MSA Session at Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center: “Mozart’s Magic Flute: In His Time and Ours”

Saturday, 20 July 2019, 3:00-4:30 p.m.

“…but what pleased me the most was the silent approval —
one truly sees how this opera is becoming more and more popular…”
(Mozart, letter of 7-8 October 1791)

In writing to his wife Constanze (in the spa town of Baden) of the latest performance of his new opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Mozart mentioned the audience’s demand for encores of some of the more folk-like musical numbers (such as “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”), but expressed his satisfaction especially at “der Stille beyfall” – the “silent approval” with which spectators had taken in other parts of the opera. Though Masonic interpretations of the opera have proliferated for the better part of a century, it is far from clear that Mozart’s above-quoted words had anything to do with the craft. Rather, they may point to larger issues of enlightenment, and to the coëxistence of the lofty and the humble, both musically and socially.

Prompted by the 2019 Mostly Mozart Festival’s presentation of The Magic Flute in an innovative staging by Barrie Kosky, Suzanne Andrade, and Paul Barritt, this year’s panel at MMF will address the theme “Mozart’s Magic Flute: In His Time and Ours.” The panel will include three papers and there will be time at the end for questions from the audience.

  • Catherine Coppola (Hunter College): “In Defense of the Text for The Magic Flute

    Misconceptions about women in Mozart’s time and ours have tainted the reception of The Magic Flute. Heavy-handed productions critique it as, at best, an outdated product of its century; at worst, antifeminist. I suggest that the wish to excuse or revise Mozart stems from two fallacies: context—that he did not know of early feminist movements; and change—that we have progressed far enough to be shocked by misogyny in eighteenth-century opera.

    To dispute the first, I refer to Karen Offen and others who describe the robust 18th-century debate around gender. Bertha Joncas suggests that Mozart knew nascent British feminism when his English character proclaimed it in The Abduction from the Seraglio, and I view Flute in light of the nuanced role for women in freemasonry documented by Janet Burke. This is not to declare it a feminist manifesto, but to place Flute amid Barbara Taylor’s “noisily argumentative world… [of the Enlightenment with] the simultaneous degradation and exaltation of women.” That paradox embraces the Queen’s explanatory dialogue and Pamina’s worthiness for initiation. Citing Daniel Heartz’s notion that Flute rose above the gender limitations of freemasonry, Malcolm Cole extends it to race with his reading of Monostatos’s aria as transcending stereotypes.

    On the fallacy of change, gender and racial animus today leave us no moral high ground from which to judge Mozart. One reviewer of the Andrade/Kosky/Barritt staging noted groans from the audience at the line, “women do little but talk a lot,” yet today’s female U.S. Supreme Court justices are interrupted three times as frequently as are males, and diverse 2020 presidential candidates receive scant media attention. Thus, as I will further reveal, the decision of the Festival production to retain misogynist and racist text in Flute is as essential to its place in our time as in its own.
  • Thomas Bauman (Northwestern University, emeritus): “The Magic Flute as Parable: A Triple Alliance”

    For both historians and hermeneuts The Magic Flute has both attracted and repelled any single evaluation or interpretation that claims to have found the key to its meaning. Two centuries have produced a heterogeneous array of divinations based on competing literary sources and models for its plot and characters. Among musicologists, style analysis has made equally poor headway in bridging the break that seems to separate it from Mozart’s court-sanctioned Josephine operas, both German and Italian.

    Yet behind both stalled fronts lies a shared aesthetic consensus: that in spite of its motley exterior the opera is emphatically a unified work of art. Even its libretto, after centuries of Schikaneder-bashing, has won its fair share in the opera’s distinctive Zauberflöten-Ton. Why, then, should its competing interpretations continue to snarl at each other in perpetuity like a pack of junkyard dogs? Could a more cooperative synthesis of their partial insights enrich understanding without sacrificing the work’s integrity?

    To adumbrate such a venture, we propose a possible integration of three prominent interpretive camps, which have construed The Magic Flute as, respectively, a Masonic opera, a fairy-tale opera, and an Enlightenment Erziehungsdrama. If, following the Acts of the Apostles, we regard the opera as a kind of parable, a composite, collaborative synthesis of these three interpretations becomes at least plausible: its Masonic associations set its underlying moral tone, its magic and fairy-tale features color its surface appeal, and its instructive mission illuminates its much-maligned plot as a very human journey toward self-knowledge, conceived on the threshold of a fractured, post-Enlightenment age. This seems a congenial exercise in a postmodern world that has come to favor what Gernot Gruber has called metahistorical interpretations over earlier, causal-historical ones.
  • Martin Nedbal (University of Kansas): “From the Court to the Suburbs: Die Zauberflöte’s Links to Viennese Court Theater and to German Enlightenment Theater Reform”

    Die Zauberflöte was written for Emanuel Schikaneder’s suburban Wiednertheater and incorporates numerous conventions associated with the operas from that institution, such as supernatural elements, a rescue plot, stylistic diversity, and trials of virtue and perseverance. As numerous commentators have pointed out since the opera’s inception, however, Die Zauberflöte also differs significantly from other suburban works. This distinction is particularly prominent in Die Zauberflöte’s approach to ethical and moralistic elements. Unlike most other contemporaneous suburban operas, Die Zauberflöte for the most part avoids risqué humor and does not take a clearly parodistic approach to the enlightenment ideal of theater as a moral institution. Instead, the opera abounds in moments of ethical pathos and outright moralizing.
  • Bruce Alan Brown (University of Southern California), moderator