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Reflection: Mizrahi Makes This 'Magic Flute' A Bit Too Much Fun

David Gonsier as an owl and Levi Hernandez as Papageno in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis 2014 production of The Magic Flute.
Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Mozart’s Songspiel “The Magic Flute” functions at the summit of human achievement as one of the most affecting and popular works in the history of this medium we call opera – Italian for “work” -- which of course that great aesthetic synthesizer is, and which each individual production is as well. Opera is very hard work.

This music drama has a venerable history of performances at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. It was “The Magic Flute” in fact, that helped to generate the founding of Opera Theatre almost four decades ago. In the mid-1970s, a seriously underfunded, loving-hands-at-home performance of it in a sweaty suburban college gymnasium showed such promise and generated such melomanic enthusiasm that soon, American music history took on a fresh, new organization. Since then, Opera Theatre has endured and has gone from strength to strength, building muscle both by taking risks and maintaining allegiance with tradition.

In 1976, Richard Gaddes came to town from Santa Fe and, with a band of the determined and the faithful, produced the first season on a $135,000 shoestring. “Flute” wasn’t in the first season’s repertory, but has been several times since – in 1980, 1984 and 2002. The late Colin Graham’s productions of the Songspiel were remarkable for many reasons, not only for their musicality but for their intellectual and emotional depth and by the fact they were distinguished by a special, ineffable vitality of aesthetic cognition.

Along with a number of operas by Benjamin Britten (including the titanic “Peter Grimes” and his majestically powerful “Gloriana”) and as with his realization of Berlioz’s “Beatrice and Benedict” and contemporary works by Minoru Miki, Graham’s “Magic Flutes” radiated brilliance. Their effects linger, forming part of a treasury of silvery memories, emotional and intellectual cash in the bank to be drawn upon when times get bad, as they have now, very much indeed.

“The Magic Flute” – “Die Zauberflote” -- was introduced to audiences in Vienna at Emanuel Schikaneder’s Theater auf der Wieden in September 1791. Schikaneder wrote the libretto and, in fact, performed the role of Papageno in the premiere of this 18th century hit. Sadly, Mozart would never know just how popular this show would be. He died in early December of 1791 at the age of 35.

Both Mozart and Schikaneder were Freemasons, devout and enthusiastic Freemasons, evangelistic Freemansons, and their membership in this fraternal organization and their zeal is at the heart of “Flute.” Elements of Masonic beliefs and the employment of Masonic symbolism are threads that run through the work in both bright and shiny fashion as well as in more subtle and demure ways. Most dramatically evident is the initiation of the hero, Tamino, into the fraternity, but there are other references – the uses of the number three and the gathering of characters into groups of three, for example.

And in this trinity, there are the three tenets of Freemasonry: brotherly love (which encompassed everyone in the world, not just brothers by blood or members of one’s fraternal organization); relief (the commitment to charity and support of the poor); and the pursuit of truth are presented in the dramatic progress of a production – or should be anyway. In a faithful presentation of “Flute,” these noble tenets come through almost subliminally – or magically -- not in some preachy fashion but part of an evolution forward, especially in the love and lives of Pamina and Tamino.

Sean Panikkar as Tamino
Credit Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Sean Panikkar as Tamino.

There is in general a steady progression from the darkness into the light, and the ethic of reciprocity is emphasized throughout. This ethic, largely dismissed and abandoned in 21st century life, is the acorn from which Freemasonry and all the world’s great religions and ethical organizations have grown. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, is the message. It is The Golden Rule.

This movement toward the light – to truth as well as we can ascertain it, and in pursuit of humane behavior – is “The Magic Flute’s” most compelling lesson. The European Enlightenment of the 18th century was dedicated to directing humankind away from superstition and toward the light of reason,  and to establish a nuanced understanding of the notion of sense of human equality, a notion that proclaims that drover and king deserve equal treatment morally and legally.

The maternal Queen of the Night (who eventually comes to stand in the light) is darkness personified. The father figure Sarastro personifies rationality and intellectual illumination. In all of this, there is the hope of, the yearning for, redemption in this world rather some promised eternal life. If “opera” – this most glorious art form – is to continue to matter, it must satisfy not only our pathetic lust for escape and amusement but also a more compelling need for direction down the path to the rational, the enlightened and the truthful.

Claire de Sévigné as The Queen of the Night and Elizabeth Zharoff as Pamina
Credit Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Claire de Sévigné (left) as The Queen of the Night and Elizabeth Zharoff as Pamina

All this suggests that “The Magic Flute” is not a work of art to be trifled with. Fifty years ago – 50! – Susan Sontag wrote a sprawling essay, “Notes On Camp,” published by the Partisan Review, an essay consisting of 58 theses. “Camp” became one of the most important and persuasive intellectual dissections of aethetics and behavior of the last century and is present effulgently in this one.

Camp is a rather simple notion fundamentally. It is the segregation, appreciation, validation and glorification of things thought to be “so yesterday” or tacky or somehow indelibly attractive and involving. Ten years ago, if you’d declared skinny ties and “modern” furniture and ranch-style houses aesthetic treasures, you’d have been laughed out of the cocktail party. However, the hipsters ruled, and mid-century is cool again, for now anyway. Something newly Campy is identified every day: eyeglasses, costume jewelry, lamps, dinnerware, on and on and on. Nothing is excluded from the possible grasp of Camp.

In her complex and intricate notes, Sontag wrote, “Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.”

(L to R) Opera Theatre’s chorus with Spencer Viator as a Priest, Elizabeth Zharoff as Pamina, and Matthew Anchel as Sarastro in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis 2014 production of The Magic Flute.
Credit Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis
From left: Opera Theatre’s chorus with Spencer Viator as a Priest, Elizabeth Zharoff as Pamina, and Matthew Anchel as Sarastro.

In this new production of “The Magic Flute”that opened Saturday, Camp, like a non-poisonous and rather inefficient serpent, snakes its way through the production, wearing saddle Oxfords and baby clothes; presenting tacky variations on a theme called "of Dior"; choristers done up in red look o’ double-knit blazers. At one point, this chorus (note well, this excellent chorus) goes down on one knee and then the other. One expects a dance routine out of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”  

So what’s the big deal, right? What’s the matter with all of that? Most everyone I talked to Saturday night was saying “What fun this show is!” and that is right on the money. The only problem is this: “Flute,” like all truly great art, is serious, and in its powerful way, and intellectually sacrosanct, not glittery or Campy or gauche, and when you think about it, hard work, and not much fun.

Isaac Mizrahi is celebrated for his fashion designing and work as a presenter in television. Four years ago he directed a satisfying “A Little Night Music” for Opera Theatre, and his being invited back as designer and director for this “Singspiel,” the last of Mozart’s music dramas, has been widely praised for its audacity. From what I’ve heard, he is a fine colleague and works hard and collegially, too.

The 2014 “Flute” has its moments, but in the main they are due to the enlightened musicality of the conductor-genius Jane Glover CBE, whose reading of the score Saturday evening was as flawless as it was elegant. Glover is a polymath – conductor, teacher, artistic collaborator, a writer, and a scholar of Mozart as well as a presenter of his work, and the music of many others, ancient and modern. The New York Times recently described her as “magisterial.” Indeed. By immersion, it seems she has come to know Mozart. She is the author of “Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music.” Note the presence of three in that title.

There are superior musicians at working with Glover in this show, particularly its Pamina, Elizabeth Zharoff and, of course, the great St. Louis Symphony in the pit.

And so, in spite of this regretful take on the 2014 “Flute,” it’s worthy of a trip to the Loretto Hilton Theatre. To continue to attempt to shed some of my curmudgeonly feathers, the Mizrahi “Flute” deserves commendation for its audacity. Other operagoers may find the joy and possibility of redemption I had hoped to find.

In St. Louis, as we strive to reinvent ourselves, we need Opera Theatre and its fearlessness as never before. Although I longed Saturday night for the blessings “The Magic Flute” can bestow, I look forward with joy to meeting Gertrude Stein and a dialogue with those Carmelites in operas to come in the next weeks.

Bravery and audacity have their own rewards.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.