Opera Blog: “The Magic Flute”: A Conversation with Professor Neal Zaslaw
Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor of Dramaturgy at Emerson College, talks to Professor Neal Zaslaw about Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Prof. Zaslaw is a world-renowned musicologist and the leading expert on Mozart. Between 1978 and 1982 he supervised recordings of all of Mozart’s symphonies by Jaap Schroeder, Christopher Hogwood, and the Academy of Ancient Music. Time magazine called the results “one of the most important projects in the history of recorded sound.” A decade later Professor Zaslaw was dubbed “Mr. Mozart” by The New York Times for organizing the 1991–92 Mozart Bicentennial at Lincoln Center, which staged performances of all of Mozart’s works.
MR: The Magic Flute libretto has undergone many rewrites and re-interpretations. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of some of these rewrites?
NZ: The Magic Flute’s dialogue is never delivered uncut from the stage or on audio or video recordings. It can be found whole only in earnest scholarly publications. Between 1793 and 1798 The Magic Flute was staged in more than sixty central European cities, from Aachen to Saint Petersburg, from London to Zagreb. In none of these productions, the librettos of which I’ve been able to examine, was Schikaneder’s text left unaltered: the dialogue was always cut and revised, and even the texts that Mozart set were sometimes changed. As early as 1794 the play was systematically reworked by Christian August Vulpius for Goethe’s theater in Weimar. Just as interesting is the fact that following Mozart’s death some five weeks after the première of The Magic Flute, and probably even before that, Schikaneder himself was altering the text. Schikaneder revived the show on and off over some two decades, during which time he felt free to ‘update’ the libretto. You have to remember, at that time, the wealthy would go to the theatre every night, often to see the same show. They knew the most popular productions by heart and so they would recognize each alteration to the text. Those who have dealt with the 18th-century opera and operetta writ large know that such practices were the norm. Stage works were commonly revised for each new production, to update them and to deal with local musical and theatrical resources, local audience tastes, reigning ideologies, and the quirks of patrons.
MR: Our new adaptation focuses on the story of self-discovery: the hero’s quest for enlightenment and autonomy. It is an allegorical representation of a young man’s process of growing up, of becoming a man. There is a personal story about Mozart’s own life that suggests that The Magic Flute might be a parable of his own life story. Can you tell us about it?
NZ: Mozart’s family collected everything having to do with his childhood, every scrap of paper, diaries, literally everything. One of the reasons was that Mozart’s father, Leopold, intended to write a book about Mozart’s childhood, in which he was planning to portray himself as the wise man who raised a perfect child. The book never was written, because at the age of twenty-four Mozart ran away from home. It’s not that he didn’t love his father, but his father was such a powerful figure in his life that he wasn’t able to establish his own identity without gaining independence from his father. The model for the intended book was Christian Gellert’s epistolary book, Geistliche Oden und Lieder (1758), a compilation of letters from a wise father to his son. That book inspired Leopold to write his own.
MR: Can we say that it was meant to be an earliest form of Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, chronicling the moral, emotional and psychological growth of the young protagonist? Or, more specifically, Künstlerroman, a story of an artist’s coming to maturity?
NZ: Yes, it was meant to be such a story of education. There is a famous letter from Mozart to his wife, in which he describes how he decided to go to the theatre to see The Magic Flute to see how it’s doing. He sits in the box of a man who clearly seems unimpressed. When the story gets to the crucial moment at which Tamino is standing in front of temple’s three portals, marked Reason, Wisdom and Nature, Mozart attempts to explain the scene’s underlying meaning, and when the man simply laughs, Mozart calls him a jackass and leaves the box in a rage. The reason the plot of The Magic Flute seems so inconsistent is that we see it through Tamino’s eyes, and the world for him is inconsistent. In the first act, he sees the world one way, and then, things change, and he sees them the other way. The only scene for which we have a sketch is that scene with Tamino standing in front of the doors. It means that Mozart had thought long and hard about how he was going to do it. It was an important scene.
MR: Can we say that this moment of Tamino’s choice is the climactic moment of the story?
NZ: Maybe you are right. Maybe this scene at the end of the first act is the climactic scene. In the first act, you have to represent the hero’s confusion and his naïve idealism and inability to figure things out. In the second act, he becomes enlightened. In Bergman’s film version, the story is presented as a custody battle between divorced spouses (the Queen of the Night and Sarastro), with the daughter, Pamina, trapped between them. This is one of the best adaptations, which captures in light and color the essence of the story.
MR: The story is allegorical; that is, it requires the suspension of disbelief for us to be carried away by it. Different elements have contributed to its reception. Can you tell us about it?
NZ: Is Magic Flute a grand opera, a Singspiel, a Hanswurst farce, a fairy tale, a morality play, a magic show, a Bildungsroman, a coded political message, Trinitarian symbolism, the Orpheus story retold, or a Masonic allegory? Because of its complexity and its hybrid nature, The Magic Flute can support any number of interpretations. It is a fairy tale with a serious subtext. The music is a whole other element that makes things emotional and believable, which wouldn’t happen without music. The tension is melodramatic—you have to suspend disbelief at the terror of trial by water and fire. Schikaneder’s theatre was equipped with machines for supernatural effects, such as flying, volcanos, storms, waves, waterfalls, infernos, and rapid set changes. These effects, these illusions, apparently could be surprisingly realistic in the dim lighting of the 18th-century theaters. The curtain never went down between scenes, so the mutations must have been the equivalent of ‘slow fades’ in movies. The music is the element that makes things emotional and ‘believable.’ The tension is melodramatic—for instance, to experience it you must not only suspend disbelief, but also identify with the tender young protagonists, empathetically channeling their terror and courage as they pass through their trials. The Magic Flute was, and is, a popular entertainment serving as the sugarcoating on a serious message, but we can never know precisely what the message was. But even though it made Mozart angry, his immortal work can also be considered simply a delightful excuse for an evening of glorious music.