|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.