Thank you to both Tom Durrie, of the Tom & Seth Operatic Society, and our associate and opera scholar, Natalie Anderson, for aiding my understanding of opera sufficiently to write this blog entry; my conclusions, however, do not necessarily match either of theirs.
I’m not an opera connoisseur, but—with wide eyes and ears—I have been attending operas in Vancouver (and occasionally Seattle) for the past ten years under the expert instruction of my friend, and opera aficionado, Tom Durrie. I was excited, this past Saturday, to take in my debut viewing of The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. My pleased anticipation was based on two factors:
(1) Tom says that Mozart’s music is simply the greatest. Evidence for this claim was illuminated at our Tom & Seth Operatic Society preview party in which Tom played recordings from previous renderings of The Magic Flute; we were treated to songs so gentle that even opera-fearing people who view most arias as glass-breaking shrieks might not have been offended.
(2) Vancouver Opera had revived its 2007 production in which they set the story in a historical and supernatural First Nations landscape. Refitting operas for alternate settings is common, and The Magic Flute, Tom explained, is a perfect candidate for such reinterpretation, because it is a simple tale set in a forest with magical characters, and so lends itself to any culture that possesses supernatural myths.
To warm up for the event this past Saturday, our group was treated to a pre-show backstage tour with VO’s charismatic Development Manager for Grants & Proposals, Joseph Bardsley, followed by the the customary (and always informative) pre-show talk by the VO’s Marketing Director, Doug Tuck. They explained that the production we were about to witness had been created with careful collaboration with experts in the First Nations community. The sets, costumes, and dancing were all developed through the advice of a special First Nations advisory council, while the script was altered to fit a First Nations perspective, and included thirty words from the Coast Salish language. Everything seemed to be in place for a magic ride into an unfamiliar world.
The production is visually stunning as the result of multi-layered projections that function as the set; this fluid, shimmering environment create a visceral feeling of being in a realm that is both natural and supernatural. The show begins with a man wearing modern Western attire who awakens in a forest in British Columbia, unsure of how he’s gotten there, but aware that he’s in a mystical land unlike any he’s been to before. My fancy was tickled, as I imagined he was a sort of Alice in Wonderland, or Dorothy in Oz, or the Darling children in Neverland: surely this was the land of the First Nations before colonization, infused with magical creatures from indigenous legend.
And so began three very boring hours.
In their noble efforts to check off their cultural obligations, the VO seemed to have forgotten that their ultimate responsibility was to tell a story—to bring together characters in such a way that their various intentions conflicted and coincided to create a compelling drama. Instead, the show was a collage of obscure and disconnected moments, in which the characters were too simple to relate to.
(Tom had warned us of the sparse details within the original libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, but he explained that Mozart’s music included vivid characterization, and so it was the job of the dramaturg to enliven and interpret the characters, and to fill in the blanks of the story as it rode along beside the richness of the score.)
Indeed, given that the VO had re-written much of the libretto of The Magic Flute for this production, they had plenty of opportunity to infuse the text with interesting First Nations characters: between arias, the production team could have provided whatever dialogue it saw fit to tell us about the universe and people they imagined. But, instead, most of the characters identified as First Nations are the same person: stoic, proud, and wise, with not a single nuance to separate them.
The hero, Tamino (our aforementioned Dorothy who is not in Kansas anymore) and heroine, Pamina, are similarly one-dimensional: he falls in love with her over a picture, and she, in turn, falls for him when she finds out that he has fallen for her image. It is a mystery that the writers at the VO did not bother to fill in this shallow aspect of the original plot with greater nuance or depth befitting the universe they were honouring. Moreover, in spite of being the daughter of a blue butterfly creature (the Queen of the Night), Pamina is not blue, and unlike the other inhabitants of this strange new world who are either First Nations people or animal creatures, she wears modern Western attire like Tamino, even though she is supposedly indigenous to this magical land. She is both an exotic other and a westernized woman for Tamino’s convenience.
(Although, when the couple is finally united at the end of the story, they are suddenly, and inexplicably, dressed in First Nations costume as though the production had identified their hopes to join the culture. This undeveloped retroactive motivation operates in conjunction with the characters’ more apparent aspirations for enlightenment (found in the libretto). The production thus implies that the First Nations are the sole holders of such profound insight.)
The Queen of the Night tries to disrupt the union, but we’re not given a hint of her motivation. Again this is a weakness of the original text, but it is the duty of the operatic storyteller to provide at least an implicit explanation within his or her interpretation for why, in this particular world, the Queen of the Night is such an unfortunate mother-in-law. (Perhaps Tamino is of a culture she mistrusts? Anything would have been useful to give her odd behaviours a context worth contemplating.)
Meanwhile, Sarastro, here cast as a First Nations elder, sets challenges for the couple (such as requiring Tamino to spend a lengthy amount of time being silent around Pamina without giving her any hint as to why he’s ignoring her) in order for them to earn their connection and general enlightenment. Why Sarastro and other First Nations overseers feel the need to test the love of our leads in such a cruel fashion (to the point that the wounded Pamina almost kills herself—before being talked off the ledge by some First Nations youngsters) is not clear, but evidently they are the good guys. Again, Schikaneder may have been equally mysterious in his open-ended text, but this was a lost opportunity for Vancouver Opera to justify its production by bringing new meaning, within First Nations context, to the trials (perhaps through the illumination of a myth or rite of passage).
Similarly, the story’s official bad guy (Monostasos), who is the servant of Sarastro, and who in this production has rat features as well as peculiar 18th-century European attire, makes little sense: we are left to wonder how he became a servant to a First Nations elder. The colonial power structure is incoherent, and serves only to check off an obligation of ridiculing Western culture.
Such insistence on announcing to the audience that Vancouver Opera would like to officially distance itself from colonialism is perhaps the weakest part of the production. (I cannot imagine that anyone who believes colonialism was a good thing would be convinced in the opposite direction by such a blunt instrument, and those who regret colonialism do not require such an out-of-place and awkward lecture to remind them of their convictions.)
Instead, I envy my anticipation of the opera in which I expected to be taken to a pre-colonial First Nations supernatural world. (How often has that universe been explored in modern Western art?) Surely there are First Nations myths that allow for pre-existing antagonists in the forest. (Or does every villain have to be non-First Nations, just as every good character either has to be First Nations or become First Nations in the end?) Had Vancouver Opera agreed to draw inspiration solely from First Nations prehistory and myth, then maybe our minds might have felt some sadness, of our own volition, that such a culture had been destroyed.
It’s hard to blame Vancouver Opera for so blatantly moralizing in this production; it is not easy for a Western artistic company to tell a story featuring First Nations culture because the former is in constant danger, no matter how hard it tries to be sensitive and deferential, of being accused of cultural ignorance. Indeed, in the Georgia Straight’s assessment of the production, the reviewer complained that that it contained insufficient references to the evils of European colonialism. (A more bluntly-chiseled castigation of Western culture would be difficult to fathom.) The reviewer also asserted that Pamina’s relationship with Tamino recalled the Eurocentric myth of Pocahontas and John Smith, even though the VO production doesn’t match that interpretation, having Pamina dress in Western garb and both Pamina and Tamino—through the superficial means of a costume change—become part of the First Nations community in the end.
Clearly, the VO had set itself an impossible task. No matter how much they consulted the First Nations community, and how much they tried to treat the ancient culture as wise and infallible, they are still criticized for being Eurocentric. Perhaps, then, the expected moralizing from the critical audience censored the company from telling an interesting story.
I find this to be an unfortunate result because Vancouver Opera’s intentions seemed to be to nourish a wounded culture, and to remind us (through beautiful scenery, costumes, dance, and music) of what has been lost, but their rendering is so jumbled and condescending that I for one lost interest half way through.