Kathryn: I always talk about how singing “Queen of the Night” is like throwing darts with your eyes closed. You have a dart in your hand, you know exactly where the bull's eye is, you shut your eyes, and you toss it.
Rhiannon: From WQXR in the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
Carolyn: She's murderous, she's vengeful, she's got a knife that she gives to her daughter and she's trying to incite her daughter to murder.
Rhiannon: Every episode, we take apart one aria, and then put it back together so you can hear it in a whole new way. Today, we're going into the stratosphere with “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte or The Magic Flute.
Jan: There's something almost supernatural about the register she's singing in. That in itself reaches out and grabs us in our innate sense of fascination with evil.
Rhiannon: The year I was born-- do I have to say it? Okay, 1977. NASA sent two probes into space to take a look around. Just in case they ran into anyone or anything-- yes, I'm talking about aliens now-- they put a golden record in each probe. These records are like time capsules, they've got pictures, sounds and music representing the best of life on earth as we knew it in 1977.
The idea is that if an alien spins it on its alien turntable, it will learn what it means to be human. Now, amidst all the wonderful music on that record, it only has one aria, and I'll bet you've heard it even if you're not a diehard opera fan. It's the Queen of the Night's big moment and Mozart's The Magic Flute.
In German, the aria is called “Der hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” which means “Hell's vengeance boils in my heart.” Well, there's a lot of love songs in opera, and this is not one of them. It's a rage fest sung by an angry queen.
She's angry because her late husband left his temple to the high priest, Sarastro, instead of to her. In this aria, she hands a knife to her daughter, Pamina, and tells her to assassinate Sarastro. If Pamina disobeys, she'll be disowned and cursed. Well, thanks, mom. All right. Clearly, there's a lot to unpack here, so time to call in some decoders.
Kathryn: I just had a baby seven weeks ago, a little baby girl.
Rhiannon: First up, soprano, Kathryn Lewek.
Kathryn: I remember singing this role a bunch of times when I was pregnant with her and suddenly it took on this new meaning. I kept joking around with everybody, "I hope that she doesn't understand German," because this text is pretty harsh.
Rhiannon: She's one of the most sought-after queens of the night in the world. We also have Carolyn Abbate.
Carolyn: There's a difference between beautiful and sublime.
Rhiannon: A musicologist at Harvard who's written several books on opera.
Carolyn: The old definition of 'sublime' was it's something that's both beautiful and frightening. That is where I would put this aria for the Queen of the Night.
Rhiannon: And Jan Swofford.
Jan: I've never laughed as much writing a book as I have writing about Mozart.
Rhiannon: A composer and writer who's written biographies of Ives, Brahms and Beethoven.
Jan: He was hilarious, even when he wasn't being just rabidly obscene. He didn't have to be rabidly obscene to be hilarious, though he was offered rapidly, obscene, and hilarious.
Rhiannon: Now they're going to tell us all about why the “Queen of the Night” aria reflects the pinnacle of human achievement. Then as a special treat, we'll hear from one of the men who produced that golden record about why this was the only aria that made the cut. Now we're ready for launch. Der hölle Rache from The Magic Flute in-- three, two, one.
Jan: The first time I heard The Magic Flute was the summer before I went to graduate school to be a composer. I figured, well, I should know more about Mozart's operas. My summer job of cleaning floors, I ran across next door at the record store, a deluxe edition of The Magic Flute.
I immediately bought it with the last $50 that my wife and I had to our name and brought it home and thought that she would be pleased with my devotion to art, and she was not. After the screaming was over, I sat down and listened to it. The trouble with the first time I listened to The Magic Flute is I hated it.
Kathryn: A quick summary I guess is a classic tale of boy meets girl and fall in love. It's Prince Tamino, who is a prince of a faraway land. He comes into this world where Sarastro and the queen are currently feuding because the Queen of the Night's husband has passed away and all the power of the land has been transferred to the Sarastro instead of to the queen, and she thinks why do I not have power here? women's power here hashtag. The Queen of the Night has to take things into her own hands.
Carolyn: She sends Prince Tamino on a quest to rescue her daughter who has been kidnapped. She outfits him with a talisman, The Magic Flute, from which the opera gains its title. In the course of act one, there's a pivotal scene where Tamino learns that the daughter wasn't kidnapped, she was actually taken away from her mother for her own good by Sarostro, who is not an evil wizard. He's actually the high priest of the temple of wisdom. In the course of act two, the Queen of the Night is said to throw off her mask, reveal herself in her true form.
Jan: That's one of the things that makes her such an interesting character because she simply switches from a sympathetic character to somebody who's really very frightening, the evil mother.
Carolyn: She's murderous, she's vengeful, she's got a knife that she gives to her daughter, and she's trying to incite her daughter to murder.
Kathryn: She says to Pamina, "All right, toots, you've got to Sarastro because we've got to take the power back for ourselves. Do you see this dagger? It has been sharpened for Sarastro. You will kill him if you love me."
Carolyn: And threatens her daughter with eternal alienation between the two of them if her daughter doesn't follow her orders.
Kathryn: She's desperate. She's at the end of her line.
Carolyn: It's like a child's nightmare of what a parent could turn into if they were very angry and had passed through anger to complete loss of control.
Jan: The two things that turned me off when I first heard the Queen of the Night were, first, that I didn't buy the switch of character. Secondly, that I didn't understand how the music that Mozart wrote for those words expressed those words, because in some ways, I thought it sounded too happy. All this dancing around in the stratospheric register with music that sounds like a bugle call, literally-- he's not using his kind of usual dark side.
I finally came to realize that part of what makes it so scary, because she's a scary character, is that there's something almost supernatural about the registers she's singing in. That in itself reaches out and grabs us in our innate sense of fascination with evil.
Kathryn: At the beginning of the aria, basically, all you hear is this sort of tremolo in the orchestra. It's not very long. I usually ask conductors if they wouldn't mind starting that as I'm finishing the dialogue. In German, I say [German language]. [German language] literally means 'no words' 'no word.'
I really like it when the conductor will start that-- while I'm saying that last word, because then it just gives me one moment that's almost rhythmic in my brain to take that breath and then start. You just want to launch right in there. It's like hang-gliding. You don't want to run a whole lot before you take off hang-gliding. You just want to be able to gracefully step off the cliff, right?
Jan: When she strides onto the stage, the whole thing just goes up into because she's so good and so threatening.
To say she steals the scene doesn't even begin to express it. She is the scene, and she stays that way.
Kathryn: The first line of this aria is a really wonderful illustration. It's "the wrath of hell is burning in my bosom."
You can just imagine she's just got this; the flames of hell are bursting out of the seams of her corset.
Jan: The Queen of the Night's aria is different because it's a new way of expressing a bad character. The usual way of expressing an aria like this would be a kind of Furioso aria, a rage aria. Furioso and rage arias have a tradition, and you hear it all over the place. Mozart wrote plenty of them. The Queen of the Night's aria is not involved with that tradition at all.
Kathryn: I'm the type of actress who really connects to my emotions. I'm pacing backstage, and I'm getting worked up. I'm channeling that anger from times in my life that I have been actually full of rage. I use that in partnership with the adrenaline of just going on stage. That's really what kicks my game into high gear. I think it helps, actually. Technically, it helps me reach those crazy high notes because it's a difficult thing, even on my best day. Most of the time, I'm not having my best day, especially right now after seven weeks after a C-section.
Jan: She begins with conventional moves and tonalities. It's minor. It's fierce.
Then it becomes something really quite otherwise when she starts climbing into the stratosphere. That's when it gets very fresh and very interesting.
Behind the Queen of the Night, besides archetypal fairy tale character, is the Empress Maria Teresa. Somebody who tried to suppress the mason. She was considered a very serious enemy.
Carolyn: She was the only woman who ever ascended to the throne of the Austrian Empire, and that was an extremely fraught event because there are many who thought that a woman should not rule. That's a historical source for the figure.
I think we can't leave this without saying that there's a lot of misogynistic writing in that libretto for The Magic Flute. Women are being caricatured as angry, vengeful, losing their reason, not able to speak rationally the same way men can. This also is obviously culturally biased and of its time.
Kathryn: To put it in layman's terms and take the fairy-tale out, how frustrating, even back in the day? Imagine this woman. She's a queen, and she has all this power. Then her husband dies, and suddenly, all of that power is just completely snatched away from her. It's a really frustrating position to be in. I can understand her anger and her rage.
Jan: I put it this way, the people who think fairy tales are frivolous and unreal don't understand fairy tales very well. This is universal. Their way of dealing with life's sorrows and tragedies. When I realized that it was a fairy tale for adults, that's what changed my mind about it.
I suddenly realized we're not in the realm of drama that's supposed to make sense. We're in a different realm. Mozart was writing a magic opera. That's what they were called. He needed a new language to do that. He was finding new ways of expressing danger, and tragedy, and sorrow, and suffering, and joy, and drama, which went right to the heart.
Carolyn: One of the things that Mozart was aiming at was really to push the voice of that character to do things beyond what we imagined a human being is capable of. He's clearly aiming at some effect where her voice gets very strongly aligned with the idea of a magical instrument. The sound of the Queen of the Night's voice becomes flute-like.
For example, by making her voice jump a lot in that aria, by subtracting it from the realm of melody, and how fast she has to move from note to note. Of course, the fact that while she's doing that, she can't possibly be saying words. You can't have words when a voice is asked to sing that way.
Kathryn: Next time you're having an argument with your significant other, notice that at first, you've got a lot to say.
You're explaining yourself, you're explaining what they did wrong, whether it'd be the 15th time that they have laundered your underwear and it shrank in the dryer or something like that, and you have a lot of words for them. You're trying to explain your side of the argument and how it needs to be fixed, and it's just not getting through to them, so you just start cursing.
I think that the second half of that aria, when she's just like-- it's just expletive after expletive with a lot of exclamation points.
I always talk about how singing “Queen of the Night” is like throwing darts with your eyes closed. You have that dart in your hand, you know exactly where the bull's eye is, you shut your eyes, and you toss it.
Carolyn: Then Mozart, he's going to be dead six weeks after the premiere of Magic Flute. He evidently says, "I am going to put everything I know about musical composition into this opera." The kinds of music that Mozart wrote for this opera, they are so complicated. Many of them are completely out of place in opera, to begin with. You think The Magic Flute, in a way is just a compendium of all the kinds of music that Mozart could write. Not just from opera. From everywhere. This opera is unique. There's nothing else that's like this.
Kathryn: I love singing this aria. It gets a little old sometimes. Actually, the thing that gets old is just the pressure of every performance because it's so hard to sing. Everybody says to me, "Oh, Katie, but you make it sound so easy. It's a piece of cake for you." It's not. It really is actually not. It's hard. That's why I love it, actually. It wouldn't be interesting to me if it wasn't a challenge every single time I sing it. I'm glad that it's the hardest thing ever to sing.
Jan: This opera that I thought was stupid and unbearable, and I just didn't buy when I first heard it, to me, is now one of the summits of human creativity because it has that fascination. The process of going from how much I hated it at the beginning to how much I love it now, to the extent that I sometimes can hardly think about it without choking up, and the end that the first time I heard that was just absolutely idiotic, leaves me bathed in tears now. No, I don't know if any other work like that. I really don't.
Rhiannon: That, my friends, is why we love this aria. You just heard Soprano, Kathryn Lewek, Musicologist Carolyn Abbate, and Composer, Jan Swafford decoding Der Hölle Rache for Mozart's The Magic Flute. Now, earlier I promised you the inside scoop on how this aria ended up on that golden record that went up with the Voyager space probes.
Timothy: My name is Timothy Ferris. I write non- fiction books mostly about science and philosophy. I produced the Voyager Golden record. In the process of assembling the record, we naturally asked a lot of folks to give us suggestions, composers, conductors, musical scholars. What are you passionate about? That helped. We got some good suggestions that way.
One of them was the “Queen of the Night” aria. Obviously, the title, The Queen of the Night is appealing if you're sending a spacecraft off into the eternal darkness between the stars, but it also just simply appealed to us. We found it exciting. I think there is an appropriateness to the wild, open, boundless sound of this aria that commends itself to our wider environment of the entire galaxy.
Mozart is an interesting composer from a mathematical standpoint. That is, you can find mathematical relationships rather easily in Mozart's music. We had that a bit in mind when we were putting the Voyager record together.
Since we don't know that aliens intercepting the record would have hearing like ours or would hear in the same bandwidth, or that their sense of time would resemble ours, whether our music would sound like the chipmunks or something to them, I was interested in putting together classical selections that had mathematical relationships that would reward a listener, so to speak, even if that listener couldn't actually listen, but could only study the music as a kind of code.
There is a question in my credentials as a record producer. I've only produced one record and only two copies of it were made, and both copies were hurled off the earth forever. That could be construed as a decent career or an utter failure.
Rhiannon: Now that's the story. I love that Mozart's out in space waiting for some hipster alien with a turntable to find his stuff.
Rhiannon: Well, that's it for this episode of Aria Code. Now, if you think we're a podcast worthy of being launched into space, please tell the world about it by heading over to Apple Podcasts and rating and reviewing it. That will really help us out.
Who are we anyway? Because you know, it's not just me putting work into this podcast. Our Producer is Merrin Lazyan, Brendan Francis Newnam is our Editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Sound Design and Mixing by Matt Boynton, and Original Music by Hannis Brown. Our team also includes Khrista Rypl, and Justin Hicks.
Special thanks to Kathryn Lewek, Carolyn Abbate and Jan Swafford for their insights. This show is a co-production of WQXR in the Metropolitan Opera. I'm Rhiannon Giddens, and I'll see you next time. Danke schön.
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