It seems I’ve grown up with Mozart at the Filene Center. My first professional opera gig was as a pianist intern assigned to the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s 1985 production of The Magic Flute. Dawn Upshaw sang Pamina, Richard Croft was Tamino, and guest artist Jerome Hines towered over everyone as Sarastro. My travels with Flute began by teaching the music to the boys who sang the three genii, helping cue the offstage microphones, and operating the supertitle equipment. My journey continued as I assisted an entire generation of Wolf Trappers in mastering Mozart’s marvelous roles – including Paul Groves as Tamino, Gordon Hawkins as the Speaker, and Nathan Gunn as Papageno.
If you don’t go to the opera often, these names won’t mean much. Fear not – all that matters is that they are emblematic of all the lucky young singers who found their voices here at this magical place. After thousands of hours of voice lessons and auditions, multiple degrees, and serious soul-searching, these artists were given the opportunity to sing on this stage. Then they took Mozart and Wolf Trap with them throughout the world – singing Papageno in Paris, Tamino in London, and Pamina in New York.
Most program notes are scholarly in tone, written by musicologists with impeccable credentials. I would like to be such a writer, but I am humbled by my decades spent with the inhabitants of Mozart’s last opera. On the first day of rehearsal this year, our director spoke to the cast plainly about the task ahead. No dwelling on Masonic symbolism or political allegory. Just this: Flute is a story about growing up. About sometimes finding out that those people you thought were good are not really what they seem. About honoring the journey and simply doing the best you can.
The people we’ll see on the stage tonight are not like the next-door-neighbors we met during last summer’s Marriage of Figaro. They are, rather, like the characters in the best bedtime stories we could ever tell to our children – foolish, wise, funny, and honorable all at the same time. They are scared of monsters and kind to their friends. The parents love their children fiercely yet make mistakes. And it all ends happily, if not simply.
Mozart was 35 when he wrote this opera, and he died without reaching his next birthday. He had a pregnant wife, a son, many debts, and he was in failing health. History has attributed all manner of grand and noble motivations to the composition of The Magic Flute, and it’s certainly not my place to diminish them. However, I don’t believe (particularly in this case) that Mozart was writing for posterity. His friend Schikaneder offered him a job writing a Singspiel (much more like a Broadway musical than an opera) for his public theatre on the outskirts of town. Not exactly a royal commission and certainly not a prescription for a long-lasting work of art. Yet hundreds of years later, The Magic Flute is consistently among the top ten most popular operas of all time.
Decades after my first Flute I’m still in equal parts entranced and mystified. It’s a tough opera to produce, what with dancing animals, trials by fire and water, singing children, and tricky German dialogue. It’s not surprising that the administrator in me approaches it with trepidation. But caution fades when Papageno bounds onto the stage, the Queen of the Night vents her wrath, and the Three Ladies weave their voices around such glorious music. And for me, forever, it will all be sung to the evocative background of crickets and gentle breezes in the Wolf Trap trees.