Twenty-First Century Exoticism: Taymor Does the Magic Fluteby Betty Leigh Hutcheson
What do dancing bears, birds on stilts, and neon lights have in common? They are features of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, directed by Julie Taymor, in the first new production by the Metropolitan Opera House in twenty years. First staged in 2004 to mixed reviews, this season the Met introduced an abbreviated English-language version to bring the opera to a wider audience. Taymor’s rendering of the popular opera includes her stunning signature puppets and requires twenty puppeteers for each performance. They take many shapes and sizes, from small exotic birds to 20-foot dancing bears and a splendid bird stretching across half the stage and bathed in soft light as it floats against darkness. Neon lighting and fanciful costumes are also part of Taymor’s interpretation. How do these elements find a place in a work conceived for a popular audience with underlying meaning tied to Masonic ideals?
Written in 1791 shortly before Mozart died, this opera offers both a magical tale and a story filled with moral meaning, physicality and desire, meaning and enlightenment, and a combination of musical styles from quasi–folk music to coloratura. In the story, a prince named Tamino is chased by a serpent that is soon slain by three ladies who work for the Queen of the Night. Having lost conciousness, Tamino is awakened by Papageno, an earthy bird catcher, also in service to the Queen, who then claims credit for slaying the serpent. Things are not what they seem, and the magic increases as the ladies silence Papageno with a lock over his mouth, but offer Tamino a picture and a quest: to rescue the Queen’s beautiful daughter, whose picture Tamino now adores, from her imprisonment by the evil Sarastro. These circumstances provide for the plot to unfold, magical on the surface, but metaphysical below.
To produce the Magic Flute, Mozart teamed up with a theatre director, Emmanuel Schikaneder, who wrote humorous musicals based on fairy tales. For Mozart, a story that would appeal to popular audiences was the perfect vehicle for promoting his Masonic beliefs. At age twenty-eight, Mozart joined the Freemasons, a rationalist culture which claimed philosophic lineage from Egyptian culture, retaining its symbols and penchant for elaborate ritual. Freemason ideals intersected with those of the Enlightenment, causing the Austrian Masons to support the reforms of Leopold II. Though Leopold enacted many humanistic reforms to the religious and political systems of Austria, his rule was strict and overreaching—he forced the Masons to restructure, bringing them under his control. Mozart’s view of the political tension as well as his belief in Masonic ideals underlie the fairy tale that appeals to many.
Taymor’s production carries off the magical story well and proves a delightful diversion. The stage is cleverly set with four separate plexiglass façades, each some thiry feet tall, by designer George Tsypin, which are introduced as a unified square that later breaks apart and rotates into different positions to accommodate different scenes. Rather than introducing entirely new sets between scenes, the main pieces are simply moved and relit. Each façade has columns and different motifs, reminiscent at times of the Near East, at others of Mesoamerica, and are filled with green and blue fluorescent tubes of sometimes indeterminate glyph shapes. When lit, the set pieces are luminous, and the stage seems to glow, an effect heightened by reflective floor covering. These structures dominate the stage in all but a few scenes, where they are removed completely or their presence is subdued by diminished lighting. When the fluorescent tubes are lit and overlaid with flashing lights, the resulting atmosphere, however, is more arcade than Arcadia.
The sets show Taymor’s emphasis on the magical aspects of the story, but sometimes cause serious problems. The worst offense occurs in Act Two when a front curtain serves as backdrop for Sarastro’s aria, “In diesen heil’gen Halle.” Behind this curtain, and at the same time, the sets are changed. The noise from moving these huge structures is too evident. Instead of enjoying this passage, beautiful in content, form, and delivery, I felt annoyed.
The puppets are magical and usually occupy a presence on stage unencumbered by stage sets. A large bird floats by against a backdrop of darkness; dancing birds on stilts anthropomorphize gracefully into companions for Papageno; huggable bears dance in the forest. In the latter scene, five oversize bears of varying heights, managed by eleven puppeteers, clearly delighted the audience as they danced, enchanted by the music of the magic flute and chimes. A blank stage, devoid of extraneous plexiglass, adds to the effect.
Early productions set the opera in a magical Egypt, and Taymor’s interpretation shares an interest in the exotic. Just as Egypt was a far-away, magical place for Western audiences in the late eighteenth-century, so puppetry, neon, and plexiglass are for us. Taymor’s 1997 production of The Lion King reintroduced different traditions of puppetry to wider American audiences, and their use has gained in popularity. (Bunraku puppets were recently featured in a new Met production of Madame Butterfly directed by filmmaker Anthony Minghella, replacing the usual child actor playing Butterfly’s son.) An unknown cultural frontier has been replaced by less familiar performance styles and stage adaptations. While Mozart placed the action in an imaginary Egypt, so Taymor has Tamino wander through an exotic, multicultural landscape zinging with technological wizardry and fantastical puppets.
Taymor’s costumes are drawn from many sources. The Queen of the Night first appears in a flowing dress with six wing-like extensions controlled by puppeteers who moved them somewhat unsuccessfully in time to the music. (This unnecessary distraction is another example of the production detracting from the music.) The Queen’s second aria, perhaps the most famous, brought her to the stage in brilliant red with extended bell-shaped sleeves and hem. Her attenuated appearance extended to her hands where long pointed sticks were attached to her fingers. (Think of the evil stepmother in Disney’s Snow White.) Papageno’s costume of green tights with wire and wooden trappings and trinkets is wonderfully filled out by the energetic and hunky Nathan Gunn. Sarastro, Egyptian in the original production, appears here as an Aztec or Mayan priest; the three temple priests and the chorus wear geometric, Bauhaus-like designs. Three young spirits, played by children, are made-up and costumed solely in white, with white, knee-length beards. They join the performance by floating down from above the stage seated on swings to sing “Be Patient, Truthful, and Courageous.” The ethereal spirits are bathed in soft light against a black stage—a magical moment.
Monostatos’s costume is the most inventive, with ripped leather bodice and (fake) bulging flesh, open-toed, ankle-strap pumps, and bizarre facial makeup that seemed derived from photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Joel Peter Witkin. Monostatos as the evil Moor is downplayed, but Taymor shows his shirtless troupe of threatening followers as Turks in flowing, blouson pants who are tamed by Papageno’s chimes. This depiction comes close to an outdated stereotype. Why use this view of the exotic other when an amalgam of cultural traits exist in other characters? This aside, the costumes were nothing less than remarkable.
The Met presented an excellent slate of singers for the December 20th performance. Nathan Gunn as Papageno was endlessly entertaining. Cornelia Götz, in her Met debut, presented nearly flawless singing in the role of the Queen of the Night, though her voice did not project well. Christopher Strehl, also in a Met debut, sung the role of Tamino and presented a well-executed, soulful rendering of “Dies Bildnisin” in Act One. His singing seemed strained at times in duets with Pamina, whose strong voice introduced phrases forcefully. My favorite singer for this performance is Stephen Milling as Sarastro, the benevolent father/king. Even high in the balcony, his voice elicited a visceral response. Its power was never forced but rose in warm tones to the furthest corners of the house.
Superb singing extended to an abridged English-language production of Taymor’s creation. I witnessed another Met debut on January 1st by Ying Huang as Pamina. Possessing a lovely voice, Huang gracefully delivered carefully modulated lines. Her voice seemed well matched to the Tamino for this performance, sung by Matthew Polenzani. Erika Miklósa as the Queen of the Night delivered a spine-tingling performance; the audience’s appreciation was clear during her curtain call. She has sung this role in productions at Covent Garden, Bastille Opera, Vienna State Opera, and others, and has clearly perfected the difficult coloratura passages.
This 90-minute version is among the Metropolitan Opera’s recent attempts to attract new audiences. Staged several times during the 2006-07 holiday season, the abridged version was broadcast live to movie theaters in digital high-definition video. (The Met has also begun to offer current and archival broadcasts through Sirius radio.) The audience for the performance I attended was filled with families whose children who were not the distraction they might have been for a full-length performance. Some omissions were made that might leave aficionados bereft, but younger audience members and those less familiar with opera gained an entertaining introduction. The overture is all but omitted—the essential three chords sound before the curtain rises. Unfortunately some of Pamina’s music is cut, including “Ach, ich fühl’s,” but the opera engaged the audience at hand. In one scene, Papageno, dispirited by his unsuccessful quest for love, threatens suicide unless someone stops him before the count of three. In the pause after two, one young audience member yelled an emotional “No!”
The Playbill for this performance was aimed at a less knowledgeable audience and had fewer pages than that for the full-length performance. All German titles were translated to English and an insert included features like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” which explained the story and connected the characters by using a diagram with performance photos. The program included “What’s on Your I-Pod?” with Met singer’s favorite songs, revealing them as human beings rather than opera stars. Who knew that Nathan Gunn listened to Pantera and Rahmstein to ready himself for work, and Tony Bennett to unwind? Or that Director Julie Taymor grooves to Jimi Hendrix and U2 in preparation for a musical collaboration with Bono?
The ending for both the full-length and shortened productions is the same: a scene with a beautiful transition from dark to light. Monastatos has joined the Queen of the Night in the hopes of satisfying his infatuation with Pamina. In a scheme to kill Sarastro, they enter the temple, but are overwhelmed by a large golden silk sheet and disappear. The lights are raised and everywhere visible are hues of white, yellow, and gold. The final glorious chorus is sung, and goodness and light triumph over evil.
The Metropolitan Opera should be commended for its outreach, necessary for survival in these days of dwindling opera audiences, through video simulcasts (five more are scheduled for this season), innovative promotional materials (including cheaper tickets), excellent casts and creative direction, and, yes, for producing a Magic Flute that values entertainment and a good tale over emphasizing metaphysical meaning. Given the choice between an opera with only high entertainment values or no opera at all, I’ll take dancing bears any day—and enjoy them.
ContributorBetty Leigh Hutcheson