There are those who say they know The Magic Flute, and there are those who do not realize they know The Magic Flute. Mozart’s fantasy opera is a mainstay among opera houses around the world—including the Metropolitan Opera, where Tony winner Julie Taymor’s vision premiered in 2004 and has returned to the stage repeatedly since.
The opera contains some of music’s most ubiquitous melodies, including the Queen of the Night’s ardent Act II aria.
“It’s one of the most—if not the most—famous opera tunes,” says Kathryn Lewek, the soprano who takes on the aria (shown above) this season at the Met. “You can find children and birds singing it on YouTube.”
The task is daunting, but one Lewek is no stranger to after having sung the role in 17 different productions. This is her fourth season singing in Taymor’s staging at the Met, and her return this year marks two milestones: her first time as part of the opening night cast, and her first time performing in both presentations in the same season: the full iteration in German (Die Zauberflöte, which concluded in October) and the condensed, family-friendly English adaptation (running November 25–December 9).
Over a dozen productions later, Lewek is still exploring the nuances that bring dimension to the infamous villain: “If I didn’t find something new and exciting each time I did a production, it would get really boring.”
Lewek admits that on the surface, the Queen of the Night is “your quintessential, two-dimensional villainess—a Cruella de Vil or some other Disney villain.” But there is a human quality to her motivations at odds with her supernatural personification of malevolence.
Her physical appearance plays to this in Taymor’s production. The Queen of the Night is a grotesque beauty—talons and a menacing blue hairline paired with intricately choreographed flags extending from her back. Musically, Mozart’s queen delivers death threats and promises of vengeance in impassioned coloratura, balancing ferocious staccato with soaring melisma.
Lewek recalls an early vocal rehearsal with Zauberflöte conductor and Music Director Emeritus James Levine, who encouraged the soprano to explore those juxtapositions in her characterization. “He said, ‘I think you can bring out that pathos in the first aria even more.’ He’s given me permission to bring more of myself and tragedy into the character in the beginning.’”
That first aria, “O Zittre Nicht” (“Oh, Tremble Not”), finds the Queen of the Night heartbroken and distressed by the kidnapping of her daughter, urging the hero Tamino to save her from the evil Sarastro. But is it Sarastro who is evil, or the Queen herself, who is later revealed to want Sarastro dead for the sake of her own power and control?
“Sometimes we have thoughts, and some of us act on those thoughts to further our own position at the expense of others. I think that’s what separates the good and the bad,” Lewek says, before admitting that there’s more nuance in the real world. “That’s what makes the Queen of the Night an interesting character: she knows very well that she’s using Tamino for her own advancement.”
She’s a force that exploits human empathy to commit the inhumane—an idea that transcends the fantasy world on the opera stage: “In the opera business, some people step on others to get their foot in the door. There are those kind of people in all walks of life. But it's whether you act on it or not. We all have those thoughts—anyone who's ambitious about anything. You have a decision to make, and with the Queen of the Night, I think we know what kind of decision she makes.
Lewek exercises the same level of discipline, preparation, and stamina whether performing the role in its full German or condensed English; the difference, she notes, is typically on the other side of the stage. The English-language, 100-minute version significantly lowers the house’s median age: “It’s a great one for parents and teachers to introduce kids to opera.”
What makes the title so unifying between children and opera aficionados? “One word: Mozart. It’s perfection in music. Also, the fairytale aspect makes it accessible; who hasn’t heard fairytales since they were kids?”
Lewek adds that the alternative presentation is true to Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder’s intentions: “He meant for it to be in the language of the people. That’s why he wrote it in German when all opera in that time was being written in Italian.”
Taymor’s production plays to its young-skewing audience, too: “There’s puppets!” Lewek says, laughing. “It’s okay to play to the fact that kids have smaller attention spans. The most important thing is they have a positive first, second, or third experience with opera. We want them to become adult opera fans too.”
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