the Magic Flute
Wednesday, April 13 2005
As a Christmas present for me, Gretchen had bought us both tickets to see Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan. Today was the day of the show, so after Gretchen came home from her Wednesday engagements, we dressed up suitably for a night at the opera (Gretchen going over the top in her sparkly wedding party dress and matching long black gloves) and we set off for the city. Traffic congestion on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge made us nearly an hour late for what we'd planned to do before the performance: dinner at Gabriel's, an expensive Italian place near the Met.
At Gabriel's we met up with Gretchen's long-time client and friend Wendy, who Gretchen often refers to as "my WASP friend." With Wendy was her decidedly unWASPy friend Eugene. He was four things that Wendy is not: a young gay black man. And, as it happened, he'd attended Oberlin College some years after we had. Wendy hadn't told him anything about us at all and he'd naturally assumed we'd be in our sixties like Wendy. Even the antique quality of our names had reinforced this expectation. But no, we were youngish former Oberlin students, and Gretchen is the closest thing to a gay person you'll find playing wife in a happy heterosexual marriage.
Eugene's story, and how he'd come to befriend a Manhattan WASP, is just another slice of the improbable American Dream. He'd been born into South Central Los Angeles but written an essay that got him into an upscale boarding school, where he'd been roommates with Wendy's closest nephew. In Oberlin he'd been a voice major, which is what brought him to tonight's performance of The Magic Flute. "It's all about threes," he told us, alluding to the opera's numerological basis and tiresome Masonic symbology.
We found Eugene to be an unexpected delight, with Gretchen saying things afterwards like "you could just tell he's brilliant." We invited him to come visit, and he promised he would.
Unfortunately, though, our traffic delay forced us to rush through our $100 meal. The main courses were all exceptional and delivered with the rapidity of fast food (Gabriel's is expert at making sure people get to the Met on time). The sides, on the other hand, all had subtle defects that, in aggregate, rendered them nearly inedible.
Once inside the grand audience space of the Met, we walked up to the front and looked down into the orchestra pit. It was a smallish orchestra, with (for example) only three double bass players. As we stood there near the stage Gretchen was tempted to have us commandeer a couple of seats directly above the pit, but before we could make a move the usher came and told us to get to our seats. But we had relatively good seats a couple dozen rows back or so.
I'm not an opera fan and had no particular familiarity with The Magic Flute aside from what Gretchen had exposed me to in the preceding months. I'd been particularly struck by the treacherous vocal gymnastics of the Queen of the Night's Aria, but I'd never really taken much of an interest in the actual plot of the opera.
It's no surprise, then, that I found it a complete nonsensical mess, even though I was reading the English subtitles provided in real time in front of me on an amber all-caps alphanumeric display. The opera had the consistency and flow of a dream experienced while under the influence of LSD. Perhaps my brain simply lacked the necessary wiring to follow it. Perhaps I was hopelessly grasping for something that just wasn't there. Whatever the problem was, at some point in the first act I simply gave up on trying to understand what was happening to whom and focused on the details, particularly the set design, the music, the puppets, and the specifics of what was being said on a sentence or even just a phrase basis.
At least with this production, the surprising sense one had of the opera was one of timelessness. It was impossible to place when the action was happening. The music, being Mozart, was its own kind of timeless. And because the sets were built out of abstract geometric shapes and abstract icons, they looked futuristic. They a closer resemblance to a computer screen saver than to anything from the 18th Century. Also, the complete absence of references to Christianity and its trappings had the effect of detaching the story from both the past and the present, which are both hip-deep in Christian taint.
Religious references in The Magic Flute are to an older pagan Egyptian system featuring Isis and Osiris. Here, though, they're really just a proxy for rationalism and logic (as near as the disjointed plot permits). The Magic Flute is a morality play by and for the Enlightenment, as earth shattering and blasphemous to, say, a Bush Cabinet prayer meeting as it would have been for backwoods 18th Century religious kooks. Sadly, you see, the Enlightenment and its ideals will be timeless because its tenets have to keep being resurrected to battle the forces of superstition. No, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson didn't write the laws of America based on the Bible, instead they were excited to create the first entirely secular nation based on principles of the reason.
I touched on the austere geometry of the set, and aside from the music itself this was the most striking thing about the opera. The set consisted of several huge transparent geometric forms that could be combined into the walls of a boxlike structure or collapsed into a series of overlapping frames. In each of these was a large cutout of some simple geometric shape: the equilateral triangle, the circle, and the square. These shapes could accept thin sheets sliding vertically into or in front of them like panes of glass. These were either simple geometric designs or translucent panes of silk. Depending on how they were lit by the formidable arsenal of colored lights, the action could look as if it were taking place outside in the sun, under water, or (most acid-trip-like) inside a massive kaleidoscope. The large forms and the colored lights used to illuminate them reminded me of an obscure erector set I had as a kid. Its pieces were made of notched transparent colored plastic pieces that could be interlocked and used to build various architectural structures. (For years my mother used to only let me play with them on special occasions and I'd have to sneak it out and play with them when she was gone. Eventually, like all my other toys, most of the pieces vanished into a backyard dirt pile. There was something magical about the way that plastic seemed to glow and I've wanted to recapture that quality in various applications over the subsequent years.)
The movement of the set elements during the many set changes added much to the drama of the production. I mean, here were these massive structures that could somehow be rotated smoothly, silently into position to represent something new. Occasionally as a massive structure would rotate, some of the performers would ride it off scene, their singing receding into some unknowable distance. In the course of all those set changes I only heard one unscheduled clunk, an amazing feat considering all the precarious objects (including one tilted chessboard complete with pieces) that kept being swept into and out of view.
Less exciting than the set but still impressive were the various puppets of birds, swimming creatures, bird-women, polar bears, and (most exciting of all) twin eighteen foot tall statues with heads of fire. These were mostly operated by black clad puppeteers visible on the stage below them. Some of the larger puppets had as many as three people running them, and when the stage would crowd with puppets (particularly the bears and the bird-women) it seemed the puppeteers would soon start running into one another. I kept trying to see these puppeteers clearly, but they were well concealed in the shadows. Eventually I did see one and I noticed he was wearing a black three-cornered hat!
My favorite puppets were the birds that bore the three creepy spirits (played by children painted white and wearing long white beards). These birds looked like massive animated Leonardo Da Vinci drawings, and until they started singing I thought the spirits riding their backs were puppets. Gretchen thought they were much too creepy in their makeup, but I thought it was appropriate to their otherworldly weirdness. Even when they sang in harmony there was a subtle, dissonant quality that set me on edge.
Overall the costumes were the weakest links of the visual dazzle. Throughout the production, for example, our hero Tamino appears in whiteface, dressed in what appears to be Japanese garb. Camina (the heroine), was dressed down in some sort of modern peasant attire that wouldn't have looked out of place on a New York City subway platform. (Gretchen was more in costume than she was!)
The one exception to the half-hearted costumery was the outfit for the Queen of the Night. In her first appearance she was like a proud butterfly trapped in some unseen web, her robe forming huge wings behind her that flapped slowly. It was an amazing effect, one appropriate for her two incredible arias, where she seemed to transcend humanity entirely and become some sort of malevolent singing bird. I'd heard several versions of her second aria, but the one performed tonight live was the best so far. This despite the fact that the Met's massive space with its multiple towering balconies is impossible for a vocalist to fill. Also, some woman in the audience not far from where we were sitting actually had the nerve to sing along audibly, if you can believe it.
The heroine Pamina was played by Lisa Milne, an unusually big woman for modern opera productions. Though it was common in the past for supposedly young, beautiful women to be played by big fat ladies, today it's rare for the stars to not be suitably photogenic. Milne's relative plainness led us to expect her to have an exceptional voice, and of course she did. Still, it was a little difficult to suspend disbelief as her various suitors fawned over her picture or wooed her in person.
At the intermission we met up with Wendy and Eugene at the pre-arranged location and talked about the show so far. I mentioned my difficulty with following what was going on, which wasn't a problem for the others since they'd seen this particular opera numerous times. Eugene said that the plot didn't matter, that it was more about the experience. In passing, he observed that the tenor had missed a few of his notes. I was impressed, but a little sad for Eugene. "I could never enjoy this performance if I didn't think it was perfect," I said.
At the end of the show we went out to our car and found that it hadn't been ticketed, an amazing turn of events given the coldheartedness the City usually shows to its visitors. Gretchen had parked the car in a 7:00pm parking space a half hour too early, usually a sure fire way to get a $100 ticket. She was so delighted at the lack of a ticket that she declared our $100 dinner at Gabriel's had been "free."
Adding to our good parking karma was an open space only a block from Mary Purdy's apartment at 72nd Street and West End Avenue. That was were we were to spend the night.
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