Archive for The Magic Flute

Extraordinary Rendition

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , on May 6, 2016 by telescoper

Here’s something to end the week with: a piece from my favourite Mozart opera, The Magic Flute, in a version that’s itself very rarely heard. Fortunately. This is what Florence Foster Jenkins – the opera singer to end all opera singers – did with Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen. For some reason Sony admits to owning the copyright of this, so you’ll have to click through to Youtube to hear it in its full glory.

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Extraordinary Rendition

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , on January 10, 2011 by telescoper

BBC Radio 3 is now well into its celebration of the Genius of Mozart, which involves playing every note he wrote over 12 days. I’m a devout admirer of Mozart, but I’m not sure that uninterrupted diet like this is actually a good idea. It is in danger of doing something that I wouldn’t previously have thought possible – making me bored of Mozart.

I’m a firm believer that you should just an artist, composer, musician (or scientist, for that matter) by his or her best work and by that reckoning Mozart is among the greatest of them all. But I have to say among the glorious masterpieces there’s also quite a lot of quite dull stuff. Take the symphonies, for example. Mozart wrote his First Symphony when he was only 8 years old. That fact on its own makes the work worth listening to. However, in my humble opinion, you can fast forward through at least twenty of the following compositions before finding one that’s really worth listening to, and even further before you find the really brilliant ones.

I’m not saying that the lesser works of Mozart shouldn’t be played. In a balanced programme, contrasted with works by other composers, they are interesting to listen to. It’s good to hear the rarely performed works from time to time, if only to understand why they are rarely performed. However, with only Mozart on offer day after day the effect is only to lessen the impact of the great works by surrounding them with hour after hour of lower quality music. I don’t think the BBC has done the Mozart legacy any favours by revealing that he actually wrote too much music, a lot of it not particularly good.

After that, I’m about to duck back down below the parapet but before I do, I thought I’d make my contribution to the ongoing Mozartfest with a piece from my favourite Mozart opera, The Magic Flute, in a version that’s itself very rarely heard. Fortunately. This is what Florence Foster Jenkins – the opera singer to end all opera singers – did with Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen. For some reason Sony admits to owning the copyright of this, so you’ll have to click through to Youtube to hear it in its full glory.


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Nerth gwlad ei gwybodaeth

Posted in Education, Opera, Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 15, 2010 by telescoper

Once again the wheel of academic life has turned full circle. A year to the day since I blogged about the last graduation ceremony for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, here I am doing it again. Last night Cardiff experienced some of the heaviest rainfall I’ve seen for ages and I got a bit soggy on the way to St David’s Hall for this morning’s ceremony. Given that today is St Swithin’s Day this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the summer…

I confess it didn’t feel too comfortable sitting there on stage under the lights in a slightly damp suit, wearing a tie, and sporting mortarboard and gown but it went pretty well. Three Schools went through during the ceremony I attended: Earth & Ocean Sciences and Psychology as well as Physics & Astronomy.

We had by far the smallest group of graduands; the School of Psychology is particularly huge and is also notable for having such a small percentage of male graduates. In Physics & Astronomy we have about 20% female students whereas Psychology must be >95%. We often sit around at tea-time discussing how to persuade more girls to study Physics, but I wonder if anyone frets about how to get more boys to do Psychology?

It’s a very proud moment when the students you know receive their degrees. This year, in fact, produced the first set of BSc graduates that have completed their entire study period while I’ve been here since I only arrived three years ago.

It must be a nerve-wracking experience crossing the stage at St David’s Hall in front of your family and friends, especially in high heels as most of the girls did. I would have thought sensible shoes were a wiser option, but then what do I know?

If you want to see the ceremony you can do so by following this link. I’m in the front row on stage, to the right hand side, dressed in a blue gown and mortarboard but not visible on the cross-stage view.

The Honorary Fellowship presented during our ceremony was received by Professor Paul Harris, a distinguished psychologist. It’s worth mentioning that another such event earlier in the week saw the award of an Honorary Fellowship to Stephen Fry who has been involved in studies of bipolar disorder at the University. He tweeted regularly during his short visit to Cardiff, e.g.

Must say Cardiff is looking spankingly good in the late afternoon sunshine. Castle is gleaming, Town Hall glowing. Much to like here.

I’m sure the university press machine will make as much as they can of his comments. And why not? Cardiff does indeed have much to like. Even in the rain.

The ceremony ended on a high note or, in fact, on several.  Mary-Jean O’Doherty, a wonderful young Soprano from the Cardiff International Academy of Voice, gave us a fine rendition of the Queen of the Night’s  Act II aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Die Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen is a tremendously difficult coloratura piece featuring a barrage of stratospheric high notes. I thought it was tremendously brave to take that on, coming into it completely cold, but she did it fantastically well and it fair brought the house down. I note that the opera from which this aria was taken is featured in Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming autumn season, where it is sure to prove popular.

I’m pretty sure not many people in the audience knew the Opera or could understand German, however, because although the music is wonderful the lyrics aren’t entirely appropriate. The first line translates as “The Rage of Hell is boiling in my heart….”. Perhaps that was a subliminal response to the fact that the  Cardiff International Academy of Voice is closing later this year.

Anyway it was then back to the School for a lunch party – which was very nicely done, I think – and a speech of farewell from the Head of School ending with the award of prizes for students who had performed exceptionally well in their studies. I’m fortunate that the prize-winning student of the MPhys (4-year) cohort is staying on in Cardiff to do a PhD under my supervision.

Just in case any of the new graduates are reading this, let me add my congratulations to those of the Head of School and also repeat his encouragement to you to stay in touch. It’s always a delight when former students drop in for a chat, but if you can’t do that please do keep in touch on Facebook or the like.

I know the graduate job market is tough at the moment, but don’t be discouraged if you haven’t got anything sorted out yet. In the long run what you’ve learned will benefit you.  I’m sure I speak on behalf of everyone who has had the pleasure of teaching you over the last three or four years when I say that we wish you all the very best in your future careers.

PS. The title of this post in in Welsh. It translates as “A nation’s strength is in its learning”.

The Magic Flute

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 15, 2009 by telescoper

On Saturday 14th February I went to the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane to see ENO‘s revival of Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

I’ve lost track of how many different productions I have seen of this strange and wonderful masterpiece, but this one was as good as any I can remember. It is sung in English rather than the original German (all productions by English National Opera are in English, in fact). Translating the libretto isn’t at all necessary for this work because the plot makes no sense whatsoever in whatever language the words happen to be sung or spoken. It’s all so weird it might as well be about particle physics.

Technically it’s not an opera, but a singspiel: the recitative – the bit in between the arias – is spoken rather than sung. It’s really more like a musical comedy in that sense, and was originally intended to be performed in a kind of burlesque style. That blends rather nicely with the Coliseum‘s own history: it only became an opera theatre relatively recently; before the Second World War it was  a Variety Theatre or  Music Hall. The Magic Flute also has many points of contact with the pantomime tradition, including the character of the  villainous Monostatos (Stuart Kale) who, at this performance, was roundly booed at his curtain call in authentic panto fashion. His retaliatory snarl was priceless.

I won’t even attempt to explain the plot, if you can call it that, because it’s completely daft. It’s daft, though, in a way that much of life is daft, and I think that’s the secret of its enduring popularity. Mozart’s music carries you along and constantly seems to be telling you not to take it all too seriously.

This production never gets bogged down  or, worse, stuck up its own backside as some I have seen. Instead it’s played straight to the gallery and none the worse it is for that.

The English text is very clever, including dextrous rhymes and plenty of puns, but I’d still have to say I prefer the original language because it fits so much better with the music. The Queen of the Night’s aria “Die Holle Racht” has so many harsh Germanic sounds in the original which just can’t be done in English with anything like the same effect.

I don’t think there are any really weak points in this production. The sets are simple but stylish and effective, and it all looks and sounds wonderful. Tamino (Robert Murray) is earnest and rather dull, but then I think he’s supposed to be. It might have been a mistake for him to go bare-chested in Act II though, as I don’t think man boobs were really what the audience wanted on St Valentine’s day. The comic momentum was kept on the boil by on the crazy birdcatcher Papageno (Roderick Williams). Pamina (Sarah-Jane Davis) was a little hesitant at first, and can’t act at all well, but sang her show-piece aria in the Second Act with real emotion. Robert Lloyd’s Sarastro added the right amount of gravitas without the pomposity the role sometimes generates; his bass is a lovely voice too, deep and warm with a rich texture to it. And then there’s the Queen of Night (Emily Hindrichs) who also seemed a little hesitant as she found her way through the difficult coloratura of the famous Act I aria that culminates in a nerve-jangling Top F, but was awesome in the second act when calling for the death of Sarastro. Her costume and hairstyle were more than a little reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein. The three ladies had similar hairstyles, but without the side streaks and in a shocking blue. I couldn’t help thinking of Marge Simpson.

There were many funny moments, perhaps the best being when Papageno and Papagena fasten their safety belts before being hoisted into the rafters in a giant bird’s nest. Papageno even managed a reference to a Valentine.  I wonder if that was put in specially for Saturday?

Particle Physics – The Opera

Posted in Opera, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 8, 2009 by telescoper

A new season is about to start at English National Opera and I’ve been spending a lot of time and money recently getting tickets for some of the operas, as well as organizing the logistics of getting to and from London. Among the forthcoming productions is a revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, K. 620).

I can’t remember how many times I have seen this opera performed nor in how many different productions. It’s a wonderful creation because it manages to combine being utterly daft with being somehow immensely profound. The plot makes no sense at all, the settings are ridiculous (e.g. “rocks with water and a cavern of fire”), and the whole thing appears to be little more than a pantomime. Since it’s Mozart, though, there is one ingredient you can’t quibble with: a seemingly unending sequence of gorgeous music.

When I first saw The Magic Flute I thought it was just a silly but sublime piece of entertainment not worth digging into too deeply. I wondered why so many pompous people seemed to take it so terribly seriously. Real life doesn’t really make much sense, so why would anyone demand that an opera be any less ridiculous? Nevertheless, there is a vast industry devoted to unravelling the supposed “mystery” of this opera, with all its references to magic and freemasonry.

But now I can unveil the true solution of problem contained within the riddle encoded in the conundrum that surrounds the enigma that has puzzled so many Opera fans for so long. I have definitive proof that this opera is not about freemasons or magic or revolutionary politics.

Actually it is about particle physics.

To see how I arrived at this conclusion note the following figure which shows the principal elementary particles contained within the standard model of particle physics:

particles of the standard model

particles of the standard model

To the left of this picture are the fermions, divided into two sets of particles labelled “quarks” and “leptons”. Each of these consists of three pairs (“isospin doublets”), each pair defining a “generation”. This structure of twos and threes is perfectly represented in The Magic Flute.

Let’s consider the leptons first. These can be clearly identified with the three ladies who lust after the hero Tamino in Act 1. This emotional charge is clearly analogous to the electromagnetic charge carried by the massive leptons (the electron, muon and tauon, lying along the bottom of the diagram). The other components in the leptonic sector must be the three boys who pop up every now and again to help Papageno with useful advice about when to jangle his magic bells. These must therefore be the neutrinos, which are less massive than the ladies, and are also neutral (although I hesitate to suggest that this means they should be castrati). They don’t play a very big part in the show because they participate only in weak interactions.

Next we have the quarks, also arrayed in three generations of pairs. These interact more strongly than the leptons and are also more colourful. The first generation is easy to identify, from the phenomenology of the Opera, as consisting of the hero Tamino (d for down) and his beloved Pamina (u for up); her voice is higher than his, hence the identification. The second generation must comprise the crazy birdcatcher Papageno (s for strange) and his alluring madchen who is called Papagena (c for charmed). That just leaves the final pairing which clearly is the basso profundo and fount of all wisdom Sarastro (b for bottom) and my favourite character and role model the Queen of the Night (t for top).

To provide corroboration of the identification of the Queen of the Night with the “top” quark, here is a clip from Youtube of a bevy of famous operatic sopranos having a go at the immensely different coloratura passage from the Act 1 aria “O Zittre Nicht, mein leiber Sohn” culminating in a spectacular top F that lies beyond the range of most particle accelerators, never mind singers.

There’s some splendid frocks in there too.

The Queen of the Night isn’t actually in the Opera very much. After this aria in Act 1 she disappears until the middle of Act 2, probably because she needs to have a lie down. When she comes back on she sings another glass-shattering aria (Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen), which I like to listen to when I’m writing referee reports. The first line translates as “The rage of hell is boiling in my heart”.

The remaining members of the cast – The Speaker and Monostatos, as well as sundry priests, slaves, enchanted animals and the chorus – must make up the so-called Force carriers at the left of the table, which are bosons, but I haven’t had time to go through the identifications in detail. They’re just the supporting cast anyway. And there is one particle missing from the picture, the Higgs boson. This accounts for the masses of other particles by exerting a kind of drag on them so it clearly must be the Dragon from Act 1.