The Magic Flute by Mozart was the first opera I ever saw, and I fell madly in love. But when I saw it for the second time, this summer, I felt very differently about the story. The music remains sublime, the early-on fun remains enchanting.
But the kidnapping of the daughter of the Queen of the Night begins the not-so-subtle praising of the patriarchy and contempt for the more organic and less rigid (read: uncontrolled) female principle. First there are attempted seductions and perhaps violence on the part of one of the servants of the leader of the Temple, Sarastro, who spends his time singing about wisdom. All of this could likely be sung away, because the princesses attending the Queen of the Night are really very direct about their interest in the Prince who has arrived on the scene.
But the scenes in the Temple in Act II, where Tamino is to undergo his initiation rites, approach scary. The rigidity of the Temple initiates, in this German piece written in the 18th century, who hold their fists to their hearts – which looks just like the first part of the Nazi salute – and who praise only the leader, and the glorious obligation of total obedience to him – look to me like the beginning of the obsession that led to two world wars in the 20th century. The insistence that Tamino pass hardships and tests – including not responding to Pamina (who then contemplates suicide) – and the praise for his hardness and self-negation are chilling. Finally Pamina is allowed to accompany him on the trials by water and fire because she has shown similar hardness and self-denial and thus is a worthy partner for the paragon prince.
And it all ends with glorious music and more martial behavior. No cute animal puppets here. And of course the Queen and her handmaidens are banished. Ugh. A real parable of the destruction of women and women’s values by the patriarchy, and we all know how that played out in the world.
There has been rapid change in some of the western nations in regard to women’s status and equality. But the old days are not that long ago and not that far away – particularly when they are kept alive by becoming a children’s classic, as The Magic Flute is seen to be.
I am not blaming Mozart, but could certainly blame his patrons, and all those who paid him to perpetuate these myths – nay, lies – in such a compelling way. Again I say – Ugh.