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Mozart’s "The Magic Flute"

Mozart’s The Magic Flute was my very first opera. I was in college at the time, still at BYU, and my boyfriend decided to surprise me with a trip to Salt Lake City. It was to be a night of firsts: my first opera, my first date with Luke outside of a bedroom or a BYU apartment, my first night in public where open affection was the rule of the day. Opera, to my delight, made Luke lower all his defenses against the world.

Neither a night at the opera, nor Luke really, would have been my first choice. My experience with opera, at the ripe age of 25, was limited to a few songs from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. My parents never bothered with opera or dance when I was growing up, we were a night-at-the-movies sort of family. And Luke? He was a secret within a secret: it took him kissing me before I even realized he was gay, let alone into me. Despite countless conversations together about my sexuality or what it was like to be out at BYU, he’d simply never volunteered anything. I’d been seeing someone else at the time, Zach, and Luke felt his chance at me was slipping through his fingers. On that night, after two months of dating and six months of friendship, I was to learn a lot more about Luke—and about opera besides.

Mozart’s most famous opera was written in 1791, just two months before the composer’s death. A two-act singspiel (literally German for ‘sing-play’), The Magic Flute was received unequivocally as one of Mozart’s best and most popular operas; no doubt, because of the composer’s death, launched into a steady run throughout the 1790’s.

Writing about our 2006 production, by the Utah Opera, the Salt Lake Tribune characterizes the opera in this way:

Sarastro, the wise priest of Isis and Osiris, has captured the princess Pamina and imprisoned her in the temple in an attempt to free her from the influence of her mother, the evil Queen of the Night. The queen induces the young Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter. Joined by the bird catcher Papageno, Tamino finds Pamina and the two fall in love. Together, they yearn to become enlightened, but to be inducted into Sarastro's order, they must survive a series of life-threatening trials with the aid of the magic flute.

It is a story of good and evil, romance, the quest for enlightenment, and, strangely, the Freemasons. The fairy tale is both comic and serious, and quite often absurd.

Luke and I had good seats in the orchestra section of Salt Lake’s Capitol Theatre. It’s a cozy but ornate little beast of a theatre, with wood-backed seats, and wood-lacquered posterns to support a mezzanine and two balconies; eggshell white walls, with pastel-painted crown moldings and the occasional gold-leaf, complete the design. This night, it dovetailed well with set design and setting; also from the ‘Tribune’:

Director Thaddeus Strassberger has given the opera a face-lift, scrapping the planned set and patching together a new design with pieces drawn from this show and that, and from his imagination…Rather than setting it in ancient Egypt, as it's written, Strassberger has fast forwarded to the Napoleonic era, a time when the West was rushing headlong to meet the East. Egypt was "the nexus" of many cultures, he said. Christians, Muslims, and Jews mingled there, nobles alongside servants, with French, Indians, and tribesmen.

Of course, I had no context for any of the opera’s history or critical response—either in general or in this particular production. Luke did: he had grown up in a well-to-do, fifth-generation Mormon family along Salt Lake’s Wasatch Front (a fact I wouldn’t learn till we were driving back to Provo later that night, stopping for a minute in front of Luke’s family home—a mansion that left my mouth hanging open in complete shock). Trips to the opera were commonplace in his childhood, even Mozart operas. This particular “Magic Flute” was not, as they say, Luke’s first rodeo.

I was struck, more than anything, by how twisting was the opera’s genre and story. This was the main thrust of another 2006 review of our production, from The Desert News:

"Die Zauberflote" isn't easily categorized. Depending on which character you look at, you can view it as a comic German folk opera (Papageno and Papagena) or as a stylized "opera seria" with a baroque vengeful fury (the Queen of the Night). Underlying it all, however, is the higher ideal of striving for truth and justice (Sarastro and the priests of Isis).

And confounding everything even further is the fact that nothing is as it seems at first. One is led to believe that Sarastro is evil because he kidnaps Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. But later in the story, the truth comes through — Sarastro took the innocent girl away from her mother to protect her, since the Queen is bent on destroying all that is good in the world. Pamina needs to be saved, and Sarastro foresees that the young prince Tamino has been destined by the gods to be her husband.

At times colorful, bleak, beautiful, or weird, the opera had the look and feel of a production that combines—tenuously yet successfully—many genres and conventions. I was told by Luke that the set design was indeed particularly unorthodox and unexpected: stark, almost cubist or absurdist shapes to give the impression of real-world objects. In Act Two, there was even a wheeling starscape overhead (like something you’d see in a planetarium show). I was surprised the opera could hold everything together; even more than this, I was confused by the performance almost as much as I was delighted by it. If magic means to dazzle, I was equally dazzled and dazed.

In the years since, I’ve become a little more familiar with opera. Now, I think I understand the magic somewhat more. And it seems to me that opera exists for the song, the musical moment, and not the story—unlike a movie, certainly, or even a musical. Opera is less a through-line within a performance, more a collection of like experiences over prevailing years. This aria, that aria; this falsetto, that falsetto. I suspect this was equally true for Luke, who held my hand that night openly, or leaned in to kiss me without glancing around us first: he could love me in those moments, without defining any of the time before or after them, without deciding these particular moments would have any lasting bearing on our lives or relationship. This kiss which would becoming that kiss, and how it would compare to another kiss—before me or since.

Stay Backwords,

Matthew D. Kulisch

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