Shadow and Reason in William Kentridge’s “The Magic Flute”

Published on December 7th, 2010 by Claudine Ise

William Kentridge, "The Magic Flute," 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

South African artist William Kentridge has an uncanny ability to draw new and uncomfortable meanings from classic works of art. This skill was brilliantly evinced in his 2005 design and direction of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s enduringly popular comic opera, The Magic Flute. At its heart, The Magic Flute is a love story and a celebration of music’s power to delight and inspire. The flute’s magic lies in its ability to mesmerize and subdue savage beasts (and men). Yet The Magic Flute’s own considerable charms have often masked the opera’s deeper, Enlightenment-era philosophical themes. Kentridge’s production brings these ideas to the fore by fusing the artist’s own ongoing interest in photographic metaphors and the history of visual technologies with the tropes of light and darkness that resound throughout the opera. He brings The Magic Flute’s ethereal world to life—and to light—by using dramatic, large-scale video projections based on his own drawings and stop-frame animations. These projections provide a major aspect of stage design while also functioning as levers for probing the philosophical and political meanings of enlightenment—of bringing knowledge through light—as the Enlightenment-era philosophies of Mozart’s era and the photographic medium both have done.

Composed in 1791 by Mozart, with a German libretto written by Emanuel Schikaneder, The Magic Flute takes the form of a singspiel (“song-play”) that intersperses songs, ballads, and arias with passages of spoken dialogue. The story—a prince named Tamino sets out to rescue the young maiden Pamina from the high priest Sarastro, who has kidnapped Pamina from her mother, the Queen of the Night—mixes elements of romance, fairy tale, and quest narratives with thrilling—and vocally treacherous—operatic derring-do (in the form of the Queen of the Night’s magnificent coloraturas). There are also injections of bawdy, commedia dell’arte-style humor via the character of Tamino’s friend, the hapless birdcatcher Papageno.

In William Kentridge: Flute (2007), an important monographic study of Kentridge’s work on the opera published in South Africa by David Krut Projects, Kentridge notes that he had always planned to design his production of The Magic Flute around projections and the metaphor of photography, but the deeper connections between these “ur-metaphors” and the opera’s underlying themes only gradually became apparent as he enmeshed himself in preparatory studies for the production. Two key stage props signify Kentridge’s pursuit of this metaphor: Sarastro’s blackboard—a symbol of the production, inscription, and dissemination of knowledge which, in the opera itself, functions as a small-scale screen upon which moving images are projected, and the early model camera/projector (which looks much like the version of the Cinématographe invented by the Lumière brothers) used by the Three Ladies who serve the Queen of the Night to create shadow drawings. Both the blackboard and the camera/projector can be seen as framing and recording devices. Each is a mechanism for perceiving and representing the world while also shaping our understanding of it.

William Kentridge, "The Magic Flute," 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

The significance of photography as a primary motif within Kentridge’s stage design made it necessary for him to set his production during the late 19th century, the era of photography’s invention (Kentridge also drew from the 19th century’s “style of posing for photography” when choreographing the performer’s onstage movements and actions).[1] During this period in history, photography was gaining greater legibility and increasing cultural authority as a means of representing the world.

The burgeoning popularity and increased portability of photography, coupled with the popularity of tourism and travel expeditions to Africa during this same time, supported Europe’s ongoing efforts at colonizing the continent. Western European knowledge of Africa increased dramatically during this period, as the African population and landscape was photographed by tourists, who returned home and put those images into circulation within the public sphere in the form of books, newspaper images, and postcards. African tourism photography also paralleled the rise of “racial science”; photographic images were used to support and justify European claims about the “primitive nature” of the people it was colonizing.[2] In many ways as delusional as they were “rational,” these highly presumptuous forms of photographic knowledge created a kind of phantasmagoric idea of Africa and its people, shaped by the political needs and desires of the colonizing European power.[3] The fact that Kentridge costumed the character of Tamino in a hunter’s uniform like a man on expedition suggests that the artist wanted to subtly reference the history of African colonization in his own version of the opera.

In the film William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible, Kentridge speaks of the difficulties he faced in addressing “the whole question of the authority of Sarastro and the certainty of Enlightenment.” How could he expose the opera’s ideological cracks without destroying the integrity of the opera itself? One solution was to metaphorically transpose the theatrical space of the stage to the interior space of a camera’s darkened chamber. To do so, Kentridge projected his own hand-drawn images from behind and above the stage. These envelop his performers inside an ever-shifting, immaterial architecture that appeared constantly in the process of dissolving, even as it “captured” and framed the actions onstage.

The Flute Onstage
As Act I of Kentridge’s production begins, the Three Ladies are playing with a cinematographe, a type of camera that can both take pictures and project them. Two of the women weave their hands in and out of the device’s projected beam of light, which casts a writhing image onto the wall behind them in the form of the giant “serpent” that is chasing Tamino when the latter first appears onstage.[4] It’s an exquisitely clever means for Kentridge to solve one of the opera’s more difficult technical challenges—how to make a giant snake appear in some recognizable (if not totally convincing) form onstage. Yet Kentridge does so in a way that also introduces a sense of doubt as to the source of Tamino’s fear and, by extension, the foundations of the Queen’s power. In Kentridge’s production, the serpent is nothing more than a flimsy shadow—a cheap parlor trick on the Ladies’ part. In order to kill it, the Ladies need only draw their hands away from the light. Through this photographic metaphor, Kentridge’s audience is made almost immediately aware of the nature of the Queen’s authority: she ruled not by wisdom, but by obscurantism and fear. She and her followers live in darkness; by obscuring the truth and encouraging false beliefs, she creates doubt and fear—or in Enlightenment terms, darkness—in the hearts and minds of her subjects.

Papageno’s entrance onstage suggests that he, too, is a prisoner of the Queen’s illusions. The bars of his birdcage, which many other directors of this opera have chosen to represent literally, are, in Kentridge’s version, comprised of immaterial shadows. We first see Papageno in silhouette, as a black and white animation conjured by Tamino with a few cranks of the Three Ladies’ camera. Papageno’s body is “trapped” by the projection frame, which metaphorically becomes his cage. Once Papageno steps onstage, there is no further attempt to visually represent the heavy birdcage he carries for his livelihood. Audiences must imagine it for themselves, and in doing so consider the idea that Papageno’s true state of imprisonment lies with his dependency on the Queen and her Ladies, who have plied him with food and plenty of wine in exchange for the birds with which he in turn supplies them. Here, as in the first scene, the Queen and her followers are portrayed as peddlers of illusion who trade on their followers’ sense of fear and deprivation. Importantly, however, they do so by means of a camera—an Enlightenment-era technology—which suggests that the discourse of Enlightenment can be used to exploit the weakness and ignorance of others just as easily as religion and superstition.

William Kentridge, "The Magic Flute," 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

And what of the Queen of the Night herself? She first takes the stage in front of a projected image of a crumbling temple under a starry black sky. As the building’s edifice fades and is replaced by a sparkling dome of light (which recalls Karl Friedrich Shinkel’s original 1791 set design for this scene), she sings sorrowfully of her daughter’s abduction by the “scoundrel” Sarastro. The emotional peaks of the Queen’s aria are accentuated by streaking white lines and sparkling beads of light flashing across the sky. It is a spectacularly beautiful display of rage, a reminder of how seductive raw emotion can be. These effects are repeated and intensified during the Queen’s spine-tingling Der Hölle Rache” aria in Act II, when swirling lines of light appear to ensnare the Queen’s body. She has become, as the saying goes, blind with rage—a prisoner of her own desire for vengeance. Significantly, Kentridge’s Queen is costumed in white, as opposed to her traditional black dress in other productions.

William Kentridge, "The Magic Flute," 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

Power and Light in The Magic Flute
For a lighthearted comic opera, The Magic Flute bears a rather heavy ideological burden. Written in the second half of the 18th century at the height of the Enlightenment era, it can be understood as allegorically representing western civilization’s passage away from the darkness of religious tyranny and knee-jerk superstition–which led to the prosecution of heretics during the various European inquisitions of the Middle Ages, for example, or the witch trials that occurred during roughly the same period in America—and toward enlightened modes of thought motivated by reason, ethical judgment, and scientific inquiry. The Queen of the Night represents the religious dogma and superstition that had imprisoned European minds during the Dark Ages after the Roman Empire’s fall, while Sarastro, who rules from his “temple of light,” represents the positive culmination of Western Civilization’s journey–the “triumph” of en-lightened, rationalist modes of thought over ignorance and obscurantism. One of the most prominent Enlightenment themes in Mozart’s opera was its implicit espousal of enlightened absolutism, the idea that a monarchal or dictatorial regime of the sort that today would be described as totalitarian could rule benevolently in the interest of the people. (The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who ruled from 1765 to 1790, expressed this idea succinctly in his oft-cited statement, “Everything for the people, nothing by the people.”)

As a white South African who grew up under apartheid regimes, Kentridge was well aware of what happens when light rules darkness by force. The fate of his own country offers a specific historical instance of “enlightened absolutism” to which his version of Mozart’s opera refers; Europe’s colonization of Africa throughout the 19th century provides greater context. Kentridge’s efforts to tease out some of the opera’s ambiguities and unresolved thematic aspects which, as Kentridge explains, involve “questions of light and darkness and—within the strict trajectory of the story—light triumphing over darkness,”[5] result in a production of The Magic Flute where neither darkness nor light triumphs over the other, but both find meaning through and in the other. Kentridge’s projections provide the ideal material for representing and exploring this idea, for they are formed through the play of dark and light, and as a result evoke “a messy, mixed state of things between darkness and enlightenment,” as Kentridge has put it.[6]

The opera’s main structuring logic pivots on the opposition between the Queen of the Night, the obscurantist witch who is ruled by darkness, and Sarastro, the man of learned inscription whose actions are guided by the light of reason. Kentridge’s own version of the opera maintains the pitched tension between the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, whose opposing claims to authority are visually enacted during his Overture. Lyrical coils of light, which characterize all of the Queen’s onstage appearances, alternate with rectilinear-style drawings of a telescope, a pendulum, a camera, a film reel, a disembodied eye (a Masonic image as well as a metaphor for photographic vision) and other technological and/or scientific devices that men like Sarastro have used to measure, record, and carve up the world. Each of these images began as black lines drawn by Kentridge on white grounds, but once projected, they take the form of white lines against black depths. They are literally drawings made with light.

William Kentridge, "The Magic Flute," 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

The specific imagery that appears within the projections is equally important. When Tamino plays his flute to charm the wild beasts, Kentridge projects a hand-drawn image of a rhinoceros, who appears to dance on a stage behind Tamino. At the sound of the flute, the rhinoceros dances a clumsy little jig, complete with handstand and jerky somersault. The “magic” of the rhinoceros’s dance lies in Kentridge’s use of simple stop-frame animation techniques yet the effect, as in so much of Kentridge’s work, is all the more charming because of its obvious ruse. In her essay for William Kentridge: Flute, Kate McKrickard notes that “the rhinoceros was a recognizable symbol of power and kingship in Europe for centuries, most remarkably exemplified by Clara, a three-ton Indian rhinoceros brought to Europe in 1741, who toured the continent in a horse-driven carriage for seventeen years, becoming a favorite of Frederick the Great and Louis XV.”[7] Kentridge’s rhinoceros can be read as a reflection of 19th-century Europe’s view of Africa as a wild beast that, like Clara, must be tamed by benevolent rule and made to “dance” on command. The rhino reappears at the beginning of Act II, but this time it has been subdued, conquered, and slain. This is the only moment in Kentridge’s opera when an actual photographic image (as opposed to a projected drawing) appears on the screen, and it is a harrowing one. Grainy archival film footage of hunters shooting a rhinoceros is projected behind Pamina and Sarastro as the latter sings his aria about justice and mercy: “In diesen heilgen Hallen Kennt man die Rache nicht/Within these sacred walls, revenge and sorrow do not exist.” As the rhinoceros writhes in its death throes, Pamina bows her head sorrowfully (both performers are facing away from the screen and towards the audience). Sarastro puts his hands on her temples and gently forces her to look upwards, as if to gaze directly at the deadly scene onscreen in order to confront his “truth.” This is a rare moment in Kentridge’s Magic Flute where the enforced, “enlightened” absolutism of Sarastro’s benevolent rule is overtly cast in doubt. (Kentridge explores these ideas in greater depth in his Black Box/Chambre Noire project).

Sarastro’s forcible raising of Pamina’s gaze finds its negative corollary in the covering of Tamino’s and Papageno’s eyes that occurs after they enter Sarastro’s Temple of Light. Here, Kentridge’s decision to costume Tamino and Papageno in hoods or sacks instead of veils or blindfolds provides his opera with some of its most chillingly contemporary moments. The practice of hooding prisoners is used as a tactic of interrogation throughout the world and is today widely considered to be a form of torture. (Significantly for Papageno, hoods are also placed upon the heads of birds to pacify them and make them easier to handle). In this way, the hooding of Tamino and Papageno—the literal darkening of their vision—suggests that Sarastro’s tactics might not differ all that much from those of the Queen. When the opera was performed in South Africa, the final leg of its tour, Kentridge even directed the actor playing Sarastro’s follower to kick Papageno in the leg while the latter lay bound and prone.

How could South African audiences watching this scene not think of Steven Biko or countless other anti-apartheid activists who were interrogated, tortured and murdered while under police custody? How could Americans not think of Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib? After witnessing scenes like these, it must have been difficult for audiences of all nationalities not to question Sarastro’s moral authority—even, perhaps, to surmise that it had been claimed as much by violence as through a triumph of reason. Kentridge would seem to share these suspicions, which have to do, as he has explained, “with an overall feeling that I have that wherever there is the certainty of light, there is a big stick behind it, and that maintaining a train of certainty, of pure light, is only possible when there is violence behind it.”[8] Yet Kentridge was also adamant that his own overlays to the opera not go so far as to destroy The Magic Flute’s essential spirit of joy. It is up to each individual audience member to decide whether Kentridge’s Flute has gone too far, or if it instead has gotten the tenor of Mozart’s moment—as well as our own—exactly right.

[1] Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, ed., William Kentridge: Flute (New York: David Krut Publishing, 2007), 38.

[2] For more on this idea, see “Photography and Colonial Vision,” by Paul S. Landau, accessed online. The online version of this paper was substantially revised and published in “Introduction: An amazing distance: pictures and people in Africa” in Images and empires: visuality in colonial and postcolonial Africa, edited by Paul S. Landau and Deborah D. Kaspin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, pp.1-40. Part of the online material appears also in: “Photography and Colonial Administration in Africa” in the same book, pp. 141-171).

[3] For several examples of this type of photograph, see the images used to illustrate this 2008 article from London’s Daily Mail, written by Marcus Dunk. Note as well the article’s lede, which reads as follows: “From pet lions and ivory trophies to a doctor doing his rounds on a zebra, these stunning pictures capture the strange allure and eccentric charm of life in Kenya during the heyday of British rule.”

[4] Kentridge’s use of projected imagery in this scene recalls that of 18th century phantasmagoria, a kind of pre-cinematic spook show in which hand-drawn images of ghosts, phantoms, and otherworldly creatures were projected onto walls, screens, and even smoke by way of multiple magic lantern devices.

[5] William Kentridge: Flute, 23.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 150.

[8] Ibid., 23.

One Response to “Shadow and Reason in William Kentridge’s “The Magic Flute””

  1. […] contributed an essay to the site, too – I tried my hand at writing about opera – Kentridge’s production of The Magic Flute, to be exact. It was really hard to write! But satisfying. There are a bunch of really fantastic […]

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