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Mozart's 'The Magic Flute'

For many people, opera has a reputation for featuring highfalutin, historical characters, prancing around in farfetched, complicated stories that are nearly impossible to understand without a guidebook of some kind. At first glance — and maybe even at second and third glances — Mozart's The Magic Flute seems a perfect case in point.

The Magic Flute is set in an unknown location, at an unknown time, and features unfamiliar rituals with unknown meanings. It has a bunch of characters who don't seem to know exactly who they are, where they're going, or what they're going to do when they get there — not to mention a couple who fall madly in love before they've even met! And while the opera at seems at first to be a clear-cut story of good versus evil, before long it gets confoundingly difficult to tell which is which!

In short, the whole affair seems crazy, confusing, haphazard and often just downright silly. But in that respect, it's also a lot like life — and maybe that's why it's been one of Mozart's most popular works, despite its foibles, for more than 200 years.

To call the story of The Magic Flute perplexing would be an understatement, and many have put it more strongly. Certainly, Mozart's music is glorious. But the libretto has been harshly criticized. More seriously, the whole opera has been denounced as misogynistic — and not without some reason. The opera is plainly a product of a far different time than our own — and its attitudes often are not egalitarian. For example, when the hero Tamino undergoes his trials, he's repeatedly warned never to trust the word of a woman. Yet his lover Pamina endures trials of her own and, if anything, she proves stronger than Tamino. Without her, he might not have survived. So, the drama puts her on equal footing with the "hero" — something almost unheard of in Mozart's time.

Further, while the meddlesome Queen of the Night does represent evil, opposing the priestly Sarastro's portrayal of good, the opera's changing perspectives on who is serving what ends are a long way from cut-and-dry. Like all of Mozart's great operas, this one's messages are far too complex to be analyzed in simple, black-and-white terms.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a fanciful production by the Washington National Opera, starring Michael Schade and Andrea Rost as Tamino and Pamina, and Rod Gilfry as the loveable birdman, Papageno.

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