The Magic Flute By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
Directed by Harry Silverstein
(Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center to May 18)
Why are all the fantastical creatures made to look Asian?

Wack Magic: The vaguely Asian staging has no clear purpose.

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.

Our Readers Say

I think you're seeing yellowface where there isn't.
"Saturday’s opening had a bad false start by soprano Maureen McKay brought on by a coughing fit..."

Really? Since when is Act II, Scene IV (You know, where "Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehn?" actually is, though clearly you missed that) considered a "false start?"

Also, which characters had yellow faces? Please, do point those out to us.

This writing is terrible. And the author (a truly glorified characterization of this person) clearly doesn't enjoy opera. Perhaps he shouldn't go. I shudder to think what such a closed minded person would try to describe were he to encounter a truly daring production. Stay in America, buddy. Also, learn how to write sans chip on your shoulder with avec attention to detail. Or hey, maybe the sports page is a place better suited to your "talents."
Another story crying about RACISM? WCP must not dabble in journalism anymore.
I don't know how it can be racist when the chief designer is Japanese. You just brush that off like it's no big deal but it's his vision that we see played out.

And it's not just the magical characters who are Orientalized... every character except for the two women had a very Asian-inspired look.

And if you can't approach the near-rape and near-suicide scenes within the context of the play then you've failed as a critic to engage the opera for what it is.

Maybe accusations of racism make or great clickbait but this is an awfully short-sighted critical analysis of the performance.
Well, the commentary about racism may be overblown, but the show just wasn't that good. The music and singing were OK, but the costumes, scenery, and English translation detracted from the experience.
Get a life! Stop looking for things that don't exist. I have seen many productions of Magic Flute, and this was amount the best.
The horrible computer generated stripes and lines of color were the first offense of this opera. It looked like the NYC subway or bus route map given to tourists. It had no redeeming qualities at all. I could not wait for the actual performance to begin thinking that the computer nonsense would be done with. When it became evident that it would persist throughout the show, I became sick to my stomach and dizzy. I fought off a spell of Vertigo which meant closing my eyes and holding my head to avoid it. One of the reasons one attends a live theatrical performance is to relish the set designs created by incredibly talented artists that normally enhance the actors and singers and compliment the story line. The vision of cheerio designs and holes like Swiss cheese dancing in the background were absolutely hideous. The undeniable fact that they were a distraction from the main purpose of the event is undeniable. Lastly, reading the English words above the stage when the actors were speaking in English was redundant and just plain stupid. Whoever thought up this concept of this opera should find another line of work and sooooooon.
Washington City Paper's review of "The Magic Flute": Defamatory or just hyperbolically stupid?
Mike Paarlberg clearly has no business reviewing opera. Please find a more suitable writer who knows something about the material. The last thing we need is this sort of drivel about whether something is or is not yellow face.
This review should be removed-- offensive in too many ways. This is a pitiful critique of a brilliant production with captivating singing artists.
Washington City Paper should terminate relations with Mike Paarlberg immediately. What an embarrassment for this "publication". Clearly this "writer" is ignorant.
This version was one of the most brilliantly staged and acted operas ever. The costumes had genius written all over them. There was a Zen quality to the whole thing that clearly threw traditionalists off their bearings, hence some of the hostile comments. The ever-changing electronic and physical sets were a delightful feast to the eye.

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