In Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, the following not particularly PC scene takes place: The birdcatcher Papageno, sidekick to prince Tamino, shows up to rescue Pamina. Pamina’s being held captive by Sarastros’ lecherous henchman Monostatos, a Moor, who has been trying to force himself on her. When Papageno appears, wearing his feather-covered birdcatching suit, each concludes that the other must be the devil, and they bolt in terror. But after running a few paces, Papageno stops and muses that since there are black birds in nature, why not black men? He returns and rescues Pamina.
Fast forward to 2005 and the Washington National Opera’s production, which I saw last night. Here, Monostatos is a guy clad in a green spandex bodysuit (that is, he’s green-skinned), and when the same scene occurs, Papageno’s musing as translated in the supertitles is about green birds and green men. (I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure they left the original German dialogue: “Es gibt doch auch schwarze VÃ?Â¶gel auf der Welt, warum denn nicht auch schwarze Menschen?”)
Now, obviously it’s racist humor, and anyone who wrote that scene today would justly catch flak. But I think changing it is silly for a couple of reasons. First, the joke is at least partly that Papageno is this sort of sheltered simpleton who doesn’t know much about the world. (He’s astonished, upon meeting Tamino, that there are other lands and peoples beyond the mountains—and his first thought is only that this presents an opportunity to expand his bird-selling business.) So in part, we’re supposed to be laughing at his ignorant panic upon first encountering a black man. (Though, in fairness, we’re also supposed to find Monostatos humorous throughout, and probably most people today wouldn’t exactly be cracking up at the 18th century Viennese equivalent of minstrel show humor.) The joke doesn’t work if Monostatos is a green man, which really is pretty bizarre.
The other thing is that they didn’t see fit to alter any of the opera’s heavy-handed sexism: Various characters warn the protagonists not to be fooled by the nattering of women, and Saratros justifies kidnapping Pamina from her mother because, of course, she needs a good man to guide her. Offensive? Sure. It’s also from seventeen-ninety-freakin’-one. Shocking revelation: Artists in past centuries were not necessarily as enlightened as well-educated arts patrons circa 2005. Have we got to start pretending they were? Maybe issue a new version of Huckleberry Finn where he goes rafting down the river with African American Jim? A Merchant of Venice where Shylock has a change of heart about the “pound of flesh” thing and snacks on some matzoh with Portia at the end? I don’t see who benefits from pretending that art from the past—even great art—didn’t contain racist elements. It’s actually good to see how we can watch some of that stuff now—as with the sexist bits mentioned above in Zauberflöte—and laugh at how preposterous they now sound, as the audience last night did.