Magic Flute and Black Box: Sarastro and the Master’s Voice

William Kentridge


Sarastro, the high priest in Mozart’s Magic Flute guides the hero of the opera in his journey towards wisdom. As a symbol of the enlightenment, Sarastro combines all knowledge with all power. In the two hundred and fifteen years since Mozart wrote the opera we have come to realise what a toxic mixture this is. The combination of certainty (because with knowledge or wisdom comes also the certainty of that wisdom), and a monopoly of violence.

The opera production, and the two pieces on the exhibition Learning the Flute and Preparing the Flute, look at the enlightenment in its optimistic phase. Black Box/Chambre Noire examines one of its calamitous trajectories.

Learning the Flute, which started the whole Flute project, was made to find the visual language for the opera. The form, the blackboard, was the given; the photographic positive and negative of black drawing on white paper, reversed to produce white chalk drawings on the blackboard, was the discovery. This shifting from positive to negative and back both gave me the photographic language and theme of the subsequent work, but also became a way of thinking of darkness and light, of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro (priest of the sun).

Preparing the Flute and Black Box both use miniature theatres. The first was made as a model with which to prepare the production: slightly larger than the usual maquette of a theatre used in set design, but of a size large enough to see and test out the projections that were central to the production.  After the production was finished, I wanted to go back to the miniature scale of the model. Both to get away from the craziness of the full scale production with is many singers, chorus, musicians, technicians, administrators all of who had their own needs and pressures, away from that to the calm of a studio. I also wanted look at themes that had emerged while working on the opera which I had not been able to examine in the opera itself.

While the table-top size of the two miniature theatres is many times smaller than a real theatre they are also in shape similar to but several times larger than a box camera. One of the associations of Black Box is the chambre noire, the inside of a camera, the space between the lens and the eyepiece or film plane. The space where the light is inverted, captured. One image is separated and held through the strange optical, mechanical, chemical photographic process. The stages become camera, the images shown or played out like a record of photographs of the world outside the camera (or theatre).

In Mozart’s opera there are hints at the dangers and limitations of Sarastro and his certainties. In Black Box I wanted to look at the political unconscious of The Magic Flute – looking at the damages of colonialism, which described its predations to itself as bringing enlightenment to the Dark Continent. Specifically, Black Box looks at the colonial war of 1904 in what was then German south West Africa, and the genocide of the Hereros.

Philip Miller took many of the musical themes of Mozart’s opera and refigured them. Sarastro’s reassuring singing (which George Bernard Shaw described as the voice of God) is recast as military brass march. He also used different fragments of Herero music from Namibia. For Black Box I worked with Jonas Lundquist, a genius of mechanical skill, who made the mechanical characters of Black Box. It is not a sequel to The Magic Flute: rather as health warning to accompany it.

In Mozart’s opera, music is enough to tame the wildest beasts, and a rhinoceros becomes a pet that dances on cue. In Black Box that rhinoceros, now captured on archival film is hunted down. These two moments are the bookends of the work.

Published in edited form in Rosenthal, Mark (ed), William Kentridge: Five Themes, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Norton Museum of Art, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2009.

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