Definitely Not Your Grandmother's Magic Flute


As one of the most beloved, most discussed, and most performed of Mozart’s works, The Magic Flute has been pulling in audiences for more than 200 years. The controversial relationship between the text and music, the philosophical imagery, and the piece’s proximity to Mozart’s untimely death are aspects that have all been explored in various productions of this popular Singspiel. Fortunately, it is also one of the most flexible stage pieces ever written—and will be pushed and pulled into a new configuration by the Juilliard Opera Theater this month when it presents two performances of the opera in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

Robin Guarino

Robin Guarino will direct the J.O.T. production of Mozart's The Magic Flute this month.

(Photo by J. Henry Fair)
Gary Thor Wedow

Gary Thor Wedow will conduct.


Since its premiere in September 1791, there has been much examination of the opera’s significance. The fact that it was composed just months before Mozart’s death has lent an overlay of sentimentality to this otherwise lighthearted work. Scholars and critics alike have pondered the Masonic influences and tried to make sense out of what is considered a wildly confusing story with deceptively simple-sounding music. Mozart’s score often seems more consistent in its tone and flow than the text of his librettist (and the originator of the role of Papageno), Emanuel Schikaneder. The disparity has led to conundrums for directors, dramaturges, scholars, and singers. Additionally, the sentimentality is not necessarily called for, reminds Vocal Arts faculty member Reed Woodhouse, who serves as co-director of the Juilliard Opera Theater. He points out that, while it is true that Mozart died about two months after the premiere, his death was somewhat unexpected and the composer was “not that sick while actually writing it.”

This fantastical story concerns a foreign prince chased by a giant snake in the opening scene, a mad queen, three small flying children, a bird-catcher dressed in feathers, and lots of pyramids. It can be presented quite playfully, but has often been taken towards a dark and severe world of danger. Vocal Arts faculty member Robin Guarino, who is directing this production for Juilliard, says she is drawing from the film Apocalypse Now for some of its characterization, and will begin in a “creepy world out of control”—what she describes as “almost a nightmare.” While lovers of the current Met Opera production may be accustomed to a Papageno covered in feathers, this version will treat them to a “California surfer-dude collecting something quite more dangerous than birds.”

The Masonic influences have spurred many to approach this piece with an almost religious reverence, but Guarino, Woodhouse, and conductor Gary Thor Wedow (also a faculty member) beg to differ. While all three hold Mozart’s music in the highest esteem, there is some reordering of Mozart’s score to aid in creating what Guarino calls “a Flute that moves.” This applies to much of the second act; rather than having the humorous duet of Papageno and Papagena separate the trial-by-fire-and-water scene of Tamino and Pamina from the finale, they have placed the duet first, to allow the trial scene to build into the finale and have a more significant connection to the ending. Other edits in the second half are more common to interpretations of this score.

Making changes to a work in the standard repertoire can prove daunting, but Guarino, Wedow, and Woodhouse have tackled such projects before—including last year’s J.O.T. production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, which Guarino and Woodhouse worked on and which also changed the traditional parameters of the staging. This production marks their first collaboration as a trio.

Another crucial change in this production of The Magic Flute is the partial rewriting of the spoken dialogue. As opposed to traditional operas, in which spoken text is integrated into the music through recitative or ensemble pieces, here the dialogue occurs without following the line of musical accompaniment (which is what earns it the label of Singspiel). Guarino and Woodhouse began with their own pared-down English translations of the text; as rehearsals have progressed, the students themselves have been adapting their dialogue and shaping it into a working translation. In the process, the use of modern English is removing “the curse of solemnity” sometimes associated with this piece, according to Woodhouse.

A less frequently discussed topic in connection with The Magic Flute is an undercurrent of misogyny. The vengeful rage displayed by the Queen of the Night in her famous aria and the stridency of her Three Ladies have often resulted in their being vilified. Many of the male characters express opinions along the lines of this comment by one of the priests in the opera: “A woman does little, talks a lot.” While scholars have argued that this may represent the sexist attitudes of the late 18th century, Guarino hopes their version can shed some 21st-century light on the subject. “This story is just as much Pamina’s as Tamino’s,” she explains. “Their unification through equality and strength is the victory of the piece.” This production also takes a more sympathetic approach to the plight of the Queen of the Night, and puts more of a focus upon her reunification with Sarastro, her estranged husband. More significantly, Pamina displays more passion and not only goes through a process of overcoming her own fears of death, but actually leads Tamino through the trials they face—the reverse of the relationship in the usual staging. Seeing a presentation of this opera in which the female characters are not simple or evil will be a first for this writer.

Even if you have seen The Magic Flute many times, this Juilliard Opera Theater production promises to be an original interpretation offering myriad subtexts for the audience to explore, and a fresh perspective on a cherished piece of our musical heritage.

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