In his 1952 talk “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” C.S. Lewis noted how the best stories for children arise out of “where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say.” Rather than looking to “regale the child with things calculated to please it but regarded by yourself with indifference or contempt,” Lewis continued, “everything in the story should arise from the whole cast of the author’s mind. We must write for children out of those elements in our own imagination which we share with children.”
Die Zauberflöte shares such an affinity across ages like no other work of art for this reason. Weaving together Mozart’s music (and his final opera) with Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto, the celestial 1791 work—with its mystical-comedic story of the prince Tamino, the princess Pamina, the Queen of the Night, the high priest Sarastro, and a bird-catcher Papageno—is perhaps even more attuned to the free-floating associations of children than the earth-bound expectations of adults.
The Metropolitan Opera’s magical English-language adaptation of The Magic Flute, which returns as this year’s family-friendly Met holiday run through January 5, and is so titled to distinguish it from the Met’s same production in German, stays faithful to the original by following Lewis’s canon to create for all ages “out of those elements in our own imagination which we share with children.” Here young singers Janai Brugger and Ben Bliss are the princess and prince, Christopher Maltman returns as the bird-catcher Papageno, with Anthony Walker in the pit. This year, the Met Opera has also released An Illustrated Synopsis of the opera that will help adults as much as children understand the shifting loyalties of this fanciful story.
Much was made of Julie Taymor’s puppetry when this production premiered in 2004, and the attention was justified. Her neoprimitive, cargo-cult-like costumes and props are so affecting because they give us imaginary access to how these transporting creations are crafted and operated. In a similar way do the live singers and orchestra create the underlying magic of opera through their own analogue technologies—in particular the astonishing range of the human voice, which we experience pushed to the highest limits in the coloratura of the Queen’s aria of “Here in My Heart” (Der Hölle Rache) and the lowest depths in Sarastro’s “Within Our Sacred Temple” (In diesen heil’gen Hallen).
Beyond Taymor’s staging, more should be made of the poet J.D. McClatchy’s English translation, which stays true to the spirit of the German original while adapting to modern ears. “The word magic is not in its title by accident,” he wrote in his translator’s note. Last year McClatchy gave us a new translation for the Met’s family Barber, and here we find similar tuneful delight in his phrasing:
You know the secret of its power.
My father in a moonless hour
Once fashioned it from ancient oak
By lightning flash and thunderstroke.
Now take the magic flute and play
To guard us on our dangerous way.
An off-note of the production continues to be George Tsypin’s aluminum and plastic sets. Their machine-like look may have been intended to contrast with Taymor’s handmade costumes. Instead they come off as incongruous banquet-hall kitsch.
A even greater flaw is in the extreme cutting of the production. With a length that can extend beyond three hours, Die Zauberflöte can undoubtedly benefit from some judicious editing to achieve a more family-friendly length. Yet here the foreshortening conflates too much of the opera’s feeling of dreamy somnambulance in order to keep the production under two hours. Gone also is the necessary pause between Acts I and II. It might be assumed that the expeditiousness appeals to the family demographic, but such assumptions cut against Lewis’s edict to let the work, and not the market, speak to the audience on its own terms.
Plus, without an intermission, what opportunity is there to purchase that promised bar of Toblerone?