I stopped at the 7-11 on the way home the other day and was met in the parking area with the familiar opening chords of the Overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute. It made me grin from ear to ear! Not only did it make for a grand exit from my car, it felt like a little love letter from my childhood.
My parents brought home the Karl Böhm recording of The Magic Flute when I was about five years old. It is the ultimate cast and recording to this day in my opinion. My parents were barely making ends meet, but they made sure I had music around me. I instantly loved it. I played it over and over again. I looked at every picture in the libretto booklet. I took it with us on road trips to visit family like a favorite stuffed animal. I used to dance to the overture and run around fighting the dragon with the three ladies. My mother and I even learned to sing the Pamina/Papageno duet together with her singing the Papageno part. We performed it when I was about nine in a little living room concert. That performance is part of me; the way we smiled at each other, breathed together, looked into each other’s faces- wrapped in the entwining love of Mozart’s harmonic language. Opera meant that I was loved, from day one. It was a magical thing full of evocative spaces for me to fill with my imagination and even my own little voice. No one forced me to love it, it WAS love. I just walked right in.
As I walked right in to that 7-11 I couldn’t wait to thank the proprietor for the lovely parking lot surprise. I grabbed the half and half I had come for, and, as the cashier was about to ring up my sale, I semi-shouted (through my mask and his plexiglass shield) “Are you an opera fan!!??”
He looked up, confused. I pointed to the parking lot, “the music,,,are you an opera fan?” I added a nod and a thumbs up to replace the smile he couldn’t see behind my mask. He frowned, looked vaguely at the entrance and then shouted back “oh! You mean the radio?” “YES!” I said, feeling awkward since maybe he didn’t know what exactly was playing on the radio when I arrived. “Thank you for the lovely music!” I re-emphasized pointing again, making the praying hands gesture. He frowned. Then he pointed in an arc at the whole entrance and the parking lot and shouted “I only play this music because it keeps the neighborhood trash people away from my store. “
I recoiled, replacing my item unpurchased, and left-frozen to my core. The music that had meant love to me for my entire life was being used as people repellant, and the undesirable demographic could not have been made clearer: poor people and people of color. Sharing this story even now makes my fingers feel weak on the keys and my lungs burn with rage and pain.
I am not writing this story for shock value, or condolences. I am writing this story to acknowledge my privilege. I am a white appearing mixed race woman who is descended from factory worker whites and educated professional middle class Blacks. My hippie dreamer parents were not wealthy, but we had just enough safety afforded us to think beyond survival toward the values of community, education and a more global consciousness. Because of who I am I was given this window of experience to share with you -not only because I was raised to feel welcome in classical music and opera spaces, but also because I appear to be the customer that 7-11 owner would rather serve. I was confronted with a truth that day by accident that many live at the bludgeoning end of every day; opera and classical music is used as code for a cultural and educational caste system that many, myself included, are implicated in if we allow it to stand unchallenged.
Let me make this perfectly clear: opera at its very essence, is made from love. It is born through the love of the composer, brought to life through the love passing through every instrument in the orchestra, and expressed through the love that has passed between the lips of every cast that has ever breathed life into a score. Opera companies mount productions as acts of will and tremendous passion. Singing careers and voices are build out of the sheer joy that is completing a phrase and then the desire to be part of a group of human beings who make one glorious work of art in partnership. This art form could never have survived if it was only about hate, exclusion, classism, racism, sexism, a price tag or power mongering. Like a wild thing it would have died in that kind of cage. If anything, the very fact that opera still has so much to give us and say to us is proof that no external machinations can alloy the gold that is forever at its heart.
So, how do we radiate that love in a way that finally tears down these walls of exclusivity? I have witnessed Shakespeare transform the lives of prisoners on Death Row, theater give returning solders a way to process trauma, and the Ballet audience fill with beautiful Black children and their parents because of Misty Copeland and what her art, body and story have made possible in their imagination. I want to feel that freshness blowing through the opera house too!
Opera is definitely in a moment of examining its diversity and inclusion at all levels and in all job descriptions. But universal representation in every corner of this art form can’t be the exception, it must be the rule. This chance to refresh our operatic default settings gives me tremendous hope. But I want more. I want that “Shawshank Redemption” moment to happen to us as a greater society. I want people to not need to know what those voices are singing about, but to feel that what they are offering is made from LOVE, the same way a meal made from love smells good and feels good to any individual when it is offered with unadulterated good will.
Yes, the libretto of The Magic Flute has its own challenges-sexism and racism that were rooted in the Masonic tradition of Mozart’s time. Nevertheless, Mozart’s longing for honor, magic, nature and the kindness and patience of a true and tested love shines through. He adored this opera, and only lived for two years after it premiered. It was wildly popular precisely because it made so many people feel welcome- from the dirt floor to the perfumed balconies.
When Pamina is caught trying to escape Sarastro’s house, Papageno asks her how she will save them both. She sings “Die Wahrheit! Die Wahrheit, Sei sie auch Verbrechen” or,
“We will tell the truth, even if it is a crime.”
It’s time for us to tell the truth, even if that truth is a crime. We have to face opera as a whole and historic thing, with dark corners and infinite spaces available for growth. As we turn to face this new year my abiding hope is that we all hold in our hearts the love we have felt on every kind of stage, and in every kind of venue. We have so much to reclaim, reframe, and rename together. With love on our side, I know we can.