‘‘The Magic Flute’: Performance and Privilege at the Royal Opera House

By Mat Hick, MA Music

Thursday saw the final performance of the 10th revival of David McVicar’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It also marked my intrepid first steps inside the Royal Opera House. Stepping into the Royal Opera House, you get a sense of the space immediately, opulence drips down the walls and into the glasses of Moet Chandon, available to those with the money to purchase such a luxury for an interval treat. 

The orchestra, conducted by Richard Hetherington, introduced the opera with the ‘overture’ during which, a man walked through the upper tier of seating holding a glowing orb. The orb floated above my head for a terrifying moment, as I was briefly implicated in the performance. The glowing orb was a slightly odd interactive addition to the opera, given that it was literally over the heads of the majority of the audience.Nonetheless, the orb was an invocation as we were quickly transported into the spectacular realm of Die Zauberflote. We are introduced to protagonist Tamino, played by Bernard Richter, as he is pursued by a large serpent and is knocked unconscious. The slap-stick comedy of Birdcatcher Papageno, Peter Kellner, balanced the emotional intensity of the play with moments of lightness. His search for his ‘Papagena’, played wonderfully by Alexandra Lowe, saw moments of genuine comedy as he is put to the test by his female counterpart. A highlight of the performance was Aleksandra Olcyk’s rendition of the famous ‘Der Holle Rache’, more commonly known as the ‘Queen of the Night Aria’. Olcyk captured the rage written into Mozart’s aria, demonstrating astonishing control in the virtuosic writing of the part. Pamina, played by Christina Gansch, was another standout performance throughout the opera, bringing a depth to the character, with beautiful performances including ‘Ah, I feel it, it has vanished’. Throughout, the staging and costumes were exquisite, creating rich interior and exterior landscapes that included trees, rising and setting suns, and Lion King-style animals. The production was overwhelming at points, but a wonderful introduction to the grandeur of operatic performance.

..the drama of the Royal Opera House extended into the contradictions and privileges witnessed within and outside its walls

However, the drama of the Royal Opera House extended into the contradictions and privileges witnessed within and outside its walls. As a music scholar, I am wary of Opera and the spaces it is performed in, as a genre marked by uncomfortable legacies of cultural imperialism, as well as misogynistic narratives that subjugate women and either exclude or fetishise Black and Indigenous people. The small amount I did know about Die Zauberflote was that the libretto (text of the opera) included various moments of blatant misogyny that relegated women to the margins of a patriarchal society. These were felt in the multiple parts of the libretto that quipped about the emotional and treacherous nature of women that were met with uncomfortable laughs from around the Opera House. Despite this, the female performers stood above these narratives bringing depth to another set of female characters written into the margins. Pamina, Queen of the Night, and the Three Ladies were characters with genuine authority in the performance that went beyond the comedy of bolting Papageno’s mouth closed for lying about saving Tamino. Other contradictions in the space were evident before I stepped foot into the Royal Opera House. Amidst the congregations of excited audience members was a homeless person pleading, ‘You have all this money but won’t help me,’ ignored by the same groups of white faces that twenty minutes later would be captivated by lavish costumes and translated German arias. 

The Magic Flute was a fantastic introduction to the drama of opera: fantastic performances, dazzling staging and iconic music accompanied wonderfully. The representation of women was challenged in the complexity brought to the characters by Olcyk and Gansch. However, leaving the Opera House, I couldn’t shake the image of how privilege was performed by the attendees, of which I’m included, and the inequality spaces like the Opera House continue to represent in our society.

Caption: The Magic Flute, ROH (Credit: Bill Cooper)

Post Author: SOAS Spirit

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