“Why are all of your characters white?”

I was asked this today on Tumblr concerning my newest graphic novel in progress, Tamino and the Magic Flute, in regards to Monostatos looking like this:

Monostatos by Squonkhunter

The question was posed mainly because Monostatos is originally portrayed as a Moor, and the person asking the question wished to defend the original libretto from 1791. Because I have already received comments as to why Monostatos is portrayed as white, here is the answer I gave on Tumblr, which I am reposting here so I don’t have to repeat myself on this issue.

“Hello, [name], thank you for asking. To be fair, I have not uploaded all of my character designs as of yet. Since this is a fantasy, the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa as we know them do not actually exist in this realm, but some of the characters, arguably, can look to be of European descent. It’s strange that you said all of my characters are white, as I have uploaded Pamina, and she looks to be of Korean descent. To be fair to you, though, you might not have seen that earlier post, and I have not uploaded anything of Sarastro, who looks to be of African descent.

As far as taking The Magic Flute seriously, I have scoured through the original text and full score multiple times. I am so dedicated to this piece, I have learnt pieces of it on the piano and in fact, when I was a young girl about the age of seven, I decided to learn German for the specific reason that The Magic Flute was in German and I wanted to know what the characters were saying.

Sixteen years later, I understand the entire script, and have read Mozart’s letters to and from Schikaneder concerning the matter. I have seen countless performances of all three different versions of The Magic Flute and am currently in possession of the most verbose one that contains all the scenes that are normally cut out. I take this opera enormously seriously, and you can be sure that I take this adaptation just as seriously.

The adaptation to comic form changes the storyline to fit the darkness and epic nature of the music. The music in itself contains all the psychology that Schikaneder did not place in the libretto, for example, Tamino’s insecurities (the frailness in the notes, the fact that he’s the highest Mozart tenor there is, the support he needs from the music in order to complete an idea, and the constant questioning and hesitation that fits him musically, all of which is Mozart’s doing and not Schikaneder’s). Thus I am riffing off of many of the main themes and adding back story so that the scenes that do occur within the opera contain as much weight visually as they would when paired with the music. This is a unique challenge when working in a purely visual medium.

Insofar as to why Monostatos is portrayed as white, the only real purpose he was portrayed as a Moor in the first place was to appeal to the mentalities of the time. If you look in the stage directions in the libretto, Schikaneder doesn’t even refer to his own character by name. He simply calls him “der Mohr.” Even to his own author, Monostatos was nothing but the color of his skin, an unappealing, ugly, fat, apish man whose attractions for the chalk-skinned and pallid Pamina are both disgusting and humorous.

To an 18th century audience.

That is not something I want to replicate in a 21st century comic. The power of The Magic Flute is its immense and chameleon-like ability to adapt to any country or any time’s sentiments (just look at Impempe Yomlingo’s adaptation of the piece, where South African instruments play Mozart’s original melodies in an all-black cast where the Queen of the Night is a colonial presence, it’s absolutely brilliant!). The point is, the piece is about the triumph of good over evil. Now, what that good or evil is depends on the opinion of the person adapting the piece.

For my personal adaptation, the good represented by Day is Love. The evil represented by Night is Fear. This works for me, as I view fear to be the opposite of love (Why are people racist? Because they lack understanding towards the opposite party and do not attempt to understand out of fear.). For my piece, I argue that race does not matter and I show this by portraying different ethnicity in characters and yet letting them react to one another as if race did not matter. They treat each other like human beings and accuse each other based on actions or on social status which is determined by employment or noble birth, and nothing to do with race.

With my Monostatos, I just drew the character who popped into my head. I did the same with Sarastro. Sarastro ended up black. Monostatos ended up white. It doesn’t actually matter, as long as you stick to what the characters represent at their core, and what is expressed in the soul of the music, not by specific dialogue. I wanted to capture the feeling of being an outsider in Monostatos, of being conscious that everyone hates him, but I have built him a back story that provides that information rather than toss around the word “Moor” and point fingers at how ugly, stupid, and manipulative he is. Rather, we are able to sympathize with or damn Monostatos based on his actions rather than the color of his skin, yet I keep the same jilted mentality and manipulative personality of the original. The shell in which this entity occupies should not matter, even if it conflicts with the details of the original because, in the end, it is not the details that make The Magic Flute the masterpiece it is. It is the music that reaches to eternity, its unique ability to adapt, and the universal triumph of good over evil.

I hope this is a sufficient reason and that you understand I deeply revere this opera, yet respect it enough to see its faults and change it to bring out more of its beauty.

Thank you,

Paula aka. squonkhunter”

What you can expect from this adaptation is a great amount of deviance from the original concerning the plot, but a strict adherence to the emotional journey threaded out by the music. We emerge triumphant, Tamino and Pamina are believably in love, and the comic is appropriately dark and appropriately humorous in accordance to the score. Just don’t read the synopsis of the original expecting to know what plot twists are coming up. You won’t. You so won’t.

Much love,

Paula

4 Comments Add yours

  1. gegallas says:

    Thank you for this fascinating post and for your dedication to The Magic Flute! I’m very excited to see more of your work! :) Best regards, G. E.

    1. Thank you very much for your encouragement and support! :)
      – Paula

  2. theorah says:

    Actually, for the same reason you wrote above, I was pretty pleased to see that your Monostatos wasn’t black…when I have read the original libretto, it really does feel racist from a modern perspective to me for all the reasons you described (even though he’s an endearing character aside from the race thing)! When I did a (really awful) comic version as a kid, I got past this kinda thing by making Monostatos a drow-elf/night crawler looking guy while everyone else was human. I think this is a highly adaptable musical, esp since its embedded in fantasy and metaphor, and there is nothing wrong with adapating, esp when you know what you’re doing, and you’ve declared from the start that you wish to add to the original and modernize in some ways :) So exciting!!

    1. It warms me to hear that The Magic Flute was a part of yet another person’s childhood, as it was a huge part of mine. Oooh! I like the idea of an elf/nightcrawler sort of character, like a high goblin of sorts. That just makes him even more tragic, his love interest for Pamina.
      Thank you for your support! The Kickstarter will be out in January 2015!
      – Paula

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