Friday, July 19, 2019

Just how sexist is 'The Magic Flute'?

Scottish Opera asked me to write a piece for the programme of their production of The Magic Flute earlier this year. How sexist is it, really? There's been a lot of discussion about this, to put it mildly, so with SO's permission here is my article. Warning: it may not say what you think it's going to say. In either direction.



Julia Sitkovetsky as The Queen of the Night in Scottish Opera's production
All photos: Ken Dundas



Charges of sexism and prejudice flutter like outsize daddy-longlegs craneflies around the bright beacon of Mozart’s penultimate opera. Emanuel Schikaneder’s text - some of it - positively glitters with disparaging comments about women’s gossiping, weakness and pride. A woman must be led by a man, says the supposedly wise Sarastro. The villain-in-chief is a powerful woman – and she is vanquished. Why, then, would I still want to take Die Zauberflöte to my Desert Island in preference to almost any other piece of music, despite my supposedly feminist credentials? 

Our simplistic, reductive responses today tend to prove we haven’t evolved upwards from the Enlightenment era as much as we possibly should have. It’s problematic at best - and at worst, futile - to judge an 18th-century work by 21st-century values. Besides, the women in this enchanted Enlightenment singspiel merit a subtler, more nuanced and more thorough exploration. They are deeply bound up with the work’s structure, its symbolism, its balance, quirkiness and unexpectedness, to say nothing of its overall message about love, wisdom and enlightenment. 

The chief problem is that the source of that wisdom - Sarastro and his order of priests - is also the source of the sexist assumptions that furnish the script. Entering the Temple represents the getting of wisdom; part of this, Tamino learns, is not listening to women’s supposedly empty-headed chitterchatter. Worse, as the opera progresses, the feminine becomes associated with the forces of night and darkness, in opposition to the blaze of sunlight that brings enlightenment. 


Pamina in supplication to Sarastro...

Or so it seems. This is only part of the opera’s philosophic outlook – and it is continually subverted or positively contradicted by other elements of the drama. In the bigger picture of the magical, symbolic world Mozart and Schikaneder create, the duality of male/female, darkness/light is essential, because this, the implication goes, is how we and our world become complete. The one defines the other: without darkness, there can be no light. The opera’s mysterious unity in duality mirrors the priests’ evocation of Isis and Osiris, respectively the ancient Egyptian goddess and her brother-husband, who, let’s remember, are venerated in this temple together. 

This lends symmetry to the characters. Papageno must find a Papagena, as lively and earthy as he is; Tamino and Pamina, seekers both, are soulmates. The Queen of the Night and Sarastro form a third couple, only this time opposites in both philosophy and voice type. But they function as a pair because they want the same thing: each wishes to save Pamina from the other. There’s symmetry, too, between the groups of opposites: the spiritual questing of the prince and princess finds a merry counterpart in the copious wining, dining and planned large family of the Papagenos, while the Three Ladies who tempt Tamino and Papageno with chattering are offset by the Three Boys who light the way with wisdom. Monostatos, a wild card, could be the exception that proves the rule.

Moreover, there are women in the temple. Besides the solemn choruses for men alone, Mozart also provides full choruses in both acts including sopranos and altos. This poses a conceptual challenge to any director; widely differing solutions can be found. In Netia Jones’s staging for Garsington, the females scuttle around submissively in grey headdresses resembling those of The Handmaid’s Tale. In Simon McBurney’s for English National Opera, the women are in business dress, matching the men: perhaps here, too, the masculine has its feminine counterpart. 

Within this set-up, Mozart and Schikaneder overturn expectations time and again, with plot twists that would be hard to swallow if the characters did not - mostly - defy the fairytale-like setting by seeming so wonderfully real. The Three Ladies become harridans spreading fake news in Act II, but in Act I they save Tamino from the serpent, lust after the handsome stranger, bicker amongst themselves, then do the honourable thing and leave him in peace. Monostatos tries twice to rape Pamina, but even he receives a sympathetic aria, railing against the way others reject him for the colour of his skin. This opera’s racist element is even worse than its sexism, but these days Monostatos can usually be reconceptualised with imaginative staging and surtitling.

I'm not sure what's happening here, but it looks amazing

What of the Queen of the Night, the villain of the piece? She starts off as the most sympathetic of characters: a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped and who is desperate to rescue her. What’s more, it is she who provides the magic flute itself, and Papageno’s bells; and Mozart furnishes her with two of his most astonishing arias (designed for his virtuoso soprano sister-in-law, Josepha Weber). Sarastro has cruel words for Pamina about her, accusing the Queen of pride; if you think he’s calling her a “stupid woman”, you’re not wrong. Still, she does want to kill him. The blunt reversal of opinion that Tamino encounters as soon as he arrives at the temple – and the unquestionably sexist reasons for this provided first by the Speaker and then Sarastro – is therefore far from proven as correct. Today an increasing number of productions depict the Queen pardoned at the end and reunited with Pamina.

The most ardent contradiction of the opera’s sexist element is Pamina herself. Contrast her with Tamino. He can seem oddly passive. First the Ladies have to save him from the serpent; next he obeys the Queen of the Night; then he decides he got everything wrong and obeys Sarastro instead. But it is Pamina who makes the brave, independent decisions: to seek her freedom; to reject Monostatos’s advances, despite death threats; refusing to commit murder, however forceful her mother’s demand; and she would certainly have the gumption to take her own life were it not for the intervention of the Three Boys. She is supportive to Papageno - she even sings an abstracted love duet with him. And it is she who tells Tamino that his magic flute will protect them, and she who voluntarily stands by him and undergoes the life-threatening trials – not because she has to, but because she chooses to. Ultimately she is initiated into the Order alongside him. 

Now, the Masonic references in Die Zauberflöte are reputedly so lavish that theories existed that the Freemasons murdered Mozart in revenge for revealing their secrets. This notion has been debunked. But as far as I’m aware, the Freemasons still do not admit women, even in 2019. And what, in wider society, of equal pay and equal boardroom presence? Don’t get me started. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge Mozart and Schikaneder too harshly when their vision is more progressive than the organisation that inspired them, and when our world still has so much to remedy. 

This opera ultimately suggests that the path of wisdom is open to everybody, if we are willing to learn our life lessons the hard way. And in the end it is about love. A devoted couple undergoes ferocious attack by the elements; the joint powers of their love and their music see them through. Emerging, they sing together, as equals. If that isn’t the ideal partnership - for any persuasion of human relationship - then I don’t know what is. 

A few sexist priests can’t take that away from us. Yes, there is sexism aplenty in Die Zauberflöte. But that is no reason not to let this work’s heavenly music and message of love and wisdom into our lives – my Desert Island included.


Thursday, July 18, 2019

A message from Dame Sarah Connolly

Wishing Sarah swift and safe treatment and the speediest of recoveries. Please see her message below.


Dame Sarah Connolly writes:
Last month, I had an unwelcome birthday present: breast cancer. Like so many women afflicted with this disease, I will face whatever is coming as best I can. Imminent surgery means I must withdraw from ENO’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ and ‘L’enfance du Christ’ at the BBC Proms. I hope, however, to fulfil all my other concert and recording commitments over the coming months. I’d like to thank ENO and the BBC Proms for their kindness and understanding, and I look forward to working with them both in the near future."



Thursday, July 04, 2019

One woman, three harps and a very long journey




The Australian Festival of Chamber Music kicks off again in a few weeks' time and though I am sick as the proverbial parrot at not going (I was there a year ago for Being Mrs Bach) I'm only too happy to thump the drum for this marvellous, sunny, eclectic jamboree complete with tropical skies, ice cream galore and even humpback whales to watch.

Several performers besides the artistic director, Kathy Stott, are travelling over from the UK and one of them is the extraordinary harpist Ruth Wall, who's setting out from Land's End with two of her three harps and meeting another one there. I had a super chat with her yesterday... First, here she is with partner Graham Fitkin, as FITKINWALL:



From her home near Land’s End in Cornwall, Ruth Wall has a longer journey even than most others to Townsville, Far North Queensland. But then, she is used to long spans, musical as well as physical. Her repertoire ranges from the 13thcentury to the cutting edge of present-day new works. Her partner is the composer Graham Fitkin and the pair collaborate as the duo FitkinWall. She’s toured with Goldfrapp, been involved with sound installations and theatrical productions - not least the aerial theatre company Ockham’s Razor - and she makes musical arrangements and transcriptions of her own. And she composes. 

This multifaceted career began with her training in Scotland: “I grew up in the Highlands and I had a great harp teacher who was from the classical sphere - but there’s a great folk tradition up there and she taught me a lot of traditional music, so I had a mixture of both,” Wall says. 

“In my twenties I was introduced to early harps by a friend in Scotland who makes them, so I started getting interested in the Renaissance bray harp. I just heard it and thought I’ve got toplay this instrument.” What’s so special about it? “It's like a sitar but with knobs on: a big, huge range and a really big, buzzy sound. 

“The same friend, Bill Taylor, introduced me to the Gaelic wire-strung harp as well and that was love at first hearing. I was excited by those two instruments, even though I knew it would take more than a decade to learn them properly.” 

She’s not exaggerating: “Especially the wire-strung harp - it’s as different as you can get from playing a concert harp. It’s almost as different as playing the tuba! You need to have nails; you’re in literally the opposite hand position from the concert harp; the string intervals are tiny; it’s strung with metal; and you have to stop every note as well as play them. So it’s a very complex little instrument – but very beautiful.”



Transporting them from Penzance to Townsville is no laughing matter. “Kathy [Stott] and her team have organised for my bray harp and wire-strung harp to be picked up, so they’re going to be out of my hands from next Monday,” says Wall, “and I won’t see them again until 22 July, so it’s a long gap and I’ve never had that before. As for the concert harp, they’re renting one for me in Australia so that’s another new thing: to play really virtuosic music on a harp I’ve not played before. I’m trying not to worry about it because there’s nothing I can do about it! 

“The two that are being flown out get held hostage in Brisbane for a week. I’ll have to detune them and then tune them up gradually after I arrive. It’s always a little bit heart-in-mouth when there’s a long journey. Even if you fly with them and carry them yourself, it can be difficult - I’ve had a hole in the harp before now. Hopefully everything will be good and nothing will happen…”

Wall is taking part in no fewer than 12 festival events, playing a range of music that would make most other musicians sweat at the very thought. “You’ll hear some very “harpy” French repertoire, including Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro and Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp - those are the biggest pieces for the concert harp. Then I’m playing with Wu Man, the Pipa player: more like a folk piece in style, based on traditional Chinese music. I’ve made an arrangement of that and have been transcribing it in detail, which takes a long time, but is great fun. 


“Then I’m working with Lotte Betts-Dean, the singer, on an Irish piece called 'My Lagan Love' and a Dowland song, ‘Flow my Tears’, which I've arranged. On the Bray harp I’ll be playing some early music from the 13thcentury by Machaut, and on the wire-strung harp quite a long piece that I wrote myself, Pibroch Patterns based on classical bagpipe music from the Highlands.” Bagpipes? There are some similarities in sounds and techniques, Wall: says: “The bagpipes have a long drone which is similar in sound to the wire-strung harp’s one. As for the music, it’s difficult to know for sure because not a lot of traditional Highland music was written down - it’s an aural tradition. But there are little bits which one can catch that are connected with music of that time.”

The festival will be keeping Wall extremely busy, but she is thrilled to be collaborating with so many different musicians, most of them for the first time. “I just love working with other people,” she says. “The harp can be a lonely instrument, unless you play in orchestra, which I don’t. I’m looking forward to playing with all these musicians - Lotte and Wu Man and the Goldner String Quartet and more!” 

She knows the climate may prove a tad challenging for the instruments: “Harps really don’t like changes in temperature, humidity, etc - and in particular the wire-strung harp goes out of tune wildly and is very difficult to restring if anything goes wrong, so I just have to hope and pray that nothing happens! But I know what to expect. It’s going to be challenging. There won’t be a lot of free time and I’m going to be doing a lot of tuning.”

Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic chance to evangelise for an instrument that is as ubiquitous in imagery as it is rare in practice, and as beautiful as it is challenging to play. I used to have a yen to learn the harp myself, but my parents weren’t having any, I remark. “You should learn!” Wall enthuses. “It’s never too late…”

If JDCMB changes its name someday to “Harping On” - well, you’ll know what happened. 

Meanwhile, you can find Ruth's line-up of AFCM performances here.

Photos via ruthwall.co.uk

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

EVER US


Ever thine, ever mine, ever us.

Beethoven to his 'Immortal Beloved' - and the source of our title, EVER US, for the new work that Roxanna Panufnik is writing for the Rundfunkchor Berlin and nine visiting choirs from all over the world, from Lebanon to the US to South Africa, to be premiered on 1 May 2020 in the great Berlin Philharmonie itself. https://www.berliner-philharmoniker.de/en/concerts/calendar/details/52871/

I have fashioned the libretto for this work out of Beethoven's own writings and those of the authors he loved, among them Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Tiedge and Sturm - and we follow him through his love of nature, his passion for liberty, deep despair, hopeless love and eventual transcendence. After it, we hear the finale of his Ninth Symphony (no pressure, then...).

This concert brings representatives from many corners of the globe together to celebrate our unity in humanity. We are...ever us. Ever together. Ever thine, ever mine, ever us.

When you see British representatives of the "Brexit Party" in the EU parliament physically turning their backs on the Ode to Joy, it is not in our name and represents us in no way. People declare themselves embarrassed by this heinous incident. I don't think 'embarrassed' is a strong enough word. It is more accurate to say we are revolted, furious, and determined to counter it in every way we can.

"When will there come a day when there are only people?" Beethoven wrote to a friend who was travelling to Russia, where the composer knew he would be depressed by the desperate social divisions he saw. "Only people": not nobles and serfs. "Only people": undivided. Today we must stand together against the perversion of our homeland by the Brexiter wreckers.

We are... Ever together. Ever thine, ever mine, ever us.


Friday, June 28, 2019

Meet lifelong composer Erika Fox. Her first CD is out today. She is 82.

This is one of my favourite interview assignments ever, just out in The JC. Erika Fox, who escaped Anschluss Vienna as a toddler with her mother, and has struggled all her life to follow her musical vocation, tells me her story. The first-ever commercial recording of her music is released today on the NMC label.

Erika Fox
Photo: Tim Fox

Erika Fox’s coffee mug is emblazoned with the title of HG Wells’s The Invisible Man. One can’t help noticing, because this extraordinary composer has for too long been an almost invisible woman. Today, her first-ever commercial CD is released, featuring a selection of her chamber works. She is 82.
Musical cognoscenti reacted with horrified astonishment to the realisation that Fox’s music has not previously been recorded. Its style is tough yet mesmerising, highly individual, with a strong undertow of unsettling emotion. “Some people have said it’s challenging, but because it’s mine, I don’t think of it that way,” Fox remarks. “To me it’s ordinary. It’s what I do.”
She lives in west London in a house overflowing with books and music, her home on and off for decades. Her music is much like her upfront personality — warm, perceptive and forthright, with a refreshing dislike of “pussyfooting around”. But it has also been nurtured with many difficult and painful memories...