by BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor of Dramaturgy at Emerson College, Magda Romanska
The Magic Flute is considered one of Mozart’s most enduring masterpieces. The story of how it developed and what it meant at the time it was written has captured people’s imaginations almost as much as the work itself. The story behind The Magic Flute is one of mystery, suspense, and twists and turns that paint a vivid and complex picture of Mozart’s Vienna in the Age of Enlightenment. The opera embodies many philosophical ideals of its era: the quest for self-knowledge, personal growth, and enlightenment; the passionate pursuit of wisdom; the cultivation of the questioning spirit and the open mind; and the need to find balance and moderation and to accept the duality of our lives fully conscious of their powers. Because the opera is structured around a medley of various rituals, some believed to be based on Masonic practices, throughout the centuries, the spectacle of successive productions was built around the perceived notoriety of the enigmatic brotherhood. Boston Lyric Opera’s new version of The Magic Flute strips the story from the accoutrements of the Masonic rituals by recontextualizing the mythical settings. Thus, we attempt to restore the tale to its profound philosophical roots by refocusing on the personal journey toward adulthood and enlightenment. Through trials and tribulations, Tommy (Tamino) finds himself entangled in matters of life and death that force him to rethink his most basic assumptions about love, lust, and commitment, and that teach him how to “think with his heart” by finding a perfect balance between “instincts” and “reason.” To quote Joseph Campbell: “Desire and fear: these are the two emotions by which all life in the world is governed. Desire is the bait, death is the hook.” Throughout the centuries, The Magic Flute has undergone many transformations and rewrites, but our version is the first modern attempt to reclaim the story’s original philosophical and moral dimensions in a way that’s relevant to contemporary viewers. To fully understand, however, the impulse behind such re-imagining of this iconic work, we need to understand the context in which it was initially conceived.
With its new adaptation of The Magic Flute, Boston Lyric Opera attempts to move the story away from the perceived dark magic of the Masons, as many have previously interpreted it, and to restore it to its roots in the ideals of the Enlightenment. Our adaptation focuses on the duality of human nature and the world, as it oscillates between light and darkness, day and night, sun and moon, reason and irrationality. Each character in the story belongs to and symbolizes a different realm, and the story is a parable of the eternal struggle between the dual aspects of our nature. This duality captures the spirit of the Enlightenment, particularly its attempt to find balance and moderation while pursuing the noble cause of reason and self-knowledge. Tamino’s quest for greater self-awareness reflects the classical dictum that “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Our story focuses on the hero’s personal journey, which spurs him to summon his “courage to face trials and to bring a whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for other people to experience” (Campbell, 1988). The hero must face his demons and overcome personal weakness in order to reach a higher consciousness. It is a story of self-revelation and of growing up, of transformation and acceptance. It is both intimate and mythical.
The majority of past productions of The Magic Flute have tended to focus on the solemn spectacle of the initiation and trial, wrapped in an aura of Masonic secrecy. Thus, for centuries, the opera’s style and form overshadowed its content. The moral and philosophical dimensions of the story of personal growth and enlightenment were lost in the enigma of the brotherhood as interrogated and spectacularized through stagecraft. Although we preserve Mozart’s music almost intact, we move the setting away from its original Egyptian context into Mayan ruins as a way to decontextualize the well-known story and thus to make it fresh and to reclaim its initial philosophical intent. The ruins of the Mayan temple, as mysterious and magical as the ancient Egypt, defamiliarize an all too familiar story, forcing us to listen to it again with renewed attention. The rich mythology of the Mayan culture allows us to refocus our production on universal symbols, such as the power of the snake. With multifaced symbolism, the dominant image of the snake reflects the multifaceted reality of the protagonist’s quest and his ultimate transformation. Snakes regularly shed their skin, leaving the old shell behind and reemerging renewed and different. In Mayan mythology, Quetzalcoatl is a deity whose name means “feathered serpent.” His image adorns many Mayan temples and places of worship. The three different layers of the set of our production symbolize the three cardinal elements—wind, water, and fire. With the modern world steeped in violent conflict between opposing ideals, we attempt to reclaim the idealistic legacy of The Magic Flute, to remind us of the enduring principles of the Enlightenment that placed individual responsibility and authority over the self at the center of the discourse on which our modern state was founded and that came to define our modern consciousness.