Translating The Magic Flute

When I got a call last year about translating a new Magic Flute libretto for an English-language production at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The Magic Flute had ...

When I got a call last year about translating a new Magic Flute libretto for an English-language production at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The Magic Flute had always been one of my all-time favorite operas, though I’d never paid particular attention to the libretto. Mozart composed the opera as a collaboration with librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, who ran a theatrical and musical troupe that first performed the work—with Schikaneder himself singing the role of Papageno. The opera was tailor-made for that group as well, with a couple of virtuoso parts (notably Queen of the Night, first played by Mozart’s sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, and Sarastro) alongside easier roles. Papageno’s own role is a crucial one dramatically, since he anchors the opera’s comic strand as the work’s official buffoon, with his own comical romance mirroring that of his noble-born foil Tamino. But Mozart wrote Schikaneder a role that would be more forgiving to sing, with the orchestra anticipating his every entrance and handing him the notes to help him reliably enter in tune.

Mozart and Schikaneder were freemasons and lodge brothers, and they planned this opera as a tribute to and illustration of Masonic values. The rivalry between high priest Sarastro and the Queen of the Night is a classic good-versus-evil story, with Sarastro representing light, wisdom, truth, and religious faith, while the Queen stands for darkness, ignorance, betrayal, and mistrust. The dark skin of the villainous Monostatos (“the Moor”), who flees Sarastro’s order and becomes the Queen’s sidekick in the second act, is intended as a visual representation of her unsavory qualities in the sort of casual racism that probably raised few European eyebrows in 1791, when the opera was first performed. And probably no one made much fuss either about the libretto’s persistent misogyny that, for example, has the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting agreeing with Sarastro’s priests that women are just idle gossips whose judgment cannot be trusted.

In 2014, these attitudes look quite different, and I wanted to signal this shift in my translation of the libretto, creating an updated Flute more grounded in the values of our age. I’d been invited to take some liberties—at least in the spoken or “book” sections of the opera: for the sung portions, the decision had already been made to use Andrew Porter’s beautiful singing translation, though I would be allowed to tweak it. Did I forget to mention that the person who tapped me to collaborate on this project was Isaac Mizrahi, the opera’s director? He wanted this Flute to feel magical in terms that make sense in our time, which would involve adjustments to the storyline as well as what turned out to be 100 pounds of glitter.

You no doubt already know the basic plot of Schikaneder’s tale. If not, here it is (spoiler alert—I’m about to give away the plot, such as it is—skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to hear it). Wise Sarastro kidnaps the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, because he wants to save the promising girl from being brought up wrong by her mother. The Queen engages Tamino, a prince who happens to be wandering by, to rescue her daughter from captivity. For some reason Sarastro has entrusted the girl to his servant Monostatos, who frightens and threatens her and at one point appears about to rape her. Tamino and his comic sidekick Papageno try to free the girl, but Tamino is soon won over by Sarastro’s priests, who convince him that Sarastro is the good guy in this conflict, and Tamino decides to join the priesthood. In order to do this, he must submit to three trials (for one of which Pamina joins him), and in the end he is declared Sarastro’s heir along with his bride Pamina, and everyone cries hurrah and is happy, except for the Queen and Monostatos, who literally go to hell.

By the way, if you ever wondered what exactly the Queen is singing about in that famous aria of hers that sends her voice into the stratosphere, it’s a stunningly ruthless bit of wickedness: she’s slipped into Pamina’s prison in Sarastro’s fortress (how’d she get in? oh, right, she has magical powers), but instead of freeing her daughter, she hands her a dagger and orders her to kill Sarastro, saying that if Pamina fails to do so, she (the mother) will renounce her and cast her out forever. Great mothering, right? I guess Schikaneder really didn’t want us to like her.

Rather than making major changes to the storyline, we decided to put implicit 21st-century quotation marks around certain bits.

One major problem with the overall plotline as viewed from 2014 is that while in Schikaneder’s vision of the opera Tamino is wisely recognizing the path of true virtue and justice when he decides to join Sarastro’s order, to us he just looks gullible, as if he’s impulsively joined a cult. And while it was revolutionary in 1791 to see a female character (Pamina) accepted into Sarastro’s order at the side of her bridegroom, in 2014 we see that the primary agency for her advancement lies in the hands of men. For most of the opera, she is a passive victim: we see her get kidnapped, get rescued, shrink with fear, beg for mercy, and submit to Sarastro’s better judgment. The greatest agency she shows is at the moment when she attempts suicide in the belief that she has lost Tamino’s affections. For the most part, Schikaneder shows us men in charge.

The main difficulty in trying to adjust Schikaneder’s plotline is that Mozart’s music gorgeously supports the worldview presented in the opera, with Sarastro’s music stately and harmonious, the Queen’s often hysterical, and Monostatos’s filled with hectic nervous nastiness. The story is being told not just in the words but in the music too. So rather than making major changes to the storyline, we decided to tweak the story more subtly, putting implicit 21st-century quotation marks around certain bits so that the production points to certain aspects of the storyline and winks at the audience. Isaac created a silent “frame-tale” for the Queen, casting her as an aging starlet who looks over the scene from the catwalk of a vast sound stage, observing the action with knowing world-weariness: Yes, she will be defeated in performance after performance, and yes, Sarastro will get his way. But she remains as immortal as Greta Garbo, whose picture stares out at us from the opera’s poster.

The Queen understands that history is written by the victors, and that while Sarastro proclaims victory again and again, this is by virtue of his military might and not necessarily his moral right. Sarastro is the law / the State / the seat of power. I thought of his character the other week while reading about the trial of Cecily McMillan, an Occupy Wall Street protester who was sexually assaulted by NYPD officer Grantley Bovell two years ago: he came up behind her and grabbed her breast so hard his fingers were outlined in bruises on her skin days later, and when she reflexively shot an elbow back, he beat her so badly she went into seizures that were captured on video. Despite the physical evidence (and the fact that the officer kept changing his testimony as to which eye he got elbowed in), she was found guilty of a felony (assaulting a police officer), and has to consider herself lucky she was sentenced to “only” three months in prison, since she was facing a sentence of up to seven years. Maybe her sentence was kept comparatively light because of concerns about the backlash if this educated young white woman (she’s a graduate student) had been assigned serious jail time; though of course it’s nothing new—and recently all too common—to see young people of color not merely assaulted but sometimes even killed outright by police officers with apparent impunity. It’s utterly galling, and yet this is the reality we’ve been living with for a while now. The State does usually prevail, right or wrong. I can’t help thinking about this sort of legalized injustice when I hear Sarastro’s fanfare and the stunningly triumphant and glorious music Mozart wrote for him.

The tweaked libretto invites us to question Sarastro’s perfect goodness and wisdom even as the music is telling us to honor it.

My biggest intervention in the libretto was to turn Monostatos from a cartoon of evil into a round character. His grand aria from Act II—originally a song about how he’s going to have his way with Pamina because it isn’t fair that she rejects him because of the color of his skin—now gets performed in Act I, just after Pamina and Papageno have sung their sweet duet about how love is the most important thing in all the world. I changed a few of Monostatos’s lines so that—presto magico—it’s no longer a song about a rape-in-the-making but rather one of agitated hurt, with Monostatos singing about how it feels always to be rejected in love, an angry lament prefaced by a spoken complaint about being Sarastro’s “eternal lackey, never to become a priest.” This aria is then followed by the grand Act I finale in which Sarastro sweeps in with his entourage and sings about how reason and virtue are going to triumph as always. But when Sarastro now punishes Monostatos for harassing Pamina, it looks quite different than in Schikaneder’s original: We now see Sarastro punishing a man the audience has just felt sympathy for, a man whose motives have been misunderstood. In Schikaneder’s version, Monostatos’s punishment is clearly merited, and the audience can rejoice along with the chorus that this scoundrel has received his just reward. The tweaked libretto invites us to question Sarastro’s perfect goodness and wisdom even as the music is telling us to honor it.

There’s so much more to say about the underpinnings of this glorious opera. For four days of rehearsals two weeks ago, I was able to watch conductor Jane Glover (who’s already conducted the Flute
a number of times, including the abbreviated version put on at the Met this winter) coaching the singers on their roles, and it’s been incredible. She has such brilliant insights as to how to shape each phrase to make both the character and the musicality come out. One issue in singing a translated libretto is that the most important words don’t always fall right where the musical stresses naturally lie, and Glover worked extensively with the singers (backed up by diction specialist Erie Mills, who sang the Queen’s role herself in her performing days) on making sure the key words come out clearly without disturbing the musical line. It sounds gorgeous.

There’s yet another major collaborator involved in this project: choreographer John Heginbotham, whose dancers are playing a number of non-speaking roles in the opera, often in animal costumes designed by Mizrahi (as are all the costumes in the show as well as the set itself). The Queen’s messengers are a pair of dancing monkeys. When Tamino first plays his magic flute, a crowd of beasts come out to listen and sashay. And a pair of romantic dancers (dancing ballet style) “double” Pamina and Tamino, underscoring the romanticism of their storyline—a storyline now changed by implication in the opera’s new context. While for Mozart/Schikaneder these young lovers are downright heroic, in my mind they are naive, obedient, conformist. They are officially the lead roles in the opera: they have the most songs and are being sung by amazing singers (Elizabeth Zharoff and Sean Panikkar), but their love story is a little like the plot of a Hallmark card; I prefer the earthier romance of Papageno with his more straightforward longings for a chick to call his own. In any case, The Magic Flute is a story with a charming happy ending, and we worked hard on making it funny as well as moving. If you’re anywhere near St. Louis, I hope you’ll come out to see the magic that Glover, Mizrahi, Heginbotham, and I have woven. The opera premieres on May 24 and runs until June 28. icon

Featured image: Dancing animals costume design sketch by director and designer Isaac Mizrahi for the Opera Theatre of St. Louiss production of The Magic Flute. Courtesy St. Louis Post-Dispatch