Jan. 3, 2022

The Matter of Monostatos

Aaron Pegram performed the role of Monostatos in HGO's 2015 production and reprises in 2022.
How Mozart’s stereotyped villian has evolved over time

Editor’s note: This article is the third in a four-part series examining race and representation in opera. The first installment appeared in the Cues edition for Carmen, discussing the title character’s representation as a Romani woman, and the second appeared in the program for The Snowy Day, discussing new works as an avenue to broadening authentic representation in opera. The fourth installment will appear in the program for Turandot.

The first installment in this series presented a dilemma: some classic operas contain inauthentic representations of non–Western European cultures. This inauthentic representation often perpetuates racist stereotypes, and 21st century opera companies are faced with important and difficult questions about what pieces to produce and how to produce them. The second installment offered one approach: the commissioning of new works, a strong tradition at Houston Grand Opera, presents us with the best opportunity to broaden the perspectives depicted on the operatic stage and offer authentic representations to audiences. But what should we “do” about those pieces, so beloved by opera audiences for centuries, that depict inauthentic representations?

Do we “cancel” them from the stage? Do we produce them with or without commentary on the stereotypes contained therein? Without commentary invites the criticism that we are ignorant of what is depicted; with commentary invites the criticism that we know about it and devote resources to it anyway. This series does not seek to answer these questions, but to invite you, our audience, to consider these questions with us. This article will do so in the context of the character Monostatos in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. 

What does Monostatos have to do with race and representation in opera? These days, not much, but historically, quite a bit. Monostatos is identified in character listings  
as “ein Mohr,” German for “a Moor.” A slave to Sarastro, he is a cunning, scheming, but ineffective villain whose duplicitousness lands him on the wrong side of the story. He is also a character that historically was performed in blackface up until the 20th century. “Moor” is another exonym used by white Europeans in the medieval era to describe, typically, North African Muslims. The term does not accurately identify any single race, religion, culture, or combination thereof, but rather was used as a catch-all term to describe Berbers, Arabs, and South Indian Muslims, among many other peoples. “Moor” primarily describes the Muslim populations who controlled the Iberian Peninsula for about 700 years at the height of al-Andalus, until the Spanish Christian kings drove them out of Spain and into North Africa in the late 15th century. Woven into this history is the complex relationship between race, religion, and nationalistic morality in early modern era Europe, which closely shaped the perception of Moorish people into the 18th and 19th centuries. David Crandall, associate professor of anthropology at Brigham Young, writes about this complexity: “Reflected in the popular European imagination of the time is a race of people who were thought to differ not only in their dark, foreboding appearance, but because they lived supposedly without the moral virtues of Christianity. … It is in this dreary context that Monostatos lives.”

Following an early 17th-century expulsion of the descendants of Spanish Muslims (the expulsion de los moriscos), the remaining Arab and Berber Muslims in Europe were forced into slavery. The European importation of slaves from the Muslim world continued as late as the mid-19th century. By the time Mozart and Schikaneder were writing The Magic Flute, in 1791, the cultural perception Crandall describes above was the common view of the Moorish slaves. Alyssa Howards, department chair of German and Russian at Wake Forest University, writes that Monostatos is “the embodiment of the two primary stereotypes of Muslims in the Enlightenment period, cruelty and overcharged sexuality.” Monostatos’s primary motivation throughout the piece is his lust for Pamina, and he easily shifts his loyalty from Sarastro to the Queen of the Night thinking she will help him achieve his desires. Crandall writes, “His motivations and deeds are not diabolical but merely selfish, wanting those things not socially (or morally) allotted him.”  

The “selfish” and “lustful” nature of Monostatos—and the duplicitousness of his scheming—represents the Enlightenment-era stereotype of his ethnic minority. Just as we saw with Carmen as a Romani woman, the prevailing cultural attitudes of an opera’s historical context influence the original interpretations of the character and how they are depicted. Now, Monostatos is not the title character of this opera, nor is his involvement particularly integral to the plot or the overarching search for beauty, truth, and wisdom. (In fact, I recently saw a production that cut the character of Monostatos entirely for pandemic-related reasons, and the opera was not particularly worse off for it.) There is very little in the text and the music that reflects Monostatos’s original ethnic minority, and the opera is certainly not “about” that aspect of Monostatos’s character. Over the course of the 20th century, then, directors and producers evolved the depiction of Monostatos:in some productions, he was presented as orange, blue, or green, rather than a minority, still as a way to “other” him but by trying to avoid racial stereotypes. Later on, productions (including the one you are about to see) stopped othering Monostatos entirely; his “selfish” and “lustful” nature described above is a reflection of his inner character, no longer a depiction of his racial stereotype. (Would it make any sense, or no sense at all, to internalize rather than racialize otherness in the context of Verdi’s Otello, in which the Shakespearean Moor’s external otherness is central to the plot?)

Interestingly, it has become standard to change the few words in Schikaneder’s libretto that refer to Monostatos’s skin color. When he sings an aria about longing to kiss the sleeping Pamina, Monostatos says, “Und ich soll die Liebe meiden, weil ein Schwarzer häßlich ist,” which translates to “And I must avoid love, because a Black man is ugly.” In deemphasizing Monostatos’s original stereotype as a Moor, the standard libretto edit replaces “Schwarzer” with “Sklave,” which changes the line to “and I must avoid love, because a slave is ugly”—moving his externalized otherness from his skin color to his social status, though the two were, of course, inseparable to 18th-century audiences. While Monostatos laments his social status as a Moorish slave—“everyone feels the joys of love,” yet he is not allowed to have them—the standard edit still does not quite achieve the  internalized otherness of his character that has become the modern interpretation. This libretto edit has been done for long enough, though, that it is accepted practice: singers expect it, administrators don’t think twice about it, and audiences would never know the difference if people like me didn’t point it out in longwinded program articles. I wonder what those conversations were like years ago when the words were first changed. Were people at first resistant to changing anything in a Mozart classic? 

Jon Kolbet as Monostatos in HGO's 1997 production.
Jon Kolbet as Monostatos in HGO's 1997 production.

Returning to the first article in this series, what would that look like for Carmen as a Romani woman? It’s one thing to adjust a few words for a secondary character in Monostatos when The Magic Flute has little to do with that character’s original ethnicity. It’s another when Carmen is the title character. Yet, as we discussed in the fall, the modern interpretation of Carmen has very little to do with her social status as a Romani woman and more to do with the dynamics of possessive men and independent women.

Would it affect Carmen much if “les Zingarellas” (the French word for “g*psy,” which has its etymology in a phrase for “too dirty to touch”) were changed in the libretto to another word? What if the dance number that opens the second act, labeled in the score as the “G*psy Song,” were cut entirely? Cuts are an accepted part of producing opera when considered for timing (think a four-hour Handel opera lovingly trimmed to two and a half) or for a great, compelling artistic reason. Take this Flute production, for example: Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade have brilliantly come up with a unique, silent-film style aesthetic for this production of The Magic Flute, which cuts all the spoken dialogue and replaces it with projections of the action over fortepiano excerpts of Mozart music. What if, in addition to timing and great artistic reasons, judicious cuts were a normal and accepted method of production to avoid depicting inauthentic representations on the stage?  

Briefly, add yet another layer to this conversation: speaking from her perspective as an educator of the German language, Howards also writes, “removing racial markers eliminates the entire sociohistoric content, robbing us of the ability to compare modern racial issues to those of Enlightenment- era Vienna.” Should we, then, change “Schwarzer” to “Sklave” and make other changes to Monostatos’s character? If the goal is to study the German libretto in a historical comparison, then no, I suppose not. But if the goal is to perform an emotionally moving, musico-theatrical experience on a stage that is welcoming, inclusive, and universal for all audiences, should we not adjust inauthentic representations in the way that has become standard for Monostatos? Imagine the shock if Monostatos were still depicted today in darkened makeup, his skin color the only reason for his character’s stereotyped duplicitousness and selfishness. How, exactly, and to what extent can this “Monostatos solution” be applied to other operas?  
It’s a complex discussion, and one that likely changes from opera to opera. It was easy in The Magic Flute; would it be as easy in Carmen or Turandot?

about the author
Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson is the Dramaturg & Associate Director of New Works for Houston Grand Opera.