas which is quite hard to sum up in one or two succinct sentences. But I’m going to try! It is about a journey. The meaning of that journey changes. On the one hand you have Prince Tamino, who seems to be on a sort of adventure; for the first half hour or so of the opera he seems to be on a quest to find and rescue a girl. But halfway through Act One that journey changes into a more spiritual quest, a quest to find understanding of human nature. The other quest, the other journey, is the secondary set of characters: Papageno the bird-catcher and his quest to find a wife. The two characters, the two men, Tamino and Papageno, are two sides of our personality, and I think it’s important that as they go on this parallel journey, you realize that together they form a complete person. Although the two men’s journeys physically take different directions, at the end of the opera each finds a resolution, and with both characters finding a resolution at the same time, so we as human beings are complete as both conflicting sides of our personalities come together.

As always there are people who will find fault with a work, even a sublime masterpiece like this, and one of the criticisms aimed over really since its beginning against Magic Flute, is its seeming hodgepodge of influences. Where did this story come from? How come we mix up the tradition of Singspiel, which on the whole was a popular form of entertainment, with the high thought of Freemasonry, with this idea of a lot of the imagery coming from ancient Egypt, there’s echoes certainly of the Orpheus myth, of low-level characters and Sarastro and his priests operating at the highest level. It’s very hard to find a throughline on this. I’ve given a lot of thought to this, and it occurs to me that finding a throughline is actually a very modern thing to want to do. Actually, if you go back to the time this was composed and the circles Mozart was inhabiting, in the latter years of his very short life—he became a Freemason later on, so for the last seven years of his life he was a Freemason. But in those times, Freemasonry was linked to the movement called the Enlightenment. This was the Age of Enlightenment, where science was held as a means of discovering eternal truths. The ideas of the Enlightenment are very, very close to those of Freemasonry. This was a time when men of thought, of all disciplines—the arts, sciences—would meet together at the Masonic Lodge to discuss ideas, ideas which were relevant to times of great political upheaval. You know, the French Revolution has just happened. The libertarian ideas taught by the Enlightenment, and indeed by the Freemasons, were held responsible (by some aristocracies clinging onto power) the idea of freedom of thought and individualism. So these were very turbulent times.

We tend to think that all composers write for posterity, because we do repertoire which has survived, and gets repeated, and of course Magic Flute is one such. But actually, composers don’t write for posterity; they write for the moment. This is a piece about Mozart’s time. He wasn’t sitting there thinking, you know, “200 years later my work will still be done!” He didn’t think that way. And I think that’s important to understand when we view this. We can reinterpret it, and take ideas and find connections with our times, and of course we do that all the time. But composers wrote huge outputs for the consumption then. The idea of posterity was not really in their consciousness.

Schikaneder is hailed as being the librettist; he was the manager of the Theater auf der Wieden, where the opera was first performed, and he played the role of Papageno. But what we know now is that all sorts of members of the cast actually were composers and actors in their own right. I have the feeling that somehow this piece was much more of a collective experience, even though Mozart wrote the music, it’s certainly felt now that Schikaneder was certainly not alone, in writing all the libretto. That one of their fellow performers, who actually directed the first performance, a guy named Giesecke, actually wrote some of the libretto himself. And you feel that all these wide-ranging ideas were the result of endless nights of discussion. And Mozart took an idea from here, and took an idea from there. The Singspiel-format allows that. Were this an Italian opera seria, or indeed an Italian comic opera, it would be far too much information. But the free-wheeling nature of Singspiel, the fact that you can go from one musical style to another, means that it’s open to adopting all sorts of influences and ideas. I think it’s a product of its time, of 1791, where ideas of meaning and thought and importance are being bandied around in certain circles. In a funny kind of way, I think the diversity of influences we should view as a strength, not as a weakness. It’s only later thought about what an opera should be, what a work of art should be, which has caused the problem. Because Magic Flute doesn’t fit into that format. But I think it is a product of its time.

As I said earlier, this is a work which you can approach at two levels: as a really fantastic and entertaining night out; or you can mine the work for ideas of depth and meaning. Those ideas are there. In a nutshell, it is about an understanding of who we are as human beings, about human nature.

As we look at the journey which Tamino takes in the second act, yes, he passes through a number of stages which are we gather linked certainly by implication to stages of the Masonic ritual. But it’s easy to let that become a red herring. Look at the higher purpose of the piece, that is, a cleansing process; not to deny one’s base instinct, but when duty calls, it’s important to resist temptation. So, when three attractive ladies come in, it’s not to say you’re shutting out feelings of sensuality, but there are moments when one has to do that. Papageno finds it less easy, when three girls are flirting with him. But Tamino, for that two minutes of that number, where he’s been told not to speak, he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t give in. That sense of control when needed is part of the journey he goes through. The vow of silence: yes, of course it is an echo of the ability to keep a secret which is part of Masonic ritual; but it’s not saying that Tamino would become a Freemason, it’s saying that the discipline is important to learn. It doesn’t mean he’s going to spend his entire life in silence. But he needs to go through the pain barrier of not communicating with the woman he wants to be with for a period, even if it causes misunderstanding. It’s the discipline which is important, not the actual action of keeping silent in that moment. That’s the journey that Tamino is taking; he’s not denying the opposing force, he’s saying there are moments in life where you have to take a stand, if you’re going to aspire to a higher level of understanding which is necessary to be a ruler of your particular area of the community.

One of the disciplines which has to be achieved in order to arrive at a level of higher understanding is the ability to conquer the fear of death. To understand that death is part of the life cycle, as is passing on to a new generation. Now, this comes in a number of ways. Even at the Papageno level, a character who’s very much afraid of death, and who fails the test. But at the end, in the wonderful duet with Papagena, that is all about creating the next generation, an endless litter of children. But for Tamino and Pamina, significantly, both characters faint, they pass out under stress. Tamino faints as the serpent, the dragon is about to devour him; and Pamina faints when threatened by Monostatos. And the faint is considered to be a symbolic death, and when you wake up you’re in a “brave new world,” a new start. As Tamino wakes up, suddenly he finds himself in this land, and he’s on the beginning of his journey; and when Pamina wakes up suddenly Papageno is there. That is the start of their journey. So there’s a sort of symbolic death, throwing off one life in preparation for a new life. The Isis and Osiris myth is actually one of death and renewal as well. These ideas of a new life, an afterlife if you like, are important to understand this work. There’s something to look forward to after death, even if it’s a metaphorical death, in the case of the faint of Tamino and Pamina. But more importantly, the trials of fire and water are the way that Tamino, and Pamina, who joins him on that journey, are able to conquer their fear of death, and finally pass through, and be ready to be fully enlightened individuals.

One of the fascinating things about Magic Flute is that every production is different. It’s probably the opera I have seen most different productions of, in my life, partly because my wife spent a lot of her career singing either Pamina or, in many, many occasions, Papagena, all around Europe, and I saw many different productions of this piece which she was in, and every one was different. I guess you’d divide it into two camps, those who take a more “show” approach, a more musical theater approach, a spectacle-based approach to the work; and those productions which take it extremely seriously.

This fusion of seriousness and a lighter side seems to capture this piece best. If a production is too heavy on the showy aspect, they lose a lot of the piece; but at the same time you can be a bit too serious with it, and negate the amusing nature of the more comic aspects of the work as well. Maybe it’s a reflection of our desire to homogenize our experiences today, and find this unity of thought, whereas it’s just not there in this piece, and I think you should just celebrate the fact that it has endless variety. If one scene seems overly earnest to you, well, five minutes later an entertaining scene is going to pop along.

This mix of genres is of course absolutely typical of Shakespeare. What’s quite fascinating is our director, Chris Alexander, is a hugely experienced director of Shakespeare, and that may well be why he’s given us such a varied and deeply thought-out production, because he understands this idea that comedy and seriousness exist hand-in-hand, as in life. This is an opera of contrasts, but contrasts which are necessary to each other. There are endless references to darkness and night, and references to daylight and the sun. It’s not really about good and evil. It’s about the fact that good and evil are two sides of the same coin. Day can only come after night. Day needs night. These contrasts are part of human nature. If someone has only one and not the other, they’re not a complete human being. That dichotomy is built into the musical and dramatic structure of the piece as well. We are complete because we have many, many different facets to us.

This production by Chris Alexander is a revival of our production from 2011. I think what’s special about it is the way that the characters are so clearly defined in all their various guises by the wonderful and vibrant designs by Zandra Rhodes. In many ways the scenic picture helps bring those characters into focus. It is through this wide panoply of characters that we understand the work. And I know you’re gonna be in for an absolute treat, visually, in terms of the use of color and textures and fabrics which Zandra always brings to her work and gives this particular production a life and energy which I think is really, really attractive. Chris himself is back to oversee the revival, and I’m also very pleased to welcome to Seattle Opera Julia Jones, our maestro. It’s her first time conducting here, she’s a particular expert in Mozart. Julia, interestingly, is English but has spent most of her career in Germany, and I think brings an understanding of the text, which gets lost in some productions. A lot of people think this is an inferior libretto, not worthy of textual scrutiny, but Julia in rehearsal has been emphasizing the need to make the text really mean something, and that’s great, because of course it is the words which drive any drama.

As always, we have some welcome returnees and some new people on our stage. Both our Paminas, Lauren Snouffer and Amanda Forsythe, have been with us before; Lauren was here earlier this season as Countess Adèle in Count Ory, and those of you who saw Handel’s Semele will remember the extraordinary outfit that Amanda wore as Iris, the zappy messenger of Juno in Handel’s opera. So we’re very very glad to have both those ladies back with us. Our two Taminos: Andrew Stenson was a Young Artist here, and Randall Bills we last saw as Don Ottavio in Chris Alexander’s Don Giovanni in 2014. So again, it’s great to have those two gents back with us. Our two Papagenos: John Moore was last with us as Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, and Craig Verm is making his Seattle Opera debut, although we’ll be seeing him next season in Così fan tutte and Beatrice and Benedict. It’s a great role, I think, to introduce Craig to our audiences.

Every Papageno I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of Papagenos!—manages to make the role their own. One of the interesting things about our double casting is, it allows our audience to see what is exactly the same production with sometimes very different tones from one cast to the other, and I think if ever there was a role that illustrates that it’s Papageno, the personality of the singer to shine through, so I’ll be very curious to see, once we get onstage, the different way John and Craig handle those dialogues and by implication their interaction with the audience.

I’ve done The Magic Flute many times in my career and one thing which always amused me was the way that Papagenos will bring their own panpipes with them. It’s a role which a baritone of that fach will sing very often, and panpipes become a very personal thing. I’ve known productions where we’ve had a set of panpipes for the production, and our Papagenos say, “Oh, no, I need to use my own!” Rather like a diva of the 1950s or 60s who traveled with her own costume. Papagenos are very, very particular about their panpipes. Both our singers have brought their own with them, and we’ve had to dress them up to look right within the context of this production. But they are different! If you see both casts, listen up for a different tone to the panpipes.

It’s a great pleasure to welcome to Seattle our Sarastro, Ante Jerkunica. Ante I saw in Berlin singing Prince Gremin at the Deutsche Oper a couple years ago, and it immediately struck me, while watching him sing the aria in Act 3, that here was our Sarastro. Sarastro shouldn’t be a grandfather figure; he’s actually a friend of Pamina’s father, he’s of that generation, and often the tradition plays him as this grand old statesman. He’s actually a man of action, a man of thought and decision, who wants to effect social change. So I felt that Ante was the right playing age to play this role. It’s also a sort of bass voice which is perfect for this role, and they don’t grow on trees. Many basses sing this role, but when you hear a voice like this, you suddenly understand that this is the sound which Sarastro needs. Ante is Croatian, but actually has been a singer in Germany at the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, since maybe 2008. This is not only his Seattle Opera debut but also his US debut. I notice he’s at the Colon in Buenos Aires a bit later this year. I think this is a singer who’s just about to explode. Looking at his future engagements, he’s now spreading out, and I’m excited we’re able to feature him, slightly ahead of the game.

Our Queen of the Night is Christina Poulitsi, who’s a real expert in this role, this is one of the roles she specializes in. Sometimes you feel that vocally the Queen of the Night feels younger than her daughter Pamina! And Christina has a fullness to the sound, and therefore becomes a very plausible mother. So we’ve got really two wonderful singers in those two significant roles.

The other singer I was going to mention is Rodell Rosell, who’s singing Monostatos. Again, it’s a debut with us; Rodell is an extraordinary singing actor. We’re going to be seeing him as Goro in our next production, Madame Butterfly. He’s one of those amazing physical compelling performers—you cannot take your eyes off him when he’s onstage. I know you’ll enjoy his performances here as Monostatos.

One feature of Magic Flute is of course the Three Spirits, the Three Boys. This is where our Education programs are really beginning to bear fruit: our Youth Opera Chorus, which fed the children’s chorus in Hansel & Gretel, and that of course became a fertile hunting ground for the two sets of young singers who we need for this production. For me it really emphasizes the way that as a company, what you see onstage at McCaw is in many ways the fruit of activities going on for far longer, and it’s great to see the paths, the way the six young singers in our two teams have moved through the ranks and have now achieved a status to perform alongside such wonderful singers.


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