Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Ye Kindly Gods, Do Not Deceive Me!
Prince Tamino utters these words in Act I of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), after the Queen of the Night has asked him to rescue her daughter, Pamina, who has been kidnapped by the evil Sarastro. Tamino, who has not yet proven his manhood (he faints while being menaced by a dragon in the first scene, and the Queen of the Night's Three Ladies kill the beast while he lays unconscious), sets off to fulfill this charge. In a shocking twist of events, however, he learns in Act II that Sarastro, the high priest of Isis and Osiris, is a good man who has taken Pamina away from the evil Queen for her own good. Because they love wisdom, Tamino and Pamina seek to be initiated into the sacred mysteries of the Egyptian gods.
One of the most remarkable things about Mozart's last opera is its ethos of complete and stunning reversal. What was one way in the first act turns out, in the second, to be its exact opposite; what appeared good proves evil, and vice versa. A close study of the score provides early clues that all may not be as it seems; for instance, the Queen's entrance aria, rather than musically portraying her as a grieving mother, instead clearly reveals her to be steely and domineering, and, when sung and directed well, is actually a little scary (indeed, the voice type that sings it -- dramatic coloratura soprano -- has often been used in opera to represent characters who are not quite, or are somehow beyond, human):
In a classic moment of overcommitment, I agreed, before Jude arrived, to cover (i.e. understudy) the roles of Second and Third Lady in a production of Zauberflöte being staged by a regional opera company in my area, in spite of the fact that it's been more than ten years since I last appeared in an opera. The conductor had heard me, and was very supportive, even telling me that I could bring my kids to rehearsals (a rare accommodation in opera, where few performers -- at least few women -- have children, and one that in the long run did not go over well with the stage director and his staff). The chances of me having to go onstage are slim, thank God, because I'm not ready; in addition to the usual parenting, homemaking, and post-adoption stuff, I'm also doing some editing and translating work for pay in the few moments I can spare for it, as well as working on my own (academic-musicological) book.
It's hard to describe how strange it is to be sitting on the sidelines during rehearsals, either with or without my children. To be benched, as it were, has forced me into a position of unwonted humility, since singing was always my ticket up and out, the simple tool I used to make a better life for myself. I watch the mostly excellent young singers and learn the staging, and I wonder what their lives and careers will be like. Two of the singers in the cast recently married each other: what will happen to them? Will one be successful, the other not? Will they have children? Will they stay together? In the world of opera, all of these matters are open to question.
And to be here, doing this, in Applachia is doubly strange. I think about my old life in New York, and I wonder if it was really real at all. After moving here, I longed greatly for that life, which I regarded as my true life, and my life here as some sort of shoddy bargain-basement substitute for what I might be doing. But now I'm not so sure of that hierarchy of lives. As I sit and watch rehearsals, I wonder if this was the life I was always meant to have, and if everything leading up to it -- everything which is now falling away as if it were a dream -- was in fact like Tamino's understanding of the world and the cosmos in the first act of Die Zauberflöte: shiny, deceiving, baffling, and completely opposite to the way things really are.
(Above: The Queen of the Night's entrance, from a stage set designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for an 1815 production of the opera.)