JD’s opening night of this very colourful Magic Flute for Opera Australia has been and gone. What you may ask has a picture of Angelo Soliman got to do with it all.
Angelo Soliman was a fascinating figure in Viennese history. When he was a child he was taken as a slave to Marseille from his home in what today is northeastern Nigeria/northern Cameroon. He was later given as a gift to count Lobkowitz, an Austrian Fieldmarshal. From then on he gradually worked his way up through the echelons of Viennese society, gaining his freedom on the way. He spoke several languages fluently and was very highly regarded by the city’s cultural elite. The emperor Joseph II held him in high esteem. He was a friend of Mozart’s and they were both members of the same Masonic lodge ‘True Harmony’. He eventually even became the grand master of that lodge. It is quite possible that the ‘enlightened’ character of Bassa Selim in Die Entführung aus dem Serail was modelled on Soliman.
When he died of a stroke in 1796, something happened which to us today is unthinkable. The director of the Imperial Natural History Collection asked permission from the emperor Francis II, (permission duly granted), to have Soliman skinned, stuffed and put on display as a ‘curiosity’. No good Christian burial for him! He eventually went up in flames during the October revolution of 1848.
All of which brings me to this: modern society often has trouble with controversial lines from libretti, plays etc. of bygone eras that are, or may at least appear to be, discriminatory or downright racist. In The Magic Flute Monostatos is quite plainly described in the list of characters as a ‘Moor’ – like Othello – and therefore black. In his aria when he tries to steal a kiss from Pamina, (incidentally marked pianissimo, almost whispered with the piccolo adding a Turkish ‘zing’ to it), he sings:
Weil ein Schwarzer häßlich ist.
Ist mir denn kein Herz gegeben?
And in the next strophe:
Eine Weiße nahm mich ein,
Weiß ist schön! Ich muß sie küßen;
Monostatos is obviously in deep emotional distress and both Mozart and Schikaneder make us feel very sympathetic towards this tortured character. When, a few minutes later, he is discovered trying to kill Pamina because she doesn’t reciprocate his love, Sarastro speaks these lines:
Ich weiß nur allzuviel. – Weiß daß deine Seele eben so Schwarz als dein Gesicht ist.
Ouch! How does one cope with that line in our politically correct society? Many productions just leave it out but I often wonder if that’s the right solution. Mozart, as I have said, was a friend of Soliman’s – and it is quite possible that Schikaneder was also. It is highly unlikely that, preaching the Masonic virtues as they did, they would think that purely because of someone’s skin colour they were good or evil.
Mozart’s Vienna, just as our society is today, was full of paradoxes. At one and the same time Joseph II’s reign as emperor encouraged freedom on all fronts (even abolishing the death penalty), while installing a repressive secret police when things began to go a bit pear shaped. Soliman rose to the highest rank in social and intellectual circles but was then unceremoniously stuffed like an animal.
Instead of cutting it, keeping that small but troublesome line of text in to my mind opens up avenues of territory to be explored. I like to think that it simultaneously and very succinctly represents both the hypocrisy at the heart of 18th century Viennese society and, by their sympathetic treatment of Monostatos – and by that I mean showing us the pain and rejection of an outcast – Mozart and Schikaneder’s coded condemnation of it. It is a sort of transposition of Merchant of Venice if you like.
I don’t believe that things, as in life, in The Magic Flute are altogether what they seem: – no real good or evil, no black or white. Only grey paths that take us deeper and deeper into our own white/black souls.
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