During the next two weeks the Washington Opera is taking a firm step in a desirable direction when it presents two operas in repertory. This simply means that Mozart's "Magic Flute" and Donizettis "I. Elisir d'Amore" will be given between Nov. 11 and 20, allowing economies in the rental of the Kennedy Center Opera House, and engaging technical crews and make-up experts for more than one week at a time.
On the artistic side, the orchestra and chorus, working together for two weeks in the house, also are likely to surpass the best work they can do when they come for a single week.
All these considerations have been on George London's mind in the years that he has been in charge of the Washington Opera. They are steps necessary for any company planning to expand its operations and improve its artistic standards.
The "Flute" will be sung in a new English translation by Henry Reese to which London has added new spoken dialogue. The Donizetti opera will be given in the original Italian. The Mozart cast is entirely of young American singers: Patricia Wells, Jake Gardner, David Kuebler, Richard Gill and Rebecca Littig Leopold Hager will conduct and Anthony Besch is stage director. For Donizetti the cast includes Catherine Malfitano, Beniamino Prior, Angel Romero and Gimi Bent, with Theo Alcantara conducting and stage direction by Ande Anderson.
Mozart had known Emanuel Schikaneder for more than 10 years when the popular Viennese singer actor came to him in 1790 with an idea for an opera that would capitalize on the elements of low comedy, patter songs, fairy tales and the stage animals and Oriental devices that were delighting Viennese audiences. The opera Mozart returned to Schikaneder far outstrips the author's ideas, and "The Magic Flute" emerges as great as "The Marriage of Figaro," "Don Giovanni" and "Cosi fan tutte," for all the differences in the greatnesses of the four. Mozart had found ways to enrich and glorify the funnybone ticklers Schikaneder had brought him.
The opera is loaded with symbolism about the Masonic order - Mozart and Schikaneder belonged to the same lodge in Vienna - with its threes: chords, boys, slaves, ladies, temples (of Reason, Wisdom and Nature), even three flats of its principal key, E Flat. And there are the possibilities that the Queen of the Night actually represents the Empress Maria Theresa, that Sarastro is really Frederick the Great. Pamina the Austrian people and Papageno the simple savage. Mozart's music raises people and situations to unsurpassed heights.
He wrote the greatest part of it in the last summer of his life, that of 1791. His wife, Constanze, expecting their sixth child, had gone to take the cure at Baden, leaving Mozart in Vienna to write her that he could not work well without her, or sleep well at night for the same reason. The last of the Mozart children, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, was born on July 26, just before Mozart stopped work on the "Flute" to write "Titus." He wanted desperately to finish both because he was so short of money.
The way in which Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," out of Beaumarchais' play, challenges the social establishment is widely acknowledged. What is often less noted is that, under its outer facade, "The Magic Flute" is at least as revolutionary in its antimonarchical, anticlerical attitudes.
At the time of the premiere at the Theater on the Wieden, on Sept. 30, 1791, the original playbill read, "A Grand Opera in 2 Acts. by Emanuel Schikaneder." The cast followed, in which Mozart's sister-in-law, Josefa Hofer (with those other sister, Aloysia. Mozart had been in love before he married Constanze), was the Queen of the Night, Schikaneder was the Papageno, reveling in the role he had written for himself, but annoyed because Mozart's music did not give him or opportunity for the sight gags and asides he loved to throw out in other plays and operas. Benedict Schack was the Tamino. A good flutist, he did his own playing. He may have been the only tenor ever to have filled both the instrumental and singing sides of the role.
Mozart was one of the world's great jokers. Just before the performance on Oct. 8, the opera playing almost nightly for its first month. Mozart decided he would play the backstage glockenspiel himself. Later that night he wrote Constanze about the prank he pulled on Schikaneder. "During Papageno's aria with the glockenspiel I went behind the scenes, as I felt a sort of impulse today to play it myself," he wrote. "Well, just for fun at the point where Schikaneder has a pause, I play an arpeggio. He was startled, looked behind the wings and saw me. When he had his next pause, I played no arpeggio. This time he stopped and refused to go on. I guessed what he was thinking and again played a chord. He then struck the glockenspiel and said, "Shut up." Whereupon everyone laughed. I am inclined to think that this joke taught many of the audience for the first time that Papageno does not play the instrument himself."
"The Magic Flute" was sung about 20 times during that first month, a remarkable record that makes it hard to understand a remark of Schikaneder's quoted on Nov. 18 that same year, in the Vienna Home Messenger: "Herr Schikaneder will before long have an opera performed which is by far to surpass 'Die Zauberfloete.' One year later, however, Schikaneder was presenting "The Magic Flute" for the 100th time. Two days after that remark of Schikaneder's Mozart was on his deathbed where, one evening, he looked at his watch and said. "At this moment the Queen of the Night is coming onto the stage."
No such multilevel interpretive possibilities as abound in "The Magic Flute" faced Donizetti when he began writing "L 'Elisir d'Amore." The moment he promised the impresario of Milan's Canobbiana Theater a new opera within two weeks, Donizetti sent for his friend and librettist, Felice Romani. "I am obliged to set a poem to music in 14 days," he said. "I give you one week to prepare it for me. We'll see which of us two has the more guts!"
Romani gave him the book for "L 'Elisir" in one week and Donizetti's music poured out in time for the premiere on May 12, 1832. Thirty-two performances followed immediately, and the opera has been busy in the world's major houses ever since. berlioz was in the Milan theater for one of the first performances, which he had trouble hearing. If you are ever bothered by people whispering or talking near you in the Kennedy Center, remember what Hector the Great wrote after that night in the Canobbiana. He had difficulty hearing because of the racket, he said: "People talk, gamble, sup and succeed in drowing out the orchestra." How times have changed!