SPOILER ALERT: Please do not read this blog if you are concerned about knowing too many details of the history of the J.K. Rowling wizarding world. (Definite spoilers from the newest film!)
CONTENT WARNING: This blog has ideas and thoughts put together in sentences. You know, like any other piece of writing…
“I solemnly swear I am up to no good!”
I read those words over a decade ago and loved them, for it sounded like my personal mantra that I’d been secretly saying to myself my entire life!
The title of this blog is “Fantastic Opera Beasts and Where To Find Them” inspired by the new film Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.
The latest, and let it be said the most adult, evolution of the Wizarding World by author J. K. Rowling, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them hit the movie screens this past month. I took my family to see it and was once again amazed and surprised by the film’s imaginative span and Rowling’s seemingly endless ability to morph, create, recreate, and exponentially expand the Harry Potter Universe.
If you haven’t seen it, please do.
If you are one of those who have not read the books, or seen the films, then perhaps this blog isn’t going to make much sense. I’ll try to refrain from getting too nerdy, but apologies ahead of time. If you want to skip down into the REAL blog about singing and magic, it’s about eight paragraphs further. (I’ve put asterisks and bolded the header so you can skip quickly to it!)
Rowling’s books, the latest play (London’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), the billion-dollar Potter film series, and now this new screenplay, attest to her ability to roll out big stories peopled with wizards, magical creatures, elves, goblins, muggles, nomajs (the American version of muggles), giants and a hippogriff or two all interacting on multiple levels of narrative story, allegory, and deeply emotional and political themes. Fantastic Beasts… is probably the most obvious of all of her output when it comes to the creation of an allegory that is very focused on real human history. Her output as a creative force is simply operatic.
Opera, the genre, is vast and huge; very much like Rowling’s universe. Actually, opera is bigger, by far, than the Wizarding World because the repertoire spans over 400 years, and it’s written and sung in practically every language known to Earth (and beyond, we have operas in Klingon and in languages from Middle-Earth). Opera is very dense and complex, particularly in the information that’s passed from the stage to the audience via the singers, the designers, and everyone else involved in a production. If a song could be said to be written in a few gigabytes, a song cycle would be a dozen gigabytes, symphonies would be hundreds of gigabytes. But operas are written in terrabytes. Hundreds of terrabytes comprise Wagner’s Ring Cycle alone. If you don’t know about TBs, it’s a huge, HUGE amount of data.
It is not possible to simply sit down and take in everything that is an opera in one exposure. However, the thing that makes opera magical is that one CAN sit down and get so very much in one sitting, and that information is so very different from human to human. Each and every person who watches any opera walks away with a different experience. If one goes to a great opera like La bohéme and sits with 3,000 others, each will have a different experience, a different take. Each of the players in the orchestra and the singers onstage will also have a different and unique experience. No opera is ever, ever, ever the same from night to night. The variations are boundless. Like going to a Michelin-starred restaurant named La Boheme, you’re sure to get a fantastic meal, but the ingredients in each of those same dishes is absolutely different than the night before and the chefs putting the meals together are oftentimes different humans night to night. Not to mention the wine choices affecting the food tastes, where you’re sat, the others in the dining room, etc. Opera proves the point that we are all interconnected in a vast array of brilliant shining lights.
J.K. Rowling gets that idea, and gets it in spades. Fantastic Beasts… is no exception. And it started me thinking.
My first thought went to another English creative force: Benjamin Britten. (Perhaps another reason is that 40 years ago today, we lost dear Benjamin Britten.) His output was riddled (yes, riddled) with works about the Outsider. Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Owen Wingrave, Death in Venice, to name the obvious examples, are operas where society and the audience peer into the life of a man who is not like the rest of the other characters. Again, connections to Britten’s personal life as being a closeted gay man in Great Britain who was able to move around in society quite easily — even with his secret being common knowledge as it was never spoken about in what was called “polite society” — come to mind. Britten was an outsider living in the midst of a society that chose to not see the real him, or his inner secret. An outsider composing operas about outsiders that became wildly popular with audiences, even more so since his death.
Rowling’s Outsider is the wizard Newt Scamander. He arrives by sea to the United States in 1926 via Ellis Island with just his suitcase, seemingly yet another immigrant trying to follow the American dream. He is befriended, in what is clearly the lower east side of Manhattan, by three characters who appear to be quite Jewish: Tina and Queenie Goldstein, magical sisters, and a baker, Jacob Kowalski. Connecting Newt to these three very specific types of characters in a story that is all about the magical community trying to hide itself from the rest of the “non-magics” (nomajs) seems to me to be a clear nod at what was going on in parts of Europe and in America during this time of terrible anti-semitism and the rise of fascism throughout the world. Jews started to hide the fact that they were Jews (not something new, by any means — just read up on what Mahler went through in his life) in order to move freely throughout society, academia, and business. A few years later, as the world seems to regularly forget, Jews’ very lives were at stake and millions killed. In the 1920s and 1930s, the danger was very real, at least to those who were aware and who could clearly see and understand the political rhetoric.
There are many evils in this new movie. The biggest threat is the unseen Grindelwald, the wizarding world’s Hitler. Grindelwald’s M.O. is that he believes the laws keeping Nomajs and wizards apart keeps the magical community from becoming the dominant power in the world. He dreams of a wizarding war (set to take place during the WW2 years) that will finally allow wizards to rule the world. But the movie plot actually entails trying to defeat a more devastating evil. It is an evil that can destroy cities and kill children: Child Wizards Repressing Their Magic.
Really? Repression as a destructive force? YES.
So — when a magical child tries to hide and/or repress their natural abilities, their magical talent, their literal magic, a horrible thing occurs: an “Obscurus” forms. This is a magical parasite that develops over time; basically if one doesn’t perform spells, the magic turns inwards and eats the child-wizard, turning them into a huge destructive black mass/cloud that rips apart streets and skyscrapers alike. Once this happens, the child dies (the film says usually by the age of 10). How terrifying! It is up to the Hogwarts' educated hero, Newt, and his band of three friends, to save New York City’s lower east side. They do that, as well as exposing who Grindelwald is pretending to be.
**Okay, so how does all of this relate to singing?**
I have believed for many decades that singers are magical. Let’s face it, all musicians are. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we are the only special people on the globe — far from it. In fact, I think there are many different types of wizarding communities among us: poets, architects, software designers, composers, mothers; basically anyone who creates.
Singers are a special community of musical wizards. We even train singers and musicians at special schools with specialists who teach and coach using enchantments, craft, potions, divination, and other magical arts. (I even teach at a school that some think actually looks like Hogwarts!) To get into these special schools, your talent must be evaluated in a mystical gathering called an “audition” by a coven of like-minded creatures who invite or deny entrance. Our mystical ancient maestros wave their magical batons into space and music happens out of thin air. We look into ancient books and read/speak an ancient language that most non-musicians (our version of Muggles) can sometimes only recognize as “music," but actually have no idea what the secrets inherent in those scores actually are, or how to read them, let alone realize them. Some of us are born into musical families, but many are also born into Muggle families who have no idea what makes us so darn strange and amazing.
To perform an operatic score requires a great deal of this specialized, magical training but an even greater amount of actual magic is required.
Just to sing, to phonate pitches and then control their duration, dynamics, shape, and color, is a magical spell that first requires one’s imagination. We imagine the notes and our brains somehow — and this really still is a mystery — create sounds that get organized by our throats, lungs, tongues, and lips into poetry that is carried out into the world via simple vibrations. Where before there is only silence, after a musician magics the air with their imaginative intentions, there is music.
They do this with the most invisible of elemental forces: AIR. Breathe in silence, breathe out Mozart. This is an amazing thing that way too few singers admit, let alone realize. We acknowledge far too often that other creative artists seem special in their own abilities — from creating sculptures out of dirt to building virtual dreamscapes out of binary electrical exchanges — but seldom really think to ourselves how special we are.
But Rowling also gives us a warning about thinking we are the only kind of special. This idea of thinking you’re really special can turn an ego to the dark side; the Trumpsters call people like us elitists due to our extensive educations. Well, we are, in a certain sense, elitist. However, there is a danger when an elitist mistakes Elitism for Puritanism. In classical music we have many different types of Puritans, or purists as we actually call them. I liken purists to Evangelical Christians on the Right, or to Social Justice Warriors on the Left, or to the followers of Voldemort - his DeathEaters - in Rowling’s world. All see their versions of the world in black and white, in right and wrong, in oppressors and the oppressed. There is no room for imagination, for innovation, for change, or for freedom to express new ideas or old ideas. Only the political decisions of a few, or the words written in someone’s holy scripture, or the ideas of a demagogue, are important. The individual dies in order to make sure that the purebloods, or today’s puritanical evangelicals, or the purely progressive politically correct, have their say in who is and who is not allowed to think, to believe, or to express themselves freely.
Our recent destructive history teaches us this — the McCarthy years, the tragedies of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the nightmare of the Stalinist regime. All three political ideologies sought to control culture by defining what it was and what it wasn’t. Millions died, thousands of lives were ruined, careers were destroyed and lost. Yet these nightmares came about not from evil, but from an attempt to make things safe for the People, to make everyone more comfortable and to create a more cohesive society where everyone would live in greater peace and prosperity. Sound familiar?
Musicians run into these puritans from time to time. The passionate musicologists, the early music specialists, the editors of critical editions, the connoisseurs of old opera recordings, the critics either holding to an older aesthetic against updates or to younger critics shocked to find that opera contains historical elements of sexism and racism. Opera is an art form that is big enough to accommodate many different opinions. But it is not an art form that works in, or under, any ideology that tries to repress artistic ideas. Let’s hold a seance and ask Shostakovich his thoughts on this subject, shall we?
We shouldn’t hide ourselves from those who don’t get us. We need to engage everyone and anyone who’ll listen. Otherwise, our bubble shrinks and we’re left with no audience at all — magical or muggle.
Opera lives not just for us specialists and lovers of opera, but also for the casual listener, the regular opera-goer, or the film director who needs to give an Evil-British-Spy something to listen to while he drives his Porsche to go kill some innocent, good-looking person.
During the training of these magical singers, there is now a risk involved. That risk is to be too safe, i.e. to not actualize their individual “noise” (as I call the sound one makes while singing) for fear that that “noise” might be too unique, perhaps a bit ugly, or out of tune, or a bit out of control.
To not be safe seems crazy. Crazy. I remember thinking that the teachers at Hogwarts were insane to just expect the first years to know how to do things, but especially none of them seemed to anticipate injuries. From the first flying lesson on their brooms to Hagrid’s putting Harry on the Hippogriff (what was he thinking?!) these teachers dared to allow their students to experience the magic firsthand, regardless of the outcome. Seamus, in the book series, kept blowing things up with his wand during his initial attempts at spells. Harry freely admitted he’s not a great wizard, he’s just lucky (plus he had great instincts and trusted those instincts throughout all seven books). Young singers need to make contact with the magic firsthand as well. They need to be allowed to blow sounds up, turn the bird purple instead of red, say the spell backwards and in the wrong order, put the wrong type of eye of newt into a potion, but especially they need to learn to trust their instincts and be courageous. Seldom do the children at Hogwarts die in the classrooms (that’s a whole other topic…), and as I am fond of saying, opera seldom kills those who study it!
Fantastic Beasts… shows all of us in the magical/musical community the danger of repressing our talents. Trying to hide our sound, our ideas, our creative forces can result in an obscuring state, which eventually implodes into a destructive monster, both within and without. Failure certainly occurs if we obscure our talents by not sharing them, if we obscure our ideas by worrying whether they will be deemed acceptable by others. If we repress our literal voices in order to make safe sounds, or sing correctly, or make artistic choices based on the notion of non-offence or choices that are denying the truth of the piece, we risk destroying ourselves. We risk destroying the art itself. The magic dies.
How is Music Magic? Music stops time, moves it forward and backwards. The sound of music, of voices joined together, can incite violence or passionate love, it can nurture the minds of babies, calm a lost soul, ease the pain of someone’s grief, wipe away the anxiety of tomorrow — at least for a brief time while the spell lasts. Music can heal; science is proving this right now. Music vibrates on the quantum level, in the music of the spheres, and can exist in our brains alone. Right now, I’m hearing strains of Mozart’s great Die Zauberflöte wafting around in my head. Is it real? Yes, it’s happening in my head (Dumbledore taught us this truth at King’s Cross Station in one of my favorite moments from “Deathly Hallows”).
Opera is an art form that needs all the other arts in order to create it. It needs an audience of wizards and muggles. But mostly, it demands a vast imagination from all those involved.
And that is the biggest danger of all, as humans can imagine heaven and hell equally well.
Therefore, let’s all be careful, let’s watch out for each other, courageously stand up for ideas and freedoms. To defend yourself, and others, against the Dark Arts first takes the wisdom to perceive the difference between truths and lies. As the year of 2016 ends, all of us must redouble our efforts in order to seek actual truth and look past the hashtags and the 140 character social media postings. Life is beyond complicated and no issue is black or white. Those who think otherwise are dabbling in the Dark Arts and us musical magicians need to arm ourselves. But more importantly, we need to seek each other out in order to join forces.
For Fantastic Beasts… also shows that the 1920s wizarding world sat upon a precipice: whether to hide themselves further, go to war, deny their magic, or figure out a different path forward. If only our current world knew which choice might win out in the coming decade.
Who will be our magical leaders in the years to come? Who will help our musical wizarding community navigate the treacherous waters rising around us? Is Grindelwald hiding in our midst? These new voices making themselves heard, are they misguided Muggles sensing that our art is old-fashioned, wrong, or boring simply because they don’t understand it? Will new audiences walk into our theatres and be able to see beyond the superficialities of opera and truly listen with their eyes and see with their ears? (Yes, you read that one right.)
Or maybe there’s a new generation of magical musicians waiting to step forward to help divine a new and better future for all that includes every part of our exceptionally strange operatic Art? Opera has dangerous, wonderful and truly magical spells that allow us to think deeper than we’d like, feel stronger than we knew possible, love the strange and familiar, question our very nature, but especially allow us to recognize the humanity that lives in each and every one of us. I know there are many Newts out there, and hope that they open up their suitcases pretty soon.