Correcting Mozart: Annex Theatre reinterprets 'The Magic Flute'

City Paper

During the Enlightenment, nature and reason replaced God in determining moral codes and politics, which set the stage for equal human rights usurping traditional values. Despite its doctrine of egalitarianism, the Age of Reason was inherently and often openly misogynistic because women were assumed to lack reason.

With their opera “The Magic Flute,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, who were both Freemasons, fashioned a fairytale in the spirit of Enlightenment-era chauvinism. Through director Evan Moritz’s selective and exaggerated interpretation, the Annex Theater’s production of the opera subverts most of the originally sexist roles and plays up the romantic whimsy to a degree that satirizes the heroic-prince-rescues-helpless-princess storyline, as well as the stiffness of the opera form.

A lot of the fantastical absurdity comes from the score, reinterpreted by music co-directors David Crandall and Jacob Budenz. Their “virtual orchestra” samples sounds from tube amps and mechanical and toy instruments to recreate Mozart’s famous compositions. The result is as if Mozart were conducting music for a carousel ride. The score plays a direct role in the story, serving as the songs of Tamino’s magic flute, which vanquishes suffering and brings joy, and the playful notes of Papageno’s bells and the call of his whistle.

The music and the set keep the story comical and light, despite the recurring themes of suicide, loneliness, deception, and heartbreak. Doug Johnson’s set design looks like an abstract expressionist’s psychedelic gumdrop fairyland. The storybook-style backdrop is composed of multiple pages stained and spray-painted to look like a palm grove, a temple, and other colorful, ambiguous dreamscapes and between scenes, the actors flip the pages by pulling a ribbon across the stage. Like a children’s pop-up book, segments of the pages remain visible through multiple scenes, peeking through cutouts shaped like doorways, hands, and stars. In the second act, the actors pull the large, silky pages of the backdrop to the center of the space to engulf the characters within a somewhat yonic-looking portal.

Like most fairytales, the story follows the quest of a handsome young hero to rescue a beautiful princess from imprisonment and win her love. Prince Tamino (K Froom), with the charm, smolder, and getup of a dude from a boy band, is charged with the duty to save Princess Pamina (Natanya Washer) from the temple of the Sun King Sarastro (John O’Loughlin), where she is imprisoned by Sarastro’s vicious, horny servant Monostatos (Michael Stevenson). In the original opera, Monostatos is a Moor preying on a lily-white damsel in distress, but here he is just a creepy white dude that represents all male predators. Tamino is joined by the airheaded bird-catcher Papageno (Ishai Barnoy), who suffers from excruciating loneliness and an identity crisis that compels him to dress as a bird.

Where “The Magic Flute” diverts from other fairy tales is in the shifts in the hero and audience’s trust. Tamino is initially misled by three women to serve Pamina’s mother: the vengeful, witchy Queen of the Night (Allison Clendaniel), whose greatest weapon is not her dagger or her blinding illuminated gown and blond wig, but her soaring soprano, which she flamboyantly exercises to intimidate her enemies. Instead, Tamino finds enlightenment in Sarastro, who proves to be virtuous and well-intentioned, with a mystic wisdom carried through O’Loughlin’s ground-shaking basso profundo. Moritz’s interpretation diminishes the role of the Three Ladies (played by Anaïs Naharro-Murphy, Lajari Anne, and Shannon Ziegler, all of whom play multiple roles) as deceptive gossips and temptresses and instead emphasizes their role as guides to Tamino, Pamina, and Papageno in finding happiness.

Moritz qualifies parts of the libretto to further eliminate gendered caricatures. During the trial of silence Tamino and Papageno face in their quest to prove their virtue and rescue Pamina (the audience must pretend that singing is, in fact, silence), they join the Three Ladies in parallel chants of “A man with purpose is not weak because he thinks before he speaks” and “A woman with purpose is not weak because she thinks before she speaks.” These feminine additions bring to mind Olympe de Gouges’ “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” written in France in 1791—the year “The Magic Flute” premiered in Vienna—in which the author paralleled and qualified the exclusionary statements in “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” to advocate for the inclusion of women in national assembly and challenge the gender roles in marriage.

In the most significant alteration to the original story, Moritz has Sarastro promise both of the lovers his entire kingdom upon their mutual victory, rather than simply granting Tamino the right to marry Pamina. “Both of them?” Sarastro’s priests ask, to which he replies “Yes, when two work in love’s harmony, the strength is greater than any one ruler, even the greatest tyrant.” Tamino and Pamina play equal roles in establishing peace, putting a stronger focus on Mozart and Schikaneder’s value of the triumph of love over hate than on their proclivity to male-oriented heroism and power.

Edits made to historically significant works of art for the sake of “political correctness” can often feel like censorship that does more to hide the reality of the past than to contribute healthy and inclusive dialogue. But performances of ethically questionable works—and really, there are very few historic masterpieces that aren’t in some way racist, sexist, or otherwise morally fucked up—that offer alternative insight into the original story through critical interpretation are more culturally valuable than mere shame-induced erasing. Instead of omitting or obfuscating offensive moments in Mozart and Schikaneder’s opera entirely, the Annex production mocks its chauvinism by highlighting the absurdity and limitations of male-oriented wisdom and heroism. 

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