The Flute at Covent Garden
Magazine On Opera

It’s not for kids

Children are always unwelcome in Opera, except in The Magic Flute

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Norman Mailer, like some Palooka Pope, was famously unable to abide the thought of contraception, maintaining that shagging without at least the possibility of the female party dying in childbirth simply spoiled the whole business. And opera has always been firmly team Norm here, with certain provisos.

As everyone knows, it all takes place in a state of frenzied rut, with absolutely none of the Hazmat protection required by today’s youth, nor any time for the assembly of Cherie-style “equipment” to prevent romps evolving unmagically to rompers.

Thus, given its astonishingly low birthrate, you have to assume the back-streets of operatic Seville and Naples are buzzing with unsung abortionists; any females unwise enough to actually conceive are dealt with briskly in Norm-imprimatur fashion, as with Debussy’s Mélisande and her exit in childbed.

Nippers that do struggle into the world against these stacked odds invariably take the earliest of baths, as Jenufa’s brat in the Janacek jollity, drowned like a cat by Jen’s stepmother to preserve operatic propriety.

After the definitely likeable Pa-pa-pa stuff they proceed to pop out litters of young right there on stage

Children are always unwelcome, except where they can illustrate sociological concepts like the cycle of abuse, or an exegesis of Philip Larkin’s best-known line, or the workings of a sedulously ironic fate: or a trifecta jackpot, viz. Rigoletto, the procurer of virgins for defilement by his boss, inevitably creating in his secretly sequestered “little princess” daughter a creature who can find sexual fulfilment only in being raped by an idealised daddy-figure.

The brazen exception to all this (as to all operatic rules) is Mozart’s Magic Flute of 1791, making a regular December appearance at Covent Garden in David McVicar’s attractive (if solemn) staging. Everyone’s favourite bit of the Flute is the reuniting of half-wit birdman Papageno and his inamorata at the end, where after the definitely likeable Pa-pa-pa stuff they proceed to pop out litters of young right there on stage, a moment that should horrify us as a wilful insult to opera. Even taken as a theatrical metaphor for copious quantities of sex it is still off-colour.

But then, the Flute does that — and yet, while it is not a very good opera by any regular standards, it remains the most beautiful, transforming thing ever to appear on a stage, rivalled only by Shakespeare’s Dream, and the foundation of everything from Fidelio to Parsifal.

And this through the medium of a fatuous fairytale panto equipped with flying boys, drippy earth-bound dragons, magic bells and flutes that make animals and hoodlums dance helplessly away, a jerry-built plot, a hero who does nothing heroic, and a freaky masonic lodge full of lower-middle-businessmen scared of their wives.

Opera is a broad church, whose arcane purposes find expression in items as bewilderingly various as The Mikado, Tristan and Bluebeard, but none tries to do the whole lot in one go, except the Flute.

Its story is essentially irrelevant to the effect in performance — the only effect Mozart cared about, though there is a strong sense he hoped people would see it more than once, one reason why he wrote it for a demotic suburban Viennese theatre where it could play continuously.

Obviously, what turns this salmagundi into one of the foundation texts of civilisation is its music. Somehow Mozart corrals and tames the centrifugal genres of farce, sacred drama, tragedy, romance, each with its appropriate music, and then dares himself to approach and describe the numinous from each angle: the hymns of Sarastro, the ethereal classicism of the three boys, unaffected laments and love-songs, the foolery of Papageno — plus of course the Queen of the Night, shooting out furious sparks into the darkness like a demented Catherine wheel.

Mozart assures us that perfection is already there, paradise is right in front of us if we care to see and grasp it

Mozart’s programme was — after creating the beautiful artifices of the Italian variety for twenty years — to perfect German opera: to address the locals in their language, with music that speaks in the most unmediated way.

The Flute was just the beginning; he had no idea he would be dead five months after writing it, but he certainly meant to pursue in native form what he had accomplished with Figaro, to agitate for a spiritual revolution, a democratisation of the right to love as the basis of a renewed social contract, to bring mystery and magic back into an Enlightenment that had collapsed

In the turmoil of the French Revolution. Tamino avoids Voltaire and Rousseau’s Temples of Reason and Nature in favour of that of Wisdom; Sarastro’s gang celebrates esoteric mysteries; Papageno’s stupid magic bells, in a heart-stopping moment of pure faith, conjure his bride out of thin air.

Mozart wasn’t an idiot; he didn’t believe the world could be made perfect. But (like his secret soulmate William Blake) he assures us that perfection is already there, paradise is right in front of us if we care to see and grasp it. The Flute gives the audience a sudden glimpse of this vision of heaven, and you leave wishing, half-believing it might be so. And yes, I do realise this level of idealism is a bit lefty for you lot, but never fear: you can always go and rebalance your gloomy dharma later with a dose of Chubby Brown or something.

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