Yale Opera is putting on a production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Shubert Theater from Feb. 16 to 18. The music will be unchanged. It will be sung in the original German. It’s just that almost everyone in the cast will be robots.
“All the Magic Flutes I’ve seen are the same thing — the choir robes, the sun hats, the dragon puppet. I’m like, ‘OK, we get it,’” explained director Dustin Wills. “I’ve never been one to enjoy a formula.”
The Magic Flute — Die Zauberflöte in the original German — is essentially a fairy tale. It tells the story of Prince Tamino, on a mission from the Queen of the Night to rescue Pamina, the Queen’s daughter, who is being held captive by Sarastro, the high priest of a religious sect. On the way, however, Tamino ends up becoming enamored of Sarastro’s ideas and the people who surround him, and wants to joins them. To do so, Tamino and Pamina have to undergo a rigorous initiation. This being a fairy tale, they succeed, and turn around and defeat the Queen of the Night. Papageno, Tamino’s sidekick, goes with him. He fails the initiation, but gains the love of a woman seemingly made for him, Papagena.
That’s really about all there is to the story. The Magic Flute has endured for the most part because of the music (of course), which includes one of Mozart’s most famous pieces in a body of work crowded with famous pieces. From its first staging, at the end of Mozart’s life, it also succeeded because it was a spectacle, full of elaborate set pieces and vivid imagery drawn, the
consensus seems to be, from the iconography of the Freemasons, which Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were both members of. So the sun hats, the choir robes, the initiation rituals.
But the Freemasons aren’t as edgy as they used to be. And some of the story’s attitudes, particularly toward women, weren’t wearing so well now, in the 21st century. Yet the music was still glorious. So, Wills reasoned, it was time for a change. But how did he get from Masons to robots?
The Method In The Machinery
Wills began by going back to the source. He read Mozart biographies. He noted that Mozart and Schikaneder were pushing the form of the opera by writing in their mother tongue, German, rather than Italian. Mozart was “maturing as an artist” and actually seemed to have some of the playful spirit made popular in the movie Amadeus. “There are all these stories of him jumping into the orchestra pit to play the glockenspiel,” Wills said.
Will also took a deep dive into the ideas of the Enlightenment — particularly its European roots, rather than the American version that fueled our revolution. He found it to be “more attached to God” than he had remembered from his earlier exposure to that set of ideas, and also flawed. When Enlightenment thinkers referred to the value of humanity, too often they implicitly meant white men only. “It’s a valiant effort, but a failed experiment,” Wills said. He applied the same sense of iconoclasm in approaching The Magic Flute itself. He loved the music. “But I’m having a hard time listening to the music or enjoying the people in it, because the things that come out of their mouths are dreadful.”
Yet The Magic Flute, fueled by Enlightenment ideas, was asking questions that still resonated. “What is a human being?” Wills said. “What is this thing that we call human?”
“These are not museum relics,” he continued. He didn’t want to do something different with The Magic Flute just for the sake of it. But, he said, “if I do not directly confront the racism, the misogyny, the capitalism, then there are things that will repel me from the story.” The basic questions about the nature of humanity, and the argument in the music itself, turned out to be his way in. “That’s Mozart’s thesis in the piece: You will be saved by a human breath, making musical noise,” he said.
But what would be the best contemporary context to explore these ideas? Wills happened to be watching the HBO series Westworld and had been reading Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0, both of which explored ideas about artificial intelligence. “And then I just started going down this rabbit hole,” Wills said, from revisiting scientific ideas held during the Enlightenment to Japanese animism. And arrived at the idea that almost all the characters — with the exception of Tamino and Sarastro — could be robots. It recast Sarastro from high priest to head scientist, changed Sarastro’s temple into a laboratory. It made Tamino into a “lab rat,” Wills said.
And it suddenly made a lot of the stuff that comes out of Sarastro’s mouth, which audiences are typically expected to accept as good, much more suspect. It was a way to “rebalance the power structure in the show.” It redirected some of the attention away from Tamino and toward the robot Pamina, Sarastro’s most successful experiment. “If she’s the point of inquiry in the show, then everything becomes much more fascinating to me,” Wills said.
So the three ladies who appear at the beginning of the opera would be obviously robotic — “you can see the wires,” Wills said. Papageno would be a robot “at the very beginning of his jump into sentience.” The Queen of the Night would perhaps become a “failed experiment.” Pamina would perhaps be Sarastro’s triumph. And the question of what it means to be human would run a parallel track, first of seeing Tamino in the process of becoming a man, and much more broadly, of asking whether machines could be considered human too, and what that might mean for the future of our species.
But as always, front and center in this production of The Magic Flute will be the music. “The goal was always to not touch the music,” Wills said. “Let the singers play the same intentions. It was really just about reconstructing the framework of it.”
“Re-hear this opera,” he said. “Re-hear it. Assume nothing. There’s always something else. So what else can you find when you take off the sun hats?”
Yale Opera’s production of The Magic Flute runs at the Shubert Theatre, 247 College St., Feb. 16 to Feb. 18. Click here for tickets and more information.