THE FIRST time I saw Mozart's "The Magic Flute," reputedly so light-hearted that it is often staged with children in mind, I let the story unfold for me without looking at the program. Here's some of what I saw and heard: an isolated, terrified young woman threatened with rape by a Moor, several verbal cracks from high priests about the way women hold men back and talk too much, and a mother who seems to be in a custody battle over her daughter. (She loses.) I asked myself, this is for children? Indeed, is "The Magic Flute," for all the splendor of its 200-year old music, a viable artistic experience for the late 20th century?
Nevertheless, I found myself laughing a lot while I watched the opera. The characters who made me laugh were also the ones for whom I felt a sneaking sympathy. One of these is the prince's sidekick, Papageno, a professional bird-catcher, who would be content if he only had a pretty little wife. The other is the Moor Monostatos, a lone, dark-skinned foreigner among all those fair Europeans. He also feels the need for a woman, although everyone else in the opera thinks of him only as a sub-human jailer. In uncut versions, Monostatos sings a plaintive, if rather lusty, soliloquy over the heroine's sleeping body, including the lines, "I can love girls just as well/Life for me without a woman/Is an ever-burning hell."
That first viewing was three years ago. "The Magic Flute" and I have been intensely involved ever since. Every chance I get, I take another look at the "Flute" and find fresh twists that reveal hidden pieces. Unlike the composer Tchaikovsky (and some of my otherwise reasonable friends), I don't find that "never was so senselessly stupid a subject set to such captivating music."
To me, the timelessness of the "Flute" is explained by the fact that the opera itself is magic -- a tale of good and evil filled with ideas, emotion, and drama so rich, varied, and bizarre that perhaps only the children in us and among us are its best audience.
This helps explain how it stands up so well decade after decade, despite a plot that includes such adult fare as the war between the sexes, Masonic symbols and rituals, the struggle of the Enlightenment to find a foothold in 18th-century Austria, coming of age, the difference between nature's noblemen and nature's commoners, and even the need of men and women for one another in their quest for completeness. It explains too how it survives despite being marred by racial and sexual stereotypes offensive to modern sensitivities. The dramatic tensions that bring me back to this opera are contained in precisely those themes: What are they going to do this time with the problems of feminism, race or the mother-in-law? The long text is not sacrosanct and each new director or set designer rearranges the pieces to give his or her own view of men, women and the world.
My own feeling, five "Magic Flutes" later, is that any production of this opera should aim for inclusiveness. If the opera, as it came from the hands of Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder is over-complicated, absurd, offensive and self-contradictory, we do the artists and their audience a disservice by making it seem sweet, simple and logical. The thing should be brought on in all its messy splendor and the audience allowed to sort it out, each in his or her own way.
The last three "Magic Flutes" I saw made the Moorish jailor Monostatos white. Changing his race works well enough with a few words changed, although it does undermine one lovely line: Papageno's remark while recovering from the shock of encountering Monostatos: "There are black birds in the world, so why shouldn't there be black men?" This reflects a society where most people had probably never seen a black man. The Washington Opera's substitution in its current production (it opened last night and all performances are sold out) is "There are strange birds in the world, so why shouldn't there be strange men?"
The misogynistic element is more pervasive and harder to eliminate without destroying the fabric of the opera. Leaving it untouched offers women in the audience a chance to observe and laugh at the locker-room mystique that pervades the text. A duet (between two men, naturally) omitted in the Washington Opera production, as it usually is in European productions today, gives a fair sample:
"Be on your guard for woman's humors --
That is the rule we follow here.
For often Man believes her rumors,
She tricks him and it costs him dear.
She promises she'll never hurt him,
But mocks his heart, that's true and brave;
At last she'll spurn him and deceive him --
Death and despair was all she gave."
A society that can live with 2 Live Crew can probably survive this kind of thing. When I took my school-age daughters, they laughed at "The Magic Flute's" misogyny. I'm sure that the Viennese women of 1791, who sat in the audience or performed onstage, also recognized and laughed at the stupidity of such sentiments.
If "The Magic Flute" is a fairy story (and it is that, too), we might consider what the late Bruno Bettelheim observed about efforts to clean up that sort of material: Every reality has its dark side, without which it is incomplete. In preparing experiences for our children, we are tempted to eliminate the dark side, but we cannot do that without depriving the characters of complexity and the story of depth. The danger of saturating our children with the kind of two-dimensional, distorted view of life that they get on Saturday morning television may be more serious than the danger of bruising their psyches with the impact of reality.
Kim Klein is a librarian at The Washington Post.