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Let’s get this out of the way: The Washington National Opera’s new whimsically Orientalist production of The Magic Flute isn’t racist. It’s just not that great.
In both the playbill and press release, the WNO repeatedly mentions set/costume designer Jun Kaneko’s Japanese heritage in an apparent inoculation against any side-eyeing of the decision to make a large part of the cast—the magical part—vaguely Asian. There’s no stereotyping per se, since these are all fantastical characters. But it doesn’t change the fact that this is basically an opera done in yellowface.
Cultural appropriation can be perfectly valid in art, of course, and it doesn’t have to be offensive, but there should be some logic to it, as with WNO’s kabuki interpretation of Madama Butterfly in 2006. But this wasn’t that. Imagine if they had they instead made half the characters Puerto Rican, or Hasidic Jews, or something. Or if they’d stuck a dwarf in it for no apparent reason and dressed him kind of like a leprechaun, as they did with The Elixir of Love (actually, maybe that was a bit offensive). In putting a quasi-racialized spin on a fairy tale, it’s unclear what the hell they were trying to convey, so without any context, the message that comes across—unintentionally, as it’s almost certainly a function of Kaneko’s background—is someone behind the scenes thinking “Let’s make it weird. How do we do that? I know, let’s make them Asian.”
It’s too bad the staging is so confusing, because that’s all this production has going for it. Unlike this season’s Moby-Dick, which similarly showcased its set design but had strong vocals to boot, the singing in The Magic Flute mostly underwhelms. Saturday’s opening had a bad false start by soprano Maureen McKay brought on by a coughing fit, an unfortunate one-time flub, but her phrasing in Pamina’s opening aria was awkward as well. Tenor Joseph Kaiser, as Tamino, didn’t noticeably botch anything but had no memorable presence. Both soprano Kathryn Lewek (The Queen) and bass Soloman Howard (Sarastro) had trouble hitting some of their notes, Lewek in the final coloratura of “O zittre nicht,” Howard at the lower end of his register throughout. Only baritone Joshua Hopkins shines as Papageno, the opera’s most annoying character. Philippe Augin’s conducting was serviceable; there were some intonation issues with the woodwinds and timing issues with the brass, but the strings were as bright and chipper as Mozart would require.
The all-English adapted libretto goes with WNO’s aim to make the last production of its season its family-friendliest (Saturday’s performance was simulcast at Nationals Park). And it’s understandable why it might be appealing to kids: princes and princesses! Monsters and giant birds! Except you’re quickly reminded The Magic Flute isn’t really all that kid-friendly: Mozart’s ode to the Enlightenment has a lot of adult meditations on the struggle between reason and moralism, not to mention one near-rape scene and two near-suicide scenes, the second of which is played for laughs. If a sexual predator who looks like a kabuki Guy Fieri is supposed to be whimsical, WNO has a different sense of whimsy than I.