DeFlip Side #198: The Queen of The Night

DeFlip Side #198: The Queen of the Night.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

And tonight I’m going to tell you about a different kind of space opera.

Forty-two years ago, NASA launched the probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Their missions of solar system exploration represented not only a triumph of technological achievement, but a neat melding of science and art — including one of my favorite art forms, opera.

Both probes are carrying gold records with a variety of greetings, sounds and music designed as a calling card of the human experience for any passing aliens. And nestled among the multilingual hellos and Chuck Berry riffs is a single aria, appropriately named “The Queen of the Night” from Mozart’s fantastical opera, The Magic Flute.

True to its name The Magic Flute is a zauberoper, or “magic opera,” a kind of opera that focuses on fantastic, magical themes. And a central character is The Queen of the Night. Think of her as a kind of cross between the White Witch and Cersei Lannister, with a little bit of Galadriel thrown in.

The Queen sends the opera’s hero Tamino on a quest to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil wizard Sarastro — who also happens to be Pamina’s father. To help Tamino succeed, the Queen gives him a magic flute that can turn sorrow into joy. There’s also a sidekick and some magic bells and a trio of spirit children guides and yeah, like I’ve already told you, opera is friggin’ COOL.

But long story short, Tamino finds Pamina, and it turns out her dad isn’t an evil wizard but a high priest who is protecting Pamina from her abusive mother. The Queen actually wants to steal Sarastro’s throne, and even gives Pamina a knife and tells her to murder her dad. But when her plan goes belly-up, the Queen flies into a rage. The resulting aria “Der Hölle Rache” is a grand display of vocal fireworks.

You’re hearing the actual version of the aria included on the Voyager record, sung by Soprano Edda Moser. Now this stirring aria has always been somewhat infamous, but how did it go from the stages of Vienna to the far reaches of space?

That’s where Timothy Ferris comes in. He’s a science author and journalist who did a lot of science reporting for Rolling Stone back in the day. And the Voyager team — including Carl Sagan — tapped him to produce the record that is now wending its way through the cosmos.

Here’s Ferris on the WNYC podcast Aria Code, explaining how Mozart made the cut:

“Obviously the title “The Queen of the Night” is appealing if you’re sending a spacecraft off into the eternal darkness between the stars. I think there is an appropriateness to the wild, open boundless sound of this aria that commends itself… to the environment of the entire galaxy.”

But the reasoning behind the choice goes deeper, as Ferris explains:

“You can find mathematical relationships rather easily in Mozart’s music… And since we don’t know that aliens intercepting the record would have hearing like ours or would hear in the same bandwidth… I was interested in putting together classical selections that had mathematical relationships that would reward a listener, so to speak, even if that listener couldn’t actually listen but could only study the music as a kind of code.”

You can call it a code, sir. But I call it a synthesis of math and music stirring enough to spur human exploration.

For all that, I have to admit, I’ve only seen The Magic Flute once, despite it coming up every couple of years in my season ticket rotation at the Met. Look, it’s a spectacular and colorful production, but it’s a holiday show, usually jammed with tourists and kids, and the elitist in me has always held that once is enough.

But my fondness for this aria has increased considerably since I learned of its Voyager connection, and I find a renewed interest in the work within this context of scientific achievement.

When geek worlds collide, huh?

Voyagers 1 and 2 have both traveled beyond their missions of solar exploration and into the interstellar void — making them the farthest manmade objects from Earth. And the next time I sit in the darkened opera house listening to this soaring aria, my imagination will be soaring with them in that outer darkness, as they bring their golden payload into the far-flung reaches of the unknown.

A magic opera, indeed.


This show was inspired by the podcast Aria Code with Rihannon Giddens, produced by WNYC and The Metropolitan Opera — celebrating the magic of opera, one aria at a time. Subscribe here!