Talking about the sublime, the ridiculous, and The Magic Flute gives me a
chance to plug my favorite opera book: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA by Sir Denis
Forman (1998 Random House paperback; original 1994 British title THE GOOD
OPERA GUIDE). It gives plot summaries, musical synopses, background and
commentary on 83 operas, then adds sections on composers, conductors,
singers, and miscellaneous operatica. Forman was deputy chairman of the
Royal Opera House at Covent garden for 9 years, and his approach is loving,
unpretentious, and (to say the least) irreverent. The book is informative,
provocative, and extremely funny. Here are some excerpts from the section
on The Magic Flute (forgive the length, but they give you the full flavor):
From plot summary:
"Papageno an ornithological nutcase enters dressed as bird carrying
cages of birds etc. I'm a cheerful birdlike chappie he says and I'm
fed up with catching forest birds. I fancy birds of another kind
for sex romps domestic bliss etc. Who are you? asks Tamino incidentally
I am very classy royal son of important foreign king. Me? says
Papageno. I am a totally ignorant bum employed by the Queen of the
Night as an assistant birdcatcher. I supply birds in exchange for
food and drink. The Queen of Night? says Tamino didn't I read about
her in my dad's Financial Times? By the way are you a human being or
a bird? A human says Papgeno also I'm very strong. Hey, is that
serpent dead? Yes, says Tamino. In that case I killed it says
From musical synopsis:
"1. Enter Tamino pursued by a serpent, singing a little wimpishly
and passing out almost at once.
2. Enter the Three Ladies who promptly kill the serpent (fanfare)
and go on to boast about it.
3. Now look out for a lovely strain in the lower strings as the
Ladies focus on sexy Tamino and sing in turn What a dreamboat! Then
together: Let's tell Madam about him. Here the Three set their
style, which doesn't change throughout. it is close-ish harmony,
sometimes the top Lady leading, sometimes one of the lower Ladies
moving around snakily below. they have their own tempo too, never
very fast, never very slow."
"Of course you can make a case for anything to be a logical
narrative, whether it be Finnegan's Wake, Jabberwocky or the book
of Revelation, and there is no doubt that the Flute offers a pretty
good challenge...Technically, putting on the Flute must have been
pretty like the putting on of a pantomime which has to be adapted
from rehearsal to rehearsal to meet new timings for scene changes,
to cut gags that don't work, to rewrite a scene to cover a weak
artist, to put in all the new ideas that are better than the old
ideas, to reshape an act to meet the lighting cues--in all of this
ad hoc activity the success of each scene becomes paramount and the
mainframe story, unless the producer is a genius, will get a bit
lost. Neither Schikaneder nor Mozart was this kind of genius.
Schikaneder was not a serious writer, rather something between P.T.
Barnum and Donald Wolfit, Mozart, though certainly a musical and
probably a mathematical genius too, was not a literary man and
certainly no Masonic John Bunyan. To think that these two, whilst
working against the clock and trying to cope with all the problems
of composition and production, could have evolved some great
philosophical masterpiece, is just potty."
And you should see what he does with the Ring...