A Radio Special: Mozart’s "The Magic Flute"

Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight on WQXR. It's a radio special that looks at the representations of blackness in Mozart's Opera, the Magic Flute.


Terrance McKnight: I'm Terrance McKnight, and growing up I played two instruments, trumpet and piano, and eventually both instruments led me towards the experience of classical music going to the concert hall. That place where the big orchestra performed for many of those years, classical music felt like a dead end road for me. Only a few people close to my family ever talked about going to concerts or having any involvement with classical music, but that all changed when I went to college.

Morehouse Glee Club singing 

Terrance McKnight: I went to Morehouse College in Atlanta where it was acceptable and respectable and normal for black men to be involved in classical music. I knew guys who could speak Bach, Handel, Luther Vandross, and Stevie Wonder, all in the same sentence. And when I joined the College Glee Club, we performed with a local orchestra. We performed opera. We sang in German, Italian, French, ibo, and in Yuba. It was at Morehouse where I first performed music from an opera or heard people talking about singing in operas for our 16 part podcast series and for this documentary. I went back to Morehouse to speak with some of my old professors about opera and how black people are represented in the art form. When I got to campus, I walked into the music building and I went looking for David Morrow, [00:03:30] the Glee club director. It was a quiet day when we got to the music department. I was there with David Norville. He's one of the producers of this show. Almost immediately we ran into Dr. David Morrow, who was the director of the Glee Cloud.

Terrance McKnight: How you doing? 

Morehouse run-in: Good. How are you? 

Terrance McKnight: Where can can I find? Dr. Morrow? 

Morehouse run-in Dr. Morrow….

Terrance McKnight:  Oh, right in front of me, huh? Yeah. Hey, Dr. Morrow. 

Dr. Morrow: Hello. 

Terrance McKnight:I'm Terrance McKnight. 

Dr. Morrow: The…Terrance McKnight. 

Terrance McKnight: Come on…

Dr. Morrow: HOw are you sir? Things are well? 

Terrance McKnight: Y'all got rehearsals today? 

Dr. Morrow: We do four o'clock. We're getting ready to Louis be tomorrow, um, going to St.  Louis to sing for the Black repertoire ensemble they have together, and they've been featuring HBCU choir. Oh. 

Terrance McKnight I sang in this Glee Club when I was in school. Some of my closest friends sang in Miss Glee Club three and 

Morehouse Glee Club sings

Terrance McKnight: Being around all these men who shared my cultural experiences was critical to me finding comforting confidence and classical music. What was so important to our learning was knowing our history and the history of this Glee club

Terrance McKnight: This music was written for the Glee Cloud by Dr. Yui Brown. He's the chairman of the Division of Creative and Performing Arts at the college. I took theory from Zi Brown. I accompanied in his voice studio, and after I got out of graduate school, he brought me back here to teach. It was in his class that I first started paying attention to opera.

Terrance McKnight: You know, David, when I think about coming back here, the fact that Martin King, king sang in our glee club, Dr. Brown, connected to that family and to that church. You know, when I graduated, he told me, you know, now that you're graduating, remember that you're representing yourself, your family. Morehouse College and your people. So the work you do, just keep in mind that your representation of all those things, it doesn't 

Dr. Uzee Brown: It Doesn’t matter whether you like, the idea of of that level of representation is forced upon you. It becomes by mere fact that you have touched those things that make you associated or connected in that way is going to connect people.to you and that institution and those experiences. 

Terrance McKnight: So in this story, what I'm looking at is some of those examples of blackness. You know, when we look at operas, there are some roles that were written for Moores, you know, for Africans. Mm-hmm. For Moores. Mm-hmm. You know, and one of the operas we wanted to talk about was in Mozart's opera, the, the magic flute.

Dr. Uzee Brown: The Magic …. Yeah 

Terrance McKnight: Yeah. Yeah. Monostatos…. he's actually a Moore. Um, and oftentimes this figure shows up in costume and he's very dark skinned. And lately people have been having problems with white singers putting on makeup to become black. But I wanted to get underneath that, the coloring and try to dissect what is it about this character that requires him to have dark skin?

Dr. Uzee Brown: there are a number of, uh, of different things that I would say about, well, first of all, about that character and that particular opera, but about the world of opera in general. It is not unlike, quite frankly, uh, conditions of the day of today. You know, you can find. Many movies that I think, you know, though we are getting major breaks in film, a lot of the movies will center around characters that are not very savory in terms of our community. And there is something about what that character looks like in terms of making him seem more evil and despised than not. So the circumstance of, of the Monostatos not necessarily unique in the sense of what white people knew about blacks and how they perceived representing them. And, and it is, you know, this is a, a vile buffoon like character, but you have to remember that a lot of the Western European composers played into that kind of scenario, not just in terms of race. But in terms of things that had to do with not only the racial divide, but human imperfection!

Monostatos Aria: Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden

speaker 1: Most of the time it's, it's a short figure. The voice is spun off and they don't care about the beauty of the instrument because that's not the kind of role it it's supposed to be a foul thing. 

Terrance McKnight: An Aria from Mozarts, the Magic Flute. It sung by Monostatos. He's the Moore, the black and enslaved man in the opera. He's the other. In this opera, he's the laughing stock of the opera. Chauncey Packer used to sing the role of Monostatos Chauncey is an African-American tenor from southern Alabama. He says he doesn't sing that role anymore.

Chauncey Packer: He's set up in the opera  to be the villain at every turn he's set up to be the villain. Um, it's um,  so it's a racist archetype that even in his aria, he says, shouldn't I have love like, Everyone else, everyone else has love. Is it because black, a black man is ugly? And I always think the reason I, I feel I don't want to do the role anymore is because in the opera it states it as a fact, and not just as a question, but he states it a black man is ugly, so he feels negative in his whole being, and that is the trope of his character to be the villain and the darker skin. Side of, of the characters in this opera. 

Raehann Bryce-Davis: So the first time I ever encountered Magic Flute was in Texas, and we had an opportunity that all the universities were all getting together to do one big show. And. It was in English and I didn't know anything about the opera at all.

Terrance McKnight: Mezzo Soprano, Raehann Bryce-Davis 

Raehann Bryce-Davis: We had like a sing through. I had gone and just learned all my notes. So I was sitting there happy, like Dododo, and I remember hearing the character that was singing Monostatos, who was saying, and in English, Because my skin is black and ugly, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And i was just like *GASP*

Monostatos Aria: Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden

Raehann Bryce-Davis: And as like like the only black person in the room I like looked around like “is everybody equally appalled?” And like everybody was just pleasantly smiling and looking down at their score and like, there's nothing wrong here. And I was like, what the freak is happening? 

Terrance McKnight: we wear the mask that grins and lies. It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes. This debt we pay to human guile, with torn and bleeding hearts. We smile and mouth with myriad subtleties. Why should the world be over wise and counting all our tears and size? Nay. Let them only see us while we wear the mask. We smile. But oh, great Christ, our cries. To thee from tortured souls. Arise, we sing, but, oh, the clay is vile beneath our feet and along the mile, but let the world think otherwise, we wear the mask. 

Terrance McKnight: The Magic Flute is a fairytale opera, it is set in Egypt. It describes Pamina, a beautiful princess being held captive by a ruler named Sarastro, who actually has her best interests at heart. He's protecting her from her mother, the Queen of the night.


Terrance McKnight: Sarastro, the Black slave who works for Soros, he's the prison guard who becomes captivated, smitten by Pamina's Beauty. Pina's mother, the Queen of the night, promises her daughter to Mantat toasts if he can help Pamina escape. But Pamina is afraid of Monostatos because he's Black. Instead, she falls for a prince named Tamino who comes to her rescue. And in the end, these two find love and light.


Terrance McKnight: Monostatos on the other hand is ridiculed, shamed, and beaten. But even worse, this man is self-loathing. And just like real life throughout the western world, his skin and his cultural heritage were seen as not only inferior and derelict, but as ugly in the libretto. Monostatos says that he's ugly, but he also pronounces white as beautiful, and being black is hurled at him as an insult and was justification for his physical punishment. From his so-called superior Sarastro.

Terrance McKnight: This is bass Kevin Maynor. 

Kevin Maynor: Sarastro has disciplined Monostatos. So there is that immediate feeling of superiority that we get from Sarastro, and he's banishing Monostatos away and disciplining him. And he even calls him, was thought of as a negative term. He calls him Black. You know… 

Outtake from The Magic Flute: Schwarzer!

Terrance McKnight: This thinking was the social order of the day, these tropes about race that were fomented in western art literature and thought they were passed down to us. This is Dave. He's a young man on our production team. Some of the 

David Norville: Some of the students that I went to school with, they actually gave me a nickname that probably some people from my old high school still still call me today. They'd call me KB, um, which stood for Kenya Boy. And they called me that because they said my skin was very, very dark. And I think that's part of the reason why this story of Monostatos really captivates me. 

Sylvia McNair: Monostatos was described as a Moor. The Moors were the people from North Africa, predominantly Muslim. They were dark-skinned and therefore, In central Europe, they personified bad things. 

David Norville: I think there are a lot of young black men who in isolation are dealing with these feelings of loneliness and are acting out in certain ways. I've had several friends who have, have lost, you know, those battles with, with depression, with loneliness will have taken their own lives. Um, loneliness will make us do a lot of crazy things.

Terrance McKnight: The characterization of Moores as a bad lot. Was false propaganda. In truth, the Moors brought and developed much of the culture that helped define Spanish culture in the centuries leading up to the Renaissance, including the culture that became classical music. By the 16th century, those accomplishments have been whitewashed. They were mocked and became the foundation of American entertainment, which we called minstrelsy. It was that form of theater. That became popular among white audiences in the 19th century, and consisted of white actors putting on blackface and performing racist stereotypes for entertainment. These audiences demanded to see Black folks dancing, being loud, lazy, threatening, nervous, dishonest, and childish, and for more than a century. That was America's go-to form of entertainment, a direct descendant of some of the scenes that came 

Terrance McKnight: One of the biggest laughs and magic fluke comes from the scene when Manta to and is Band of Slaves Hear music. They become so captivated by the sound of music. They forget the important task at hand. Instead, they get caught up and can't help but dance. Of course the audience is tickled when this happens. Now keep in mind, the role of Monostatos has traditionally been performed by white singers tasked with caricaturing black folks. I can only imagine the kind of things they did to get labs that was the gig. And one tenor who apparently nailed it was Charles Lyle, a British tenor.Here's a dramatic reading from the Daily Telegraph. 

A word of praise must again be given to Mr. Lyle, who invests the part of Monostatos with an importance due to genuine humor and finished acting. In the scene of the slaves involuntary dance, Mr. Lyle excites laughter such as is rarely [00:23:00] heard in an opera house. The Daily Telegraph, 1870 London.

Ian George: One of my first jobs out of college was I worked at top of the rock observation deck. It was a team of, it was a group of us, and we just, it was tourists coming in all day. We were on our feet for like 8, 9, 10 hours, but we had a blast.

Terrance McKnight: Ian is another young man on our production team. 

Ian George: And we would  just talk to people from all over the world. And oftentimes, you know, managers would, would call to me like, Hey, you know, Ian, you should really, you know, sing and entertain these people. And I was young and I was like, oh, this is fun. And I did it. But if I'm looking back on it now, just being honest, it was just like put on these tap shoes for our guests. He's not gonna say no, he loves doing it. 

Terrance McKnight: I'm looking at the libretto right now. The original text that Mozart used to write the opera, there's a scene early on where Monostatos captures Pamina and her love interest Tamino.They were trying to escape Sarastro's temple, Monostatos just doing his job and following orders. He proudly tells his master Sarastro's “You see what a good job I've done, boss?” Sarastro says, of course, and then just for kicks, just to humor the audience and show off his authority and superiority. Sarastro's rewards Monostatos with 77 lashes across his feet, then sends him off.] That served as a reminder or tutorial. For the place black people held in white society. And of course the large chorus was right behind Rastro there to say amen. Not quite like that.

Act I Finale - Wenn Tugend und Gerechtigkeit

Terrance McKnight: Long lived Sarastro. In his divine wisdom, he rewards and punishes at one turn when virtue and justice through the fame, the path of the great, the earth is in realm of heaven. And mortals are like gods.

Terrance McKnight: You're listening to every voice with Terrance McKnight, a radio special from WQXR in New York, many cultures. Many voices, one people.

Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight on WQXR. It's a radio special that looks at representations of blackness in Mozart's opera, the Magic Flute, these antiquated ideas and propaganda that show up in art and literature from the past. Their challenge for modern audiences and directors. In the case of Magic Flute in recent decades, Monostatos isn't always represented as a person of African descent. Now Mozart composed Magic Flute in 1791 and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York opened for business late next century. Well, since that time, there have been nearly 500 performances of Magic Flute at the Met. Maybe you'll find this interesting, or at least curious is not one black singer, not one has ever sung the role of Montoss, but one singer who has sung the role at the Met. And other places around the world is Filipino tenor, Rodell Rosel. Rodell says he understands Monostatos from his own personal experience as an outsider, and he presents monsta toast as someone looking for attention, looking for affection. Here is Rosel in character. 

Rodell Rosel: I want to be loved. I want to be acknowledged. I want to belong. I want to be looked at how people look at everyone else. I want to be part of something, part of a family, part of a couple, part of a group, and that's all I want. 


Rodell Rosel: I am just a regular person. Born, a regular person, but born with not your traditional beauty or pleasant features. Society's used to looking at beauty in a very specific spectrum. I do not fall into that spectrum I'm born with. Very unusual facial characteristics that people might find, uh, gruesome, ugly, or people may be afraid of. They would react to me like I would hurt them or I would do anything bad to them.

Sylvia McNair: It's lust. And selfishness that we see him living out with Pamina. I mean, he wants to seduce her, but he sings to himself. Pamina is not available to me because I'm a slave, and a slave is ugly. 

Rodell Rosel: I am attracted to her because she made me feel something that I have not felt before. This was the first time that I saw someone who I immediately admired because of her beauty, but because she has never seen anyone like me, her reaction towards me. Was the opposite. I just wanted a kiss. A kiss, that's all I wanted. I had no intention of really defiling her or violating her, but I feel that asking Nice, uh, was not working.

Terrance McKnight: What doesn't work so well these days is casting Monostatos. As a person of African descent directors have looked for other ways to update one of Mozart's most popular operas, to make it more palatable for diverse audiences 

Sylvia McNair: In the eight or nine different productions. I sang of the Magic Flute. Not once was Monostatos cast as a black man. 

Terrance McKnight: Soprano Sylvia McNair.

Sylvia McNair: It was just not gonna be done. It was not gonna be accepted. And that's, that's good because that was not the case 50, 60, 70 years ago.

Rodell Rosel: I had never talked about her beauty as being white. I have played Monostatos colored green, blue in a clown kind of, uh, face something that shows them that it is ugly or. Not normal or weird, we have always substituted words appropriately. I think the only time that I have used the original was when I was still in college, and it wasn't even in school. It was, uh, outside of college, local theater. That's one of the reasons why the skin tone of black is never used because we do not wanna associate ugly or bad or weird with the black skin tone, which I do agree with, totally agree with. I think it's just sends a different message. But the only thing that I lose and that we talk about this in books, we still have to find a way.  To teach people how people thought back then, so we know what the consequences are when people cancel certain books that teach history, yes, it can be offensive, but sometimes there are moments where we need to know why things are offensive now.

Raehann Bryce-Davis: I was just having a conversation with a young tenor. Who was offered Monostatos and it was like his first performance at a professional company…

Terrance McKnight: Soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis

Raehann Bryce-Davis: And that's a huge opportunity for that [00:34:30] kid, you know, and it, it's very hard for them to like say no to it because, you know, because of, uh, you know, how they feel about it emotionally.

Raehann Bryce-Davis: I just, I hope we get to a point that you can just say no, and there are other opportunities if you don't feel, I don't know. And, and, and ideally having more conversations like these directors and, and opera houses will make the changes that ideally make everybody feel comfortable. And equity is such that you're not so desperate financially that you're forced just to survive, to take these roles. You know, and that fortunately I'm not in a place that I have to do something that I feel uncomfortable doing. Um, but that's not the case for everyone. Like, it's not necessarily the case for that young tenor. You know, and so that's the conversation that we had


Sylvia McNair: These were stereotypes that those central Europeans. Had we have inherited them, it's our responsibility to move the story forward. And I think we should be casting operas. I would love to go see a magic flute that had a black Pamina wearing Natural African hair and an Asian Monostatos and a white Sarastro and a, you know, just so that the casting was diverse.Blind casting is, is just as not, it's not possible. We, we, we need to, Hmm, we need to bring this out into the light. Look at it, talk about it, which is what you're doing.

Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight on WQXR. It's a radio special that looks at the representations of blackness and Mozart's opera, the Magic Flute. Given the negative racial stereotypes and the agenda of this 18th century opera, there are those who say “stop performing this, burn it down, cancel this.” But I'm learning a lot through this process with my team and with artists like Raehann Bryce Davis, Chauncey Packer, Sylvia McNair, Rodell Rosel, Uzee Brown Jr., Kevin Maynor. That there's a depth complexity and humanity that can be brought to this opera that could be an important teaching moment in modern society, much more than Mozart and his libretto saw or were able to realize during their day as modern music lovers, presenters, and audience members, what does it look like being our best selves in support of the arts? Seems like empathy, inclusivity, and that belief in our common humanity has a lot to do with it. Maybe Mozart was unable to put that on stage, but that's our North Star. 


Terrance McKnight: You’re listening to Every Voice with Terrance McKnight, a radio special from WQXR in New York. Many cultures, many voices, one people. Every Voice with Terrance McKnight was written and produced by Terrance McKnight, David Norville and Tony Phillips. Our research team includes Ariel Elizabeth Davis, Pranathi Diwakar, Ian George, and Jas Ogiste. This episode’s sound design and engineering was by Alan Goffinski. Our original music is composed by Brother Jeremy Thomas, featuring Dr. Ashley Jackson on Harp and brother Titos Sompa on percussion  and vocals. Our project manager is Natalia Ramirez, and our executive producer is Tony Phillips. The executive producer for WQXR is Elizabeth Nonemaker and Ed Yim is the Chief Content Officer at WQXR. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

You can find more information on the web at arts.gov thanks to the Mex archives for invaluable research data. If you enjoyed this episode, Please take time to rate it. Rate us, review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. I'm Terrance McKnight. I'll see you next time.

You're listening to Every Voice with Terrance McKnight.

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