Die Zauberflöte

The Metropolitan Opera on Friday, December 15.

A week or so ago, I commented on how strange and creepy the story of The Nutcracker is—and I stand by that—but I have to admit The Nutcracker has nothing on Die Zauberflöte. With its clandestine order of monks, irrepressible bird-people, supernatural children, numerous melodramatic suicide attempts, and wild allusions to Masonic secrets and Zoroastrian mysticism, Die Zauberflöte is kooky even by operatic standards.

As such, it is well-suited for Julie Taymor’s distinctive, over-the-top direction. Taymor echoes the libretto’s hodgepodge of plot devices and references with a symbol-smothered rotating stage and costumes inspired by everything from geishas to Kabbalah to hip-hop.

At times, the jumble of imagery and ornamentation annoyed me (particularly when the stage crew noisily shifted the set during one of Sarastro’s arias), but I couldn’t help but appreciate the way the kaleidoscopic dazzle of the production kept the mustiness of age away from Mozart’s gleefully un-elite singspiel. No one could ever relegate the opera to a museum piece while enormous bears straight out of The Lion King dance to the beat of the music. If Taymor’s production is busy and cluttered (and it is), then so is Die Zauberflöte itself, charmingly so.

The Last King of Scotland

In theaters.

Like any good little white liberal, I cringe at those stories that filter the painful experiences of “other” people through the eyes of a white protagonist. You know the type: the courage and suffering and strength of those “others” are relevant only insofar as they serve as a crucible for the heroic white man’s personal growth. When I saw the previews for The Last King of Scotland, which portrays the horrific rule of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin as experienced by a Scottish physician, I assumed it was another one of those movies. I was absolutely wrong.

Last King is actually, in large part, about the perversity and immorality of white people treating Africa as their personal playground for self-discovery. The screenplay, written by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, based upon the novel by Giles Foden, pulls no punches: Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, their protagonist, might be naïve, but he’s no innocent. A bad version of this story would have let you anticipate a happy ending for him. A mediocre version would have made you wonder whether a happy ending was possible. This movie goes further: it urges you to consider whether a happy ending for Nicholas is even appropriate.

The Nutcracker

The New York City Ballet on Tuesday, December 5.

Time and endless repetition might have dulled the creepy edge from the story of The Nutcracker, but it’s still there. Underneath all the sugarplums and snowflakes is the weird tale of little Marie (or Clara, depending on the storyteller), whose godfather manipulates her into dreaming of his young nephew saving her from a mutant rodent and then whisking her away to a magical kingdom of sugar and antiquated stereotypes. It’s like a child’s feverish sexual fantasy: she gets the boy and lots of candy! Hot! The Nutcracker has its odd charms, to be sure, but how did it become America’s favorite ballet, the crossover hit?

The Art of the Book: Behind the Covers

Reading Series Event at the Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd Street Y Tisch Center for the Arts, on Monday, December 4.

Sean is a graphic designer, and I work in book publishing, so the 92nd Street Y’s panel discussion of cover art intrigued both of us, particularly once we saw who would be on the panel: Chip Kidd, Milton Glaser, and Dave Eggers. The Reading Series organizers did an excellent job of assembling the panel, for the three men each come from different backgrounds and aesthetics, and each is an interesting, engaging speaker. The event ran for nearly two hours—and could have run longer—and I was never bored. (How could I be? Lots of slides with pretty pictures! Whee!)