09/29/03
"The Magic Flute" and Stickball
    by John Cech

I remember on Saturday afternoons, in my old neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, the windows would be open, weather permitting, and from them poured the Metropolitain Opera. It was one way this mixed, ethnic neighborhood regularly showed its class -- opera was culture, and this was free culture, once a week.

As kids we skated and scootered, skipped and punted through Wagner and Pucini and Bizet. But there was something about Mozart: Zorastro's big aria in "The Magic Flute" actually got me tagged out on third base. My mind wasn't on the game, and I'd stopped to listen to someone with a name like Lawrence Melchior.

Some things get in your bones like that. You don't need to know the language, or much of the storyline, or anything about classical music. All you know is that the music speaks to you, and whatever it's saying, you understand it. We usually don't give children credit for being able to "get it" -- especially when it comes to classical music. We think we have to dumb it down a little and turn it into one of those vehicles the Disney people are so fond of, complete with goofy sidekick and singing crabs or candlesticks. There's a CD version of "The Magic Flute" for kids called "Mozart's Magic Fantasy," in which even the fairy tale story line that the opera is based on in the first place isn't allowed to stand. Instead, the dragon isn't really killed by the hero, Tamino, in the first act; he becomes the guide for a little girl who's fallen into this fantasy world and has to have everything that's happening explained to her. There are even teacher guides to go with the recording. I can't imagine anything more unmagical than being quizzed on "The Magic Flute."

Children can wait for certain things. They can wait for the original version of Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit with its un-watered-down vocabulary. Children can wait for the original version of Winnie-the-Pooh rather than the garish travesty that the Pooh franchise has become. And they can wait for "The Magic Flute," (which premiered two hundred and nine years ago this week) until they're rounding that metaphorical third base, whenever that happens to be.

And it might not be that long. Our friends' two year old son stands in front of a large screen television set, watching, over and over again, a taped concert by the Italian tenor Andreas Bocelli. "It's his favorite thing," the boy's mother told me. "He's not talking yet, but one day I came into the room, and I heard something I hadn't heard before. He was watching the show, and I realized that he was singing, too."

Copyright 2003 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."