Saturday, August 6, 2011

Never let your squeamish daughter do the job of a professional assassin

Watching a performance of Mozart's Magic Flute on a Dutch TV channel that seems to be dedicated to theater and opera recordings, while waiting for my Bolognese sauce to be done ("a 5- or 6-hour simmer is not unusual", says Wikipedia. I think I'm willing to wait for about an hour). I've always had a soft spot for this opera, perhaps because it was the first one I've seen with my parents, or perhaps simply because its music is undeniably catchy and, while there is a sense of gravity permeating the story, there's also an abundance of pure silliness.

Watching the final scenes I realize again that I never really liked Sarastro; the Queen of the Night seemed much more human, not despite but rather because of her shortcomings, in comparison to the seemingly superhuman Sarastro. Then I started wondering if Mozart, if he would have been alive today, would have written the opera in the same way as it is. (Yes, Schikaneder wrote the libretto, but I believe -- i.e. I'm too lazy to fact check the following statement -- that the overall theme and story of the opera is largely based on Mozart's personal believes). What I'm going for, is this: the Queen of the Night represents, roughly speaking, everything in human nature that is unenlightened; superstition, irrationality, perhaps even faith, or at least its unquestioning variety. Sarastro embodies (again, as an approximation) the opposed principles of enlightenment; rationalism, tolerance, self-determination.

Those values (of enlightenment) almost certainly were the most pressing political and cultural desires of that time, especially for open-minded and creative individuals, including but not limited to artists such as Mozart himself. And, make no mistake, for large parts of our world today, they still are values that are longed and fought for by many. But for some, the relatively few ("few" on a global scale, "substantial minority" perhaps within the industrialized nations) that have in fact been raised in an environment that puts reason and self-determination above everything else, it sometimes might seem that the primacy of the intellect is not entirely satisfying either.

It's an idle thought, probably, and I'm really not at risk of getting nostalgic about pre-democratic society, but I do wonder what a modern Magic Flute would look and sound like, one in which the pompously rational Sarastro is the antagonist and a deeply flawed, deeply human Queen of the Night is the protagonist.

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