A woman with wide eyes is staring immovably forward, the look of a pig to slaughter in her visage. The camera quickly pans around and focuses on an older, pale women whose eyes show no fear, only icy vengeance. As the song progresses, the woman is transformed into a literal monster, a grim spectre out of Dickens. Her breath speaks murder and her soul cries for death. The elder woman vanishes as soon as she appears, her tirade sealed with a promise: "Hear a Mother's Curse."
The camera of life then turns to a small boy, aged eleven, watching the movie play on his primitive TV screen, entranced by the concretization of the music that caresses his soul. That small boy, happily, was me in the year 2001.
The first time I heard "Der Holle Rache" (more colloquially known as "The Queen of The Night's Aria") was around age five when my hands caressed the fateful VHS case at the video store. The video was a production of ABC TV that many don't know exists: a cartoon version of Mozart's opera Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute.) The plot is shortened, the language translated from German to English, and it is properly "Disney-fied" (complete with a queen turning into a dragon at the end...sounds familiar?) I watched that video over and over again and, when the video store I rented it from eventually went out of business, I bought the very copy that (unknown to me at that moment) sparked my love of Opera.
Years later, I was to discover this opera again when our school took us to see an English-language production of The Magic Flute at the local high school, a tradition that Lyric Opera of Chicago still continues to this day. I sat in fevered glee, as I had told my entire class how cool this story was and how amazing the music was! I mean, it's a prince fighting and evil wizard to save a beautiful girl who was taken away from her mother! You can almost hear Walt Disney's frozen head screech at the thought of the lost opportunity "Disney's The Magic Flute" could have been! Though my classmates were less enraptured than I, I nevertheless walked out of that auditorium with my head in the clouds and Mozart on my lips.
Cut to later that same year when, at my local library, I happen across the opera section. I think you could guess what opera was sitting front row, center in the opera section? (If you guessed Alban Berg's Lulu or Shostakovich's Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, then you are completely and utterly hopeless!) I saw a bright, sparkling recording of The Magic Flute and picked it up in my grubby, unwashed hands and proceeded to listen to it over...and over...and over...ad nauseous...ad infinitum...Amen!
I was for the first time in my life completely and utterly obsessed. I swear that I listened to nothing but various recordings of The Magic Flute for two years. By the end, and to this day, I have approximately 25 recordings of The Magic Flute alone in my collection, ranging from LP to CD, VHS to DVD and, honest to God, even Laserdisc.
"Der holle rache" is the moment when we learn of The Queen of The Night's evil intentions firsthand, as we are told that the evil "demon" Sarastro was the antagonist. The Queen shows her true intentions in glorious technicolor, telling her daughter Pamina to stab Sarastro to death. The Queen, understandably, is not one to mince words:
"The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!"
The song is one of brutal murder and the thrill of vengeance, very much fitting into my previous love of Disney's Villains. The Queen of The Night is the birthmother of Snow White's Queen and Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent. The thrashing anger and violent spikes in the vocal line show a woman on the edge, one that (upon deep digging) we find to be a feminist icon.
In the swath of dialogue that is usually cut before The Queen sails into this aria shows her side of the story: Her husband, Pamina's Father, gave the "sevenfold seal of the sun" to Sarastro upon his death. The Queen goes on to recount the reason why he gave it to Sarastro: "He said to me: Wife, my final hour is nigh. All I own is yours and my daughter's, but the seal of the sun shall be given to Sarastro. You women will place your trust in him, as all women should, and into the hands of a wise man." (My rough translation)
The Queen, then, is a woman wronged by a man, a being searching rational, not irrational, vengeance. It is this subtext that I learned to search for in opera, to delve deep into the text and meaning of these often mysterious and enigmatic texts.
To this day, hearing this aria sends me into a state of almost childlike wonder. It is like arriving at the gates of heaven, the moment of ecstatic anticipation before you enter paradise. This aria was my introduction to the entire oeuvre of opera and set me on the path to becoming the opera singer that I am today.
Every writer remembers the piece of literature that led them to seek the art of the crafted word as a passion. Every painter remembers that moment when they saw the first painting the pushed them to pick up the brush and try it for themselves. And, in that grand tradition, The Queen of The Night's aria was the first hit that spawned a lifetime of glorious addiction.
I continue, as I always will, on my path, driven by my love of opera and all of the beauty it has funneled into my life. I wake up each day with a new song of gratitude on my lips.
Mozart himself once said that "Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius."
I can think of no better summation of the artistic life that I live and breathe every waking second.
1 - This is famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's film version of The Magic Flute, Trollflojten. The cinematic elements, including the ghoulish mask, are Bergman's brilliant touches to Mozart's resplendent music. The singer is Birgit Nordin. This performance is available on DVD.
2 - This is Luciana Serra as The Queen, the first living performance I saw of this aria on videotape. This performance is available on DVD.
3 - This is Edda Moser, who recorded this opera with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting. A recording of Moser's rendition was included on the fabled Voyager Golden Records included aboard both Voyager Spacecraft launched in 1977. (You can read more about the records here.) This rendition is available on remastered CD.
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