Sunday, November 26, 2023

The Magic Flute: Mozart and the Creation of Art as Healing

Cast from Magic Flute bowing at end of performance
Every opera by Mozart is an extraordinary event. It is a feast not only for the ears but also for the eyes as it is shiny and glossy and rock and rolls its way before rock ’n’ roll even existed. One of my all-time favorite movies is Amadeus by Milos Forman and although some of the events depicted may be debatable and may not be exactly congruent with reality, I imagine Mozart himself to be pretty close to the portrayal in the film (and quite close to Austrian singer/rapper Falco’s rock star depiction of him), a confident and cocky young man who was glamorous, irreverent, careless, and yet at the same time caring, generous, giving, and full of heart, love, and passion.

Although Mozart’s music had often eluded me in my younger years for its apparent simplicity even perhaps naivete, there is a lot of depth embedded and enmeshed within all his work. It may look and sound simple, but it is far from it. Although his music tends to be sprightly and youthful like bubbling Champagne, there are also other feelings that pop to the surface and shine through when perceived and taken in by the attentive ear, eye, and heart.

Let us, for instance, look at his Magic Flute. The story itself is hard to summarize as its plot is too confusing and convoluted to be put into words. There are also odd choices with the cast itself like the character of Papageno, a feathery bird catcher who tends to strike us as utterly silly but he is also quite amusing. The Queen of the Night with her three siren-like hench women at her side can appear cartoonish at times. The elegant poise of the baritone Sarastro seems a bit too pompous and self-important to be taken at face value. And the story itself is beyond preposterous with many twists and turns that make telenovelas look clear and straightforward in comparison.

And yet, despite it all, this is not slapstick or pure comedy as two of the characters in this opera attempt suicide. Both want to kill themselves for being jilted in love. Of course, this being a comedy, they do not succeed but having characters seriously contemplate this option makes it all look like a comedy that is walking on a tightrope with our fear and preoccupation that at any moment the scales could tip, and the opera could plunge and fall into disaster and tragedy. In a way, it is Mozart playing with us since we know in advance that it is not going to turn bad, sour, or tragic, so it makes him even more mischievous, but it does not change the fact that there are still serious undertones in what is often, and I would say unfairly, considered one of Mozart’s sillier or “lighter” operas.

What about the flute with its magical powers that can turn sorrow and sadness into joy and happiness and bells that soften the hearts of even the most wicked ones and hypnotize them or rather wake them up to goodness? This may have fairy tale aspects to it, but it is not silly. Considering the state of the world today, this is something we are seriously lacking in this world of ours and these bells and whistles are much needed and sought after the same way we desperately hold onto shards of hope.

I believe it is not childish at all. In fact, it points towards the serious power of the arts; music in its purer and rarefied form has indeed healing potential and propensities. It has the indubitable strength and power to lift us out of the dumps, energize and inspire us, and motivate us beyond the present moment. It is our companion through thick and thin and better and more loyal than a spouse, always there on our side to cheer us up, to hug us, and to love us. No more faithful companion available at a click and at the tip of our fingers has ever existed and in our technological age, it has never been easier to gain access and entry into this marvelous world. Because it deals with sounds and surpasses words with their evident limitations no matter how poetic they may be, music goes straight to the heart.

The composer needs and relies upon the musician and vice versa and each brings their own wishes, desires, and hopes to the table or the concert stage as their longing is reflected and shines through via the carefully crafted work of art that is presented to the audience. The page of scribbled notes is turned and transformed into music played and interpreted by each instrument and voice. Yet all of them are led and guided by the genius of Mozart without whom neither the orchestra nor the singers nor the conductor nor the audience members would have existed in this moment. It all comes from and flows and returns to Mozart, but each performance is slightly different and more unique than others before and others that come after them.

As I was sitting there with hundreds of strangers at the opera, I felt that this wondrous music connected us all for a limited but beautiful period of time. For an afternoon, we were all one and united as we were dreaming and fantasizing in our own little private spheres and bubbles. Yet it was Mozart who was guiding and conducting our dreams like a puppet master pulling on our heartstrings, leading us to the precipice of potentially impending death (at least twice) and yet getting us back to the shores safe and sound again.

Oddly enough, I had the strange feeling and sensation that at that moment Mozart actually cared about me. We had a personal connection, and it was not just me appreciating and loving his music but also him caring for and about me through his music. The magic flute went beyond a title or a prop in the opera and was more than merely a symbol of a magically carved piece of wood that turned people’s sorrows into joy. There was a personal sense and meaning attached to it. No matter how deep my troubles were on that day or during that week (and they were certainly knee-deep), they seemed to fly away for the length and duration of the opera. I was fixed and transfixed and transported into another world that looked like nothing like the one I lived in and yet had many similarities and affinities.

First and foremost, it is a quintessential love story or rather a bunch of love stories bunched together. Our hero Tamino sees a picture of Pamina and is immediately smitten with love. Papageno, the lonely but chatty bird catcher longs for his soul mate and meets her eventually in the shape and form of Papagena. Despite a few glitches here and there, some twists and turns, ups and downs, and surprises, all’s well that ends well. In the end, we are happy and relieved to know that there will be not one but two weddings in the offing and certainly more than one child soon gracing the bird family. A spin-off of the married life of the Papagenos would be amusing or on second thought perhaps not.

Yet, Mozart is nothing but straightforward, and, in fact, he is cunning, playful, and even mischievous not unlike his colorful creation in the shape of Papageno. Apart from adding surprising depth and shades of darker hues to a story that could have been from the mill, he also plays with conventions. As mentioned in a pre-talk of tenor Nicholas Burns, a typical and stereotypical opera would have the deeper voices, i.e. baritone representing the bad guy while the higher repertoires, tenor and soprano would be the good guys or gals.

We seem to be on track since the alleged bad guy has kidnapped the Queen of the Night’s beloved daughter, and if the good guy/hero Tamino accepts the challenge, he will get the girl and be married to her. In a sense, we also have the shaping and becoming of the hero who will not only have to face difficulties and dangers but will also need to prove his love. The whole thing becomes inverted as it turns into an initiation ceremony of a secret and clandestine society that seems to mirror traditions and ceremonies of the Freemasons of which both the librettist and the composer were allegedly part.

Yet, nothing is as it seems, and things start shifting and moving in front of our eyes. The soprano was in fact evil herself and her most famous aria with some of the highest notes humanly possible is in fact not an angel but like the name implies she is affiliated with the darkness and evil intentions. The baritone turns out to be a wise, just, and forgiving king and master at times reminding us of the Pasha Bassa Selim from “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (Die Entf├╝hrung aus dem Serail).

This is not the only inverting and upturning of expectations. It is also reflected in the music itself. We have on one hand the high classical and refined music that the queen embodies with beautiful and elaborate melodies, and on the other hand, we have the folksy tunes that Papageno symbolizes, another point made in the pre-talk. We have the commoner versus nobility, and it is the first one we root for and the second one, we tend to dislike. This also tends to be rather different from the predecessors of the operatic tradition. It is furthermore a demonstration of general sentiment and resentment just a few years after the French Revolution.

Finally, there is one more point I would like to make here. We have music in the form of flutes, bells, and whistles that bring about change of heart and soften seemingly implacable hearts and minds. Justice and order prevail as the good are rewarded and elevated, while the repenting are forgiven and the evil are punished for their deeds.

The ones we thought unlikely, Tamino who cries for help and assistance and wishes to be rescued as if he were a princess himself and not a hero faints at the sight of a creature in the opening act of this opera. Yet with some aid and more than a little help from friends, objects, and destiny, he eventually becomes a hero. In terms of love, he does not slay dragons but faces the elements and what must be the ultimate test, he must not speak to his beloved feigning indifference, which breaks her heart and almost kills her. 

It reminded me of the medieval maiden test where the knight must lie naked with his beloved but leave her untouched, a tremendous amount of will, strength, and discipline being needed to fulfill this deed or rather to struggle with oneself to remain passive and not do anything in this case. On the other hand, Papageno is even more cowardly here and fails to be initiated, but he does not mind as long as he has food, drink, and his woman by his side, so he also receives his share of happiness.  

Apart from all of this, we also have each of them coming into their own and not necessarily becoming heroes as in the case of Papageno but finding their own voices. Tamino is more himself and much less scared, while Papageno remains true to his nature and does not need to be other than he is to get what brings him happiness in life, plus he finds his female match in all the senses of the word. It is more than fitting to have an opera paving the way for finding one’s own voice, and it is also another reason why I do not think this opera to be silly but rather noteworthy and worth our time with its potential to bring about not only entertainment but also insight and even healing of our soul.

Singers bowing at the end of Mozart's Magic Flute performance

This is the final post of a three-part series on magic in different forms and formats:

The Magic Box: How Nothing is Impossible and Everything Is Part of Something

Birthday Magic: How and When it is OK to Feel Special and Entitled 

And here's a post on another Mozart opera:  

Mozart's Don Giovanni as the Tragicomic Symbol of Unbridled Capitalism

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Birthday Magic: How and When it is OK to Feel Special and Entitled

Teen with Dad in a restaurant in front of two juicy burgers
On this impromptu magical trilogy, I started off with the “magic box” and will end with Mozart’s Magic Flute, but I decided to sandwich this one on the magic of birthdays right in between. Why? You may ask. Instead of the usual lippy comment of well, why not that I am wont to give, I would add because it was my birthday recently, and contrary to custom and practice, the day and event overall ended up not being special or memorable for that matter (though there were still a few bright moments courtesy of my son). It was a mix of as well as back and forth between unwanted rollercoaster drama, some bad luck, and boredom, neither of which I am particularly fond of, to be honest.

It was then I realized that no matter how entrenched we are in our supposed denial and upfront rejection of childhood wishes and fantasies - ironically, those who claim to be mature tend to be the least so - there are moments where traces of this desire and longing can still be felt. And I am not talking about the quest for a father figure, as in religion or politics, or even the search for maternal affection often encountered in various forms of arts and other types of connection, such as the sense of community, no I mean in its most simple, natural, and unadulterated form imaginable: the celebration of one’s birthday.

Unlike Christmas, the delusion and disillusion are not abrupt and sudden. The child or teen (God forbid adult) who discovers sooner or later that they have been duped (lied to, manipulated, taken for a ride) by the people whom they trust and confide the most (parents, caregivers, friends, families, or even credible sources like NASA with its annual Santa tracker) is suddenly confronted with the non-existence of the jolly Santa Claus they took relish in. Although they may have harbored doubts throughout, there will be one day when the proverbial scales fall from their eyes and they see and realize the truth. Although they will continue celebrating Christmas and accepting gifts (who wouldn’t?), the magic is irrevocably gone and lost forever.

Not so when it comes to birthdays. I remember as a child always looking forward to it. You would get the whole deal of cake and gifts and sometimes friends, but I would always enjoy the extra attention that was bestowed upon me. For most of my childhood days, I had felt left out, perhaps even ignored, and neglected, but on that specific day, things were different. With my brothers, we had an unspoken agreement that the entire day came with a free day pass of not getting bullied, ridiculed, or beaten. In reality, things were not that gloomy and violent between us, but it still brings the point across that this day would be considered out of the ordinary even through the lens and prism of sibling rivalry.

One of the cruelest things you could imagine is to be mean to someone on their birthday, something that becomes inversely proportionate to age. There was once an elementary school teacher who made my son cry on his birthday. I had only found out as we were celebrating his day by eating hamburgers in our favorite restaurant (the same one where various years later, we would be doing exactly the same thing), but it broke my heart as he was recounting there and then what had happened to him with tears streaming down his face. I was filled with feelings of anger and impotence. This was just not right and would and could never ever be justified.

Yet I am glad to report that his other birthdays were much happier events and circumstances and even during the pandemic, we ensured that he had a good time and felt special and in that case, I especially felt it on my pocketbook as well. Yet, whether we acknowledge it or not, we have this craving to be acknowledged and feel special on our day! Interestingly, most people (with the exception of that awful unnamed schoolteacher) recognize this need and more or less oblige the birthday person regardless of their age.

And here is the rub indeed. Age can make a difference in our perception and experience of birthdays. What used to be a moment of celebration, you are counting your years up toward getting older and becoming a full-fledged adult (at least in legal terms), somewhat later down the road turns into this slope where you resent that day because it is now a countdown toward various unavoidable issues and limitations but most importantly towards our inevitable demise.

Whether single or not, the numbers keep piling up and we become worried about major markers in that respect, the big round numbers that await us as time flies and rushes in a hurry. We lose some of our glow and our faculties slow down, or at least we think so, and we may doubt and question our decisions in the past as well as our current conditions, be they on a personal, professional, or inter-relational level. It must be stated that birthdays due to their unique and personal importance to the individual are quite different than collective new starts and beginnings, such as the celebration of the new year with its various hopeful and optimistic resolutions that few of us accomplish, let alone take seriously.

Birthdays are all about you. So it also feels strange when yours coincides with someone else’s, a stranger, a friend, a family member, or even a celebrity. In a way, we tend to appropriate that day, it becomes ours and stands out from the three-hundred score other days of the year. And why shouldn’t it?

We are all born once, and it was on that very day that we entered the world and took our first breath. The journey, our journey started on that particular day. All the adventures and experiences, the joy and happiness, the pain and suffering, the lessons of wisdom alongside the many mistakes to get there all had a beginning point, the date of our birth.

That date is often used for identification purposes, but one’s birth is not merely important for keeping count of your age but also because where you come into the world is often tied and connected with your nationality. The country and city you set foot in become a major part of who you are regardless of your ethnic background. Space and time already combine to start shaping who you are and who you shall become on this footpath of life.

So yes, birthdays are a big deal indeed. And I say, not only do you deserve to celebrate it, but you ought to. Give yourself a day pass to feel free to feel special on that day. Nowadays, many people talk about entitlement, making others who may be more successful and/or privileged than the majority feel guilty while also shaming and blaming them often simply based on their appearance and/or background, but let that not affect you or bring you down, at least not on your special day. By the way, this also extends and applies to those who are not the best or ideal kind of members of the community. They also have the right to feel special for at least one day of the year. Be magnanimous and grant it to them even if you may feel deep inside that they do not deserve it.

Everyone is in their own way special. This comes simply from the fact that each of us is unique. By definition, that makes us special, and we stand out from the rest. We may dim our lights and the glimmer and shine that surround us, we may divert from who we are and try to mold it into something else to fit in better with others, or with groups, religions, and ideologies, or we may even pretend to be someone else or someone we are not.

Speaking of which, I am fully aware that there are some who always feel special regardless of reality and their current circumstances as well as those who demand to be treated special 24/7 often without putting any effort into anything, and then, there are those who feel more special than everyone else. To these types of people, every day may feel like a birthday, but my guess would be that deep inside they know it is a sham and pretense, and if not, life will let them know and wake them up to reality sooner or later. Put differently, even narcissists are suffering, and they crave constant attention. If you wish to ignore them every other day of the year, that is fine, but still do a little bit to make them special on the day they are actually entitled to feel so.

So circle the day of our birth on your calendar, take the day off if you can (I would like this to be automatic and legislated as a mandatory paid holiday for each and everyone), get together with friends and loved ones if you prefer or just spend it on your own doing something you love, and go ahead make our day and feel special. You know you are entitled to it.

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Magic Box: How Nothing is Impossible and Everything Is Part of Something

Rays of sunlight of setting sun reflected on water
This post is dedicated to two Bobs that I have had the pleasure of meeting via my podcast: Bob Thurman affiliated with the wonderful and colorful tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and by extension the Dalai Lama and Bob Kramer who has a vivid connection and impressive grasp (both in terms of understanding and reach) of the criminally underrated Otto Rank and his wonderful world and depiction thereof filled with insights and wonder. Apart from having identical first names, the subjects of Bob² open a magic box of endless cosmic possibilities, in which, to borrow the words of Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza (Sanskrit for box), tout est possible.

Presented here are my own, rather independent, perhaps eccentric, and certainly odd reflections, and neither of the Bobs is in any way or form affiliated with them, but both have at least inspired them to some degree if not served as midwives by making me give birth to them. And it is to both these brilliant minds as well as everyone connected with them and their work that I would like to dedicate this post.

To some extent, nothingness looms large in both their conceptions of the world. Whether it is the beautiful void of Nirvana or the wondrous nothingness of existence, there seems to be a push and pull towards that which is not versus that which is. Nothing is what it seems and there is certainly a ring of truth to it. Whether we point towards things, events, or people in our lives via language, words, and thoughts, or we try to grasp existence in a limited fashion by using the intellect or trying desperately to rationalize it, there is a common denominator at play: our life on earth is limited; whether we acknowledge it or not, it is marked and stamped with an expiry date.

In fact, Bob (Kramer) posits life between two bookends of nothingness: the void we come from and the void we end up in with a brief candle-lit flame in-between, that is our personal life. He firmly situates us in an unstable and precarious place: Carl Sagan’s conception of the pale blue dot that spins weirdly in the middle of cosmic vastness, which defies understanding no matter how you look at it. In fact, when looking at the “big picture”, our planet is so tiny in space and time that we may even consider it insignificant. We are not the sun like once believed but barely a single note in the majestic Beethovian symphony of the music of the spheres.

Although this may make us feel depressed and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it is also oddly uplifting and inspiring. We have no time to waste and need to focus so much more on this brief interval given to us, appreciate it, love more, hate less, and not waste any time on things that are insignificant or harmful to ourselves, others, and our beautiful tiny dot blue planet itself. Instead, we need to calibrate and fine-tune our existence and play the music from the deepest recesses of our unique soul and being. I believe that the other Bob (Thurman) will not object to that either. 

And yet, I wish to disagree with nothing. By this I mean I am actively disagreeing not agreeing with it. Because I believe that nothing can come out of nothing. There needs to be some thing to bring out something and in the same way, our existence is not nothing nor is our starting point and departure nothing either. I do not think that nothing is possible but rather that nothing is impossible.

There is a thought experiment in philosophy entitled the box (here we go again). Imagine you have a small box that includes a few utensils, ranging from a book (let’s make it the Tibetan Book of the Dead for our purposes), a picture of Spooky (Otto Rank’s dog), a picture of Mr. Floofles (our once precious hamster), a pair of scissors, a broken watch, crayons of different colors, a piece of string, and a business card of Arash’s World. We may disagree with the choice of some of its contents, but we would all agree that the box is not empty.

Now let us remove items, one by one from this given box. First to go, is, alas, my business card, then the broken watch, the scissors, and then the colorful crayons. The box is not empty yet as it contains various other objects within it. So we continue removing the remaining objects (the book, the photos) until we are left with nothing but a box that has nothing in it whatsoever.

You have forgotten the piece of string, the careful reader might interject, and I agree. Let us also remove that last piece and empty the box the same way meditation attempts to empty the mind of thoughts, feelings, sensations, or anything that interferes with pure consciousness. We are now essentially left with an empty box.

Yet although the box (and the meditative-focused mind) may look empty, it is still not so. There may be remnants floating about, like air or oxygen. When we remove that as well, we have a vacuum. But the vacuum is still not nothing. It is something that contains things; it is not immaterial. In fact, it is hard to imagine, let alone have no-thing. Because nothing is indeed something, or at least it needs something to distinguish itself as being or becoming nothing. We can take away our thoughts, emotions, memory, identity, and personality, but something will remain whatever and however vague that something may be.

It is the same paradox of nothing staying constant when nothing itself actually does stay constant whatever we mean by or define and refer to as nothing (a similar point could be made about everything in moderation). Along the same vein, nothing is what it seems neglects the fact that nothing is indeed the same as itself, it may be its mirror image or reflection. And if we zoom out, just like Sagan with the expansive view of the universe, then everything is the great whole, das Ganze in Otto Rank’s perspective versus the part or fragment thereof. The drop is not only in the ocean, but it is part and parcel of the ocean. One might say, in its own way, it is the ocean itself, albeit on a microscopic and microcosmic level.

Similarly, atoms from the universe are and flow within us, and the outside is reflected in the inside. According to the analogy of theologian Matthew Fox, we would be the fish in the water and the creative cosmic force within us flows outside while the outside forces also enter within us and indeed are us in the same way that we are one and interconnected with them. The fish needs the water, but the water needs the fish too to become fuller and more fulfilled. Each of us is filled with living cells without which we could not exist, and which need us for a fuller and more living and conscious expression. “I think, therefore I am”, Descartes famously said, whereas in the Bible God, defines himself as “I am that I am”.

But Descartes overlooked the whole, which includes feelings and sensations, and God cannot possibly exist outside of the realm that He has created because just like the artist, the work and art reflect their creator, and the creator is reflected in and within them. If we are created in His image, then at least part of Him must reside within each of Us. And a spark of divinity is divinity itself, or at least has the potential to transform into it. A drop of infinity is infinite itself, like divinity, it cannot be divided into parts.

By extension, everything is included within everything (everywhere and all at once) and nothing can be excluded from it. Nothing is also something, but it is still part of everything. In fact, since everything includes nothing or nothing is included in everything, the whole or das Ganze would also include opposites of each other. In this quantum perspective of sorts, logic is not necessarily paramount and opposites can live side by side peacefully while nothing and no one is ever excluded. Everyone not only feels but is in fact at home in this cosmic world and no one feels alienated or left out from this cosmic dance.

No one can exist on their own. This is what Otto Rank discovered with his relationship therapy as we do not and cannot exist in isolation and separate ourselves from others. We need others to exist, and others need us to exist. This was ingrained within us in the womb and it is necessary for our stay on the blue tiny dot, but it also holds true for the existence (in whatever shape and form it may have been) that came before our earthly Dasein (existence) and the realm, or post-world that we must head towards, which must be different than the one we have experienced during our limited stay here as temporary guests.

Finally, darkness, a distant cousin of nothingness, is nothing of and by itself. It is the absence of light, but light has the power to dispel it. Case in point: our universal existence emanating from the Big Bang. But it is not just sound we are talking about; it is a bright explosion of light and sound and powerful waves and atomic vibrations and the music of the spheres that brought all our existence into being. We collectively and individually made our entrance with Schall und Rauch (a confident tightrope class act amidst buzzing and whirring sounds and smoke around us). This is certainly not nothing and it cannot possibly have come out of nothing either while nothing can equal it!