The opera is our loveliest possession, a shaft of light that pours into the prison of mortal life. Which is why the urban left’s treatment of it is among its most ridiculous absurdities. If you go to an American or European opera house, you’ll see Fernando and Guglielemo singing così fan tutte to each other while they stand at urinals. You’ll see, as I just did, Tannhäuser set in war-torn Ukraine. You’ll see Don Giovanni as a shirtless heroin addict. And if you’re spared all that, you’ll see an “updated” production of Rigoletto in which the Duke says, “My sights are set on a swingin’ girl, so hop on, baby, let’s take that whirl!” Or at best everyone will be dressed in suits for some reason. In making these changes, the directors have poured sewage into Diana’s bath, seemingly unaware of her naked body. I am therefore fully aware of the danger of what I am going to say. I want to make a change to the sublimest opera of all: the Magic Flute.
If you’re unlucky enough to have never seen it, the story goes like this: Tamino is given a sacred mission by the Queen of the Night to rescue and marry her daughter, Pamina, who is a prisoner of the evil sun-king Sarastro. He goes, and reaches her with startling ease—only to realize that Sarastro is a good and Enlightened king, and that the Queen is treacherous, superstitious and evil. Tamino and Pamina together undergo a trial by fire and water, are found modest and pure, and in the end the powers of light and reason banish inky night. (Fun fact: the tune of O Canada is plagiarized from Act II. Only fair, since parts of the opera are themselves plagiarized from the Seraphim.)
There’s also a subplot about Papageno, Tamino’s sidekick, who seems to be half bird. Papageno is alone in the world. There are apparently no birdwomen to love him, so he is understandably driven to a lonely suicide. “Good night, you false world,” he sings, after counting to three in the vain hope that the world will take pity on him. But just then, a miracle happens: A trio of boys appears with a magic Glockenspiel, which summons a Papagena for Papageno. Merriment follows.
This is the part that I object to. The entire thrust of the opera, written in 1791 during the full flowering of the Enlightenment, is the triumph of reason over mystery and darkness. And if it will triumph, then let reason be triumphant. We should be shown a world in which all magic spells are broken at the dawn of a new, sunlit age. The world should be ruled by common sense and a reliance on the witness of our senses. And obviously, there are no miracles of this sort: we call fairy tales tales for a reason. So Papageno should die with a whimper just before the final defeat of the Queen, and the opera should be renamed The Flute.
For when we can see clearly by the light of the modern sun, flutes are just flutes. In the same way water’s just water, even if we call it blessed by God and sprinkle it on a congregation. Wafers are just wafers. Saturday—or the Day of Atonement itself—is just another orbit of a rock around a star. Finally, Papageno is just a silly man wearing a bird costume for some reason, strutting for his hour upon the stage. He can frolic all he wants, but the hard world will not be sympathetic to him by any friendly magic. This is the evil wrought by Sarastro.
The truth! cries Pamina at the end of Act I. The truth! even if it is a crime! She is right: the truth is a scandal. There is a tremendous payoff in the opera itself for speaking truth to superstition, and Pamina’s line is in fact the most thrilling snatch of music that I know. But she betrays her mother—and human happiness—when she sings it out.
So as it stands, the plot of The Magic Flute is deceitful. It wants us to believe that we can have both knowledge and magic; that continued enchantment is compatible with the destruction of our bogeymen. People like Moses Mendelssohn fell straight into this illusion: he believed that we could preserve the truth of the Jewish religion even after peeling away the blinders of blind superstition. But there’s no such thing as a free enlightenment. We pay for our cosmopolitan comfort, empiricism, and egalitarianism by being ejected from the Eden of a magical and sympathetic cosmos. Should we take the bargain? Absolutely, not least because we have no choice. But we should not pretend that the price does not exist. In the absence of magic, we can reach human mediocrity, and nothing higher.
The Lord of the Rings is about the same thing. The Ring is fated to be destroyed, and with it Sauron’s power will be broken. But Galadriel and Lothlórien will disappear too, and the elves will all go to the West. You can choose between enchantment and disenchantment: you cannot, though, destroy Sauron without destroying the elves.
Real life is about the same thing too. Europeans cut down their huge forests at the end of the Middle Ages, and though they enjoyed undreamt-of urban prosperity as a result, they emptied their world of much of its strangeness and color. The ecological process was completed seventy years ago with the bombing of the German cities: the continent was successfully purged of Nazism, but turned into a mass of economically productive concrete. In the realm of religion, something similar happened to the Catholic mass: in the process of pulling up centuries of Jew-hatred, elitism, and anti-eglitarianism, the Church undid much of what was authoritative and mysterious in its sacred rites. Few people pray for the “perfidious Jews” anymore. But now the mysteries of the faith often occur under fluorescent light, propped up by English commentary, devoid of incense, and accompanied by a guitar.
Sarastro’s real-life victory over the Queen of the Night is probably unstoppable. His victory is so total, meanwhile, that we all—including me—must stay on his side if we want to be good and right-thinking people. We should not forget, moreover, that The Flute is a comedy. But there is still something sad in enlightenment.