When I First Heard The Magic Flute, I Hated It. Now I Think It’s Brilliant. What Happened?

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April 10 2012 7:17 AM

Learning To Love Mozart

When I first heard The Magic Flute, I hated it. Now I think it’s among the greatest artworks ever created. What happened?

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When I first heard the opera in my mid-20s, I hadn't yet learned, among many other things, that the greatest art is not necessarily the most perfect. Bach wrote tremendous vocal music but was strangely oblivious to the fact that singers have to breathe. He wrote vocal lines as if they were for violin. The finale of Beethoven's Ninth is clunky and episodic in its form—enough so that Beethoven talked about replacing it. Shakespeare is notoriously weak in dramatic construction and often didn't know when to shut up. I once sat through a reading of The Tempest with a playwright who bitched all the way through, saying that Shakespeare isn't any good because his dramatic arc is so bad. Today I'd argue that among other things a great work is one that has the power to make its faults, even the obvious ones, irrelevant to the experience of the work.

Technique is important; bad technique can sink a piece. In most of his music Mozart is celebrated for the near perfection of every element. But in the end I think none of this makes the ultimate difference in the power of an artwork. Nobody would claim Berlioz was the craftsman his contemporary Cherubini was. Beethoven admired Cherubini, and Brahms had a portrait of him on his wall. But most people these days have never heard of Cherubini unless they know Medea, his only opera still mounted with any regularity, while Berlioz fans are legion. The art that lives through the ages is not just the tightest, or the most organic, or the most anything. It just has a mysterious power to reach us, thrill us, fascinate us, draw us into its world, and to renew itself through the course of our lives and through the centuries.

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The stages in the metamorphosis of Zauberflöte in my mind and heart from stupid commercial sellout to transcendent masterpiece probably trace a common course. First, an exceptional performance that drew me in and began to expand my sense of the work. I think Bergman's is the finest film version of an opera ever, not so much in the music but in the impact of his direction.

The second stage: more listening and thinking. I went back to my deluxe album and listened until the tedious love arias became beautiful, and goofy Papageno became the necessary foil of noble Tamino. It dawned on me that this opera is a parable of love: the earthy love of Papageno and Papagena, the exalted love of Tamino and Pamina, the divine love of Sarastro for all humanity. I concluded that Mozart painted all these characters so lovingly because he was all of them, from the randy Papageno to the godlike Sarastro. Pamina, like all of his women, is a strong, sexy, and memorable character. Much later I realized that at the end Sarastro bestows the highest crown on the couple, because their love—encompassing the sexual and the spiritual—is the most important thing on this earth. "In true love you shall find the origin of wisdom," Sarastro tells his disciples. "That is why I shall resign my power to Pamina and Tamino." Die Zauberflöte was Beethoven's favorite Mozart opera. He echoed it in the “Ode to Joy” finale of the Ninth Symphony: the brotherhood of person and person, the love of husband and wife, can make this world an Elysium, and they're the only things that can. In that sense, the Ninth is Beethoven's Zauberflöte. And Die Zauberflöte is Mozart's The Tempest.

So your perspective on a work deepens and broadens with thought and familiarity. It broadens more with learning. I picked up the book Mozart the Dramatist, by Brigid Brophy. Among its arguments, Brophy deals with the old controversy about Die Zauberflöte, its midcourse switch of hero and villain. Generations of critics and scholars have said that of course Mozart had that in mind all along, that a great artist could never arbitrarily do something so antithetical to drama and sense. As far as I'm concerned, Brophy makes short work of that illusion. Mozart had tremendous judgment in choosing and shaping librettos, but this time he had a co-author. He cooked up the story with producer and huckster Emanuel Schikaneder, whose theater went for flashy and exotic productions that wowed the crowds with special effects. In those respects Die Zauberflöte was a typical Schikaneder concoction. He is credited with the libretto and wrote the part of Papageno for himself, but Mozart still had a big hand in it.

Brophy supplies a motivation for the jarring plot switch: Another version of the same story (both were based on a current novel) opened in Vienna and Mozart and Schikaneder found themselves scooped. For purely showbiz reasons they needed to give their version a new twist, but they didn't want to start over from scratch. So they backed and filled. As a result, Brophy notes, the cobbled-together libretto breaks a fundamental rule of fairy tales: Bad characters can only do bad things. A villain cannot bestow boons. The Queen of the Night is evil, yet the magic flute she gives Tamino saves his bacon, likewise the magical bells she gives Papageno. That's another clue that as the libretto took shape, the Queen started good and ended bad.

There was another and deeper reason for the plot switch. Mozart and Schikaneder were both fervent Freemasons, and the switch gave them a chance to incorporate a Masonic allegory that adds an entire other dimension to the opera—an esoteric undertone not available to a casual modern listener. If Sarastro had stayed a bad guy, he could not have headed a spiritual brotherhood. In being remade as evil, meanwhile, Mozart's Queen of the Night became a representation of Empress Maria Theresa, who suppressed Masonic lodges in Austria. Her very name implies that she brings darkness, suppresses Enlightenment. She became an image of the reactionary tyranny and superstition that the Masons wanted to rid the world of.

So Sarastro's brotherhood is a thinly veiled representation of a Masonic lodge, the trials of the lovers a parallel to the secret initiation rites symbolizing death and rebirth into wisdom. (In reality, women were not allowed in the lodges—Pamina's initiation is an echt-Mozart touch.) The word brother in both Die Zauberflöte and in Beethoven's Ninth resonates with the central significance of brotherhood in Masonry.

So for me the switch of Mozart's opera from bad to good echoed Sarastro's switch. It has been a long journey of discovery and deepening. The process has involved experience, changing perspectives, thinking, and reading. But the work has to stay fresh on its own, too. The music has to be good enough to last a lifetime, to return to over and over as one ages and changes.

Rodin's Balzac sculpture at the MoMA.
Rodin's Balzac sculpture at the MoMA in New York

Photo courtesy of MoMA.

Of course, even when a work grabs us on first acquaintance and never lets go, it still evolves. Since college I've visited the Rodin statue of Balzac in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. From the beginning it became a touchstone in my life. The statue shows the writer standing on the brink of a precipice, wrapped in a coat, his eyes looking into infinity, his face riven with pain and tragic wisdom and mangled by the fingers of the sculptor in the original clay. For the first years I knew it, this was for me simply the ultimate image of the artist. As I learned and grew it became an image not of every artist, but rather the Romantic myth of the Genius. For years as I pulled away from the Romantic genius-cult I looked at the statue more coolly, as a great representation of a dead myth. Then I saw a museum show of Rodin's studies for the statue. It had been commissioned for a memorial to Balzac and was finally rejected as altogether too weird. I began looking at it from Rodin's perspective, as the end point of a long struggle to understand and embody an idea. For me that realization made the statue timeless again, redefined and revitalized it for me.