Monday, January 30, 2017

Where's the Queen of the Night when we need her?

Photo by Andrew Cioffi. 
     The arts are always there, waiting to shelter us. When the news from Washington gets too grim, too relentless, too crazy, there is comfort and sanity, order, beauty and justice in a book, in a play, in music.
     Not forever. You don't want to shut off reality completely. By keeping track we know when it's time to rush downtown and howl down our captors.
     But nobody can be aghast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That'll kill you as sure as jack-booted thugs will.
     So it was with gratitude that last Wednesday morning I popped into the Civic Opera House to peek at the Lyric Opera of Chicago's rehearsals of "Carmen"—I'm taking 100 readers to that classic Bizet opera next month, and will have a column about the opera, the rehearsal and the contest ... as soon as the marketing department gives me the green light. But just hearing the music, seeing the dancers, even in a rough rehearsal space. Suddenly a certain demagogue was Jupiter: a giant gasbag rendered into a dull spot lost amidst the much brighter stars. 

Photo by Todd Rosenberg
     And they pay me for this....
     That afternoon, I blew off all responsibilities and caught the last matinee of "The Magic Flute." A new production, transferring Mozart's 1791 tale of love, bird-catching, and Masonic hoo-hah to the post-war suburbs—it's basically become an entertainment staged on the patio of a revolving suburban Cape Cod home. The three Genii, usually falsetto boys in white wigs on a magic ship, now have cowboy hats and sheriff badges.
     I don't always like the staging decisions at the Lyric, but this one, for me, worked, the Levitown aspect underscoring the inherent weirdness of the opera. Or maybe I just really, really needed it to work. No need to bother with the plot—I'm not sure why anyone ever mention the plots of operas. They're all the same: the couple meets, falls immediately in love, gets separated, reunites, to live happily ("Magic Flute" et al) or die protractedly ("Aida," "Tristan und Isolde").
     Though the news has a way of intruding. "Flute" begins with our hero, Tamino, being chased by a dragon (a rather Chinese-New-Yearish dragon, this being an entertainment at a suburban home). The dragon is slain by an arrow shot by the Queen of the Night's three Ladies, though the heroic deed is claimed by their feckless bird catcher, Papageno.
     For this, the Ladies clap a padlock on his lips (causing him, delightfully, to have to hum one of Mozart's songs). But you can't go through a whole opera like that, and the Queen shows pity, removing the lock so he can chatter, though not before the Ladies extract a vow.
     "So you will never tell a lie, or brag about a deed done by another?" they sing. Papageno agrees, and they all rejoice.

If only every liar had
a lock like this upon his mouth
then would hate, calumny and rancor
be replaced by love and brotherhood!
      Sing it, sisters! 
      No need to point it out, right? I didn't think so. We're all there. The three Ladies in the "Magic Flute" picked up on a Papageno's single lie right away, and he was punished for it.
     Shame that doesn't happen enough in real life—that's why we need fiction. In real life, if you get away with it, maybe because you're really rich and surrounded by fawning sycophants, then lying becomes a pattern, and you lie more and more, and can't acknowledge it and can't stop. That's what makes it pathological.
     The only question I have is this: if you are a liar lying about everything in order to prop your ego up and pretend like your disasters are successes, can the people who have thrown in their lot with you really not notice? The cowardice of Papageno is funny because,well, it's an opera. In real life it's shameful.
     I don't want you to think that I spent the three hour opera brooding on politics. And lying is not really intrinsic to Mozart's comic opera. Though it sure is to ours, at the moment, though whether this tale ends up a comedy or a tragedy, well, we're still working that out.


  1. I've seen a number of Flutes, and didn't mind the staging - a clever concept and well executed. Better at least than Barbara Gaines's vulgarization of The Marriage of Figaro last year. As usual, Mozart's music can, if well performed, overcome anything stage directors do to torture his sublime creations. And this Flute was very well cast and sung. Generally the case this year at Lyric, a spectacularly vocalized Norma being the most recent example.

    The contemporary relevance of Papago's padlock did indeed ring out, but I'm glad they yield to the temptation of referring to tweets.

    Tom Evans

  2. The only version of The Magic Flute I ever saw was the one I was in. Put on by my school, when I was about 8. I was one of the lions drawing the chariot, or something like that. All I remember was my poor parents drove 10 miles (it was a private school and I commuted) to see me cavort on stage for about 10 seconds wearing a big papier-mache mask.

    I probably should give it another chance.

  3. Those photos are wonderful. Glad to read about this season's "Flute", which I unfortunately missed -- but I'm picking up the CD at the library today for some Mozart healing.


  4. I attended "Flute" on Wednesday afternoon as well. As a Federal employee and someone who's horrified on several levels (including a self-preservation level) at what's happening in Washington, the thrill of seeing one of my favorite operas with the conceit that it was a backyard production being put on by kids in kid ways (note that the costuming was very Disney-esque) was a great bit of escapism. I only hope there are more escapes like that to come, because I don't think the news from D.C. will be changing any time soon...


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