• An Open Letter About Ingmar Bergman’s “Magic Flute”

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    To all directors planning to stage Die Zauberflöte, or make a new film version of Die Zauberflöte, or write a novel, or stage a ballet, or create any other new work based on Die Zauberflöte:


    Hello from one Flute lover to another! I’m thrilled that you’ve decided to stage/make a new adaptation of Mozart’s final masterpiece and I wish you the very best of luck with it. I’m in the process of writing my own, novel-length, gender-bent retelling – I’m tentatively calling it An Eternal Crown after the last words of the libretto, though I might change the title later.


    I’d just like to say one little thing, though.


    I’d appreciate it if you didn’t blatantly copy aspects of the Ingmar Bergman movie.


    I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s Magic Flute on just about every Flute incarnation that’s appeared since. It’s arguably the most famous screen version of an opera ever made, though of course it has stiff competition from Rosi’s Carmen and Zeffirelli’s Traviata. When I overview the various non-stage adaptations of Flute that I know of (film, ballet, novel, comic book, etc.), they all seem to be based just as much on the Bergman film as on the original libretto.


    Is that really necessary? I love the Bergman film as much as anyone else does, but it’s just one interpretation of the opera. I’d love to see other people find their own interpretations.


    So, if you wouldn’t mind, please don’t…


    (a) …rearrange the order of any musical numbers. There’s nothing wrong with the original order.


    (b) …eliminate all the Egypt allusions and make the setting purely European. Why not embrace the exoticism? Why not take it to its logical conclusion and portray all the characters as people of color? That would help fix the Monostatos problem, that’s for sure!


    (c) …eliminate Papageno and Papagena’s feathers and just dress them as ordinary peasants.


    (d) …have the Queen get sexy with Tamino during her first aria. Yes, it telegraphs that her intentions aren’t pure and fits with the Speaker’s line about her “captivating” Tamino, but it’s not necessary to the plot. (Though I admit, I’m including it in An Eternal Crown.)


    (c) …dress Sarastro and the priests in orange.


    (d) …change Monostatos’s introductory scene so that he doesn’t get scared of Papageno. Yes, it’s cheesy lowbrow comedy, but what’s wrong with a little cheesy lowbrow comedy here and there?


    (e) …have Sarastro retire in the end and leave Tamino and Pamina in charge of the temples. Yes, it’s an appealing idea, because Sarastro’s values are flawed by modern standards. It’s nice to imagine Tamino and Pamina creating a new utopia where slavery doesn’t exist and where men and women live as equals. But like it or not, Schikaneder and Mozart ended the opera with Sarastro still in power. (In An Eternal Crown, I’m planning to have Anaia, the Sarastro character, give the Disc of the Sun to the lovers, but not give up her status.)


    (f) …make Sarastro into Pamina’s father. That seems to be the biggest unwritten rule of all post-Bergman Flute adaptations: Sarastro has to be portrayed as Pamina’s father. Now, I understand the appeal of the idea. It clarifies why he’s so invested in her, it gives him more of a “right” to take her from her mother, it “humanizes” both him and the Queen, it “enhances” Pamina’s dilemma, and of course, some people think a woman can’t possibly be obsessed with murdering a man unless he’s her ex. But it wasn’t Mozart and Schikaneder’s intent; that we know. And does it really enhance Pamina’s character arc that much? Of course it’s agonizing for her to have to choose between her two beloved parents, but is that really worse than having to choose between her beloved mother, the only living parent she has, and a man she’s not related to but whom she realizes is morally in the right while her mother is in the wrong? Doesn’t it say more for her moral character if she chooses the virtuous side, even though it means losing her only parent? And since Pamina is the actual heroine of the piece, isn’t that worth more than trying to turn the Queen into a Medea figure?


    It’s perfectly fine that Bergman made those changes. It’s perfectly fine that a few other Flute adaptations have used them two. I admit, my current draft of An Eternal Crown has a little Bergman influence here and there. But it’s only a little bit, and I’m considering rewriting those moments to get rid of the influence anyway. Unlike other adaptors, I don’t want to borrow swathes of Bergman’s interpretation. Mozart wasn’t involved in making that movie; Schikaneder wasn’t involved in making that movie. It’s just one fascinating interpretation of their raw material.


    So if you don’t mind, in your Flute, please concentrate on the original raw material and not a famous director’s interpretation of it. If you do that, I’ll respect your work 100 times more.


    All the best,


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    • I am writing a retelling-sequel of the magic flute.
      I agree with you that Sarastro couldn’t be Pamina’s father: in the libretto is clearly written that Pamina’s father is dead.
      My interpretation is probably different from every other I have read: I still think that Sarastro is evil and the Queen is right.
      Sarastro claims that the Queen is evil and that he has the right to kidnap Pamina and to force her to the good side (his side, obviously…), but what proofs he gave?
      Why couldn’t be a lie? Why couldn’t Sarastro be simply a manipulator? A thief that stole the disc that belongs to the Queen?
      I think that Mozart gave us an open end and leave us free to think who is really good or not…

      • Please let me know when you finish your retelling/sequel. It sounds fascinating and I’d love to read it! Hopefully when “An Eternal Crown” is finished, I can share it with you too.

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