Q & A: Katrina Galka on the Queen of the Night & Re-Evaluating Operatic Characters

By Afton Wooten

(Photo Credit: Rebecca Fay)

Soprano Katrina Galka, who will portray the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” with Arizona Opera this April, spoke with OperaWire to discuss her upcoming role.

The theme of good and evil throughout the opera really propelled the conversation. We discussed the Queen herself and the outdated gender roles and portrayal of women in opera.

OperaWire: “Der Hölle Rache” is one of the most recognizable arias. What do you think is the general knowledge or assumptions about the Queen of the Night? What adjectives would describe her?

Katrina Galka: Well, I definitely think the public associates the Queen of the Night with her music. As you mentioned, most people will immediately think of that famous melody line with the high Fs in “Der Hölle Rache.” I honestly don’t know if people realize that the music is a vengeance aria where the Queen is overtaken with rage and orders her daughter to kill Sarastro. I imagine that people who don’t know the opera’s context probably think she’s singing something lovely and beautiful. However, those who know the opera may think of the Queen as evil, vengeful, manipulative, unreasonable, or threatening because of the context of the storyline. Depending on the staging and portrayal, they may also think of her as powerful, exciting, or larger than life.

OW: Do you think that is a fair representation of her?

KG: I think it’s all fair. The audience will pick up whatever story we decide to tell. She holds these elements within her, although I think it’s interesting to play also into the less obvious sides of her where there are opportunities for it.

OW: How do you describe the Queen of the Night?

KG: I would describe her as driven, ambitious, powerful, passionate, uncompromising, electric, intelligent, frustrated, proud, and led by her emotions. I like to think that she believes she will be victorious right until the end; she is almost tunnel-visioned in her pursuit of power.

I also think there is room for her to be vulnerable as well—especially in her first aria. Much of what she’s singing invokes Tamino’s sympathy to get him to do what she wants, but I think there are parts of her that are asking for his help because of her limitations. That has the potential to be scary for her.

OW: Why is she an important character despite the storyline?

KG: She’s important because there is this question throughout the piece about what or who is good and what or who is evil. Much of what we believe to be true at the beginning gets flipped on its head as the opera continues. Without the Queen of the Night, you lack that exploration of good versus evil; you need someone to play the foil to Sarastro and even to Pamina.

OW: What are your thoughts on the historical context of the Queen of the Night’s characterization?

KG: By historical context, do you mean that she’s usually played as a hysterical, emotionally driven villain and that this has something to do with her gender? Historically speaking, it was very accepted that they would diagnose a woman expressing that kind of extreme emotion or an unwillingness to conform to standards of meekness as hysterical or insane. It’s also interesting that she is so villainized because we could see her as a victim in this story if you consider it from her point of view. After her husband’s death, she expected to rise to his seat of power. Instead, Sarastro is given ownership over the temple. Sarastro then kidnaps the Queen’s daughter, Pamina from her. When you take all those pieces in, I honestly don’t blame her for being deeply upset.

I think for the time this was written; the Queen of the Night was probably a pretty radical character, a woman in the late 18th century willing to fight by all means available to her to reclaim her power and identity. If we’re being honest, some still consider women seeking seats of power unpalatable in our contemporary society.

Questions that would be amusing to ask an 18th, 19th, or even 20th-century audiences are: Do her hysteria, and extreme emotions have something to do with the fact that she’s a woman? Why? Is the pursuit of power only acceptable for men? Is it fair to label her as’ evil,’ ‘villainous,’ or ‘deranged’ without considering everything she’s been through?

Honestly, I think the Queen embodies ambition gone awry, which is something all humans are vulnerable to, regardless of gender.

OW: Does the Queen of the Night need modernizing?

KG: All that said, I’m not sure the character needs modernizing. There are elements of the opera that definitely do—like Monostatos being a Moor and appearing in blackface. There are also a few moments in the text that are particularly sexist that can stand to be revised. But I’m not sure how I would envision the character’s modernization within this story’s context. Should she not be evil? Why not? Women are absolutely capable of evil. The important distinction is that it’s not because she’s a woman; it’s because she’s human.

For me, drawing more doubt and ambiguity around the assumptions of good and evil in the opera would be a more interesting option. Could we see the Queen acting from compassion and selflessness at some moment? Could we see Sarastro engaging in questionable behavior or with less than-pure motivations? This highlights humanity and the capacity for every human to hold all facets of good and evil, which, if you’re looking for a modern perspective, I think is a much more equitable and honest interpretation.

Personally, though, I love that she’s an ambitious woman who claims her own power. I mean, would I suggest doing it through coercion and murder? I think there are other ways, for sure, but this is opera.

OW: In your opinion, are other characters in “The Magic Flute” that need re-evaluation?

KG: Monostatos is the most often re-evaluated character, which makes sense for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Personally, I’d love to see Pamina a little more fleshed out. Her personal motivations and desires are lacking, and she’s often used as a tool or thrown into the role of a ‘helpless victim.’ All of her interactions exist in relation to other characters in the piece. I’m curious about who she is outside of those interactions.

Also, Papagena is fascinating. It’s a tiny role, but the way she appears just to fulfill Pagageno’s dream of finding a good wife is definitely out of touch by today’s standards. But look, I think we can intellectualize these elements and understand where the opera falls short by modern standards of equity, but I also think there’s room to appreciate the piece for what it is. I wouldn’t say that Tamino or Sarastro are extremely fleshed out as characters either. It is part of the nature of a piece like this that it communicates through archetypal and symbolic storytelling. We can recognize these as character tropes reflecting 18th-century cultural ideals and expectations.

OW: Can you talk specifically about opera and feminism? Do we need to change the narrative?

KG: Well, if we’re going to talk about feminism and opera, one of the biggest issues is that many of the stories center on men and during a time when men were the primary income earners. This is a problem because, from a working female singer’s perspective, there are rarely equal opportunities for men and women to work onstage. Take an opera like “La Bohème.” There are eight solo roles for men versus two for women. “Tosca” has seven adult male solo roles versus the single female singing Tosca. The most famous Rossini operas (“La Cenerentola,” “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” and “L’Italiana in Algeri”) only have male chorus parts. This makes it very difficult for companies to provide equal employment opportunities. Our best ways through this are to continue to commission new works that tell women’s stories or to engage in nontraditional casting practices. I’ve seen small companies, like Renegade Opera in Portland, Oregon, who have cast outside of the traditional Fach system, casting a high soprano to sing the role of Tito in “La Clemenza di Tito” instead of a tenor.

As far as seeing women in stereotypical roles onstage, in my opinion, the operas that we choose to continue performing from the traditional canon will always reflect the culture of the time to some extent. Women’s rights have only been at the forefront of discussion in the USA for the last hundred years. These are still relatively new ideas. So do we no longer perform these older works, or do we create discussions—like this one—where we talk about differences in cultural perception between then and now? I think discussions like these can deepen and enrich our understanding of these things, so I don’t think it has to be a problem. There are also ways to direct these works that draw attention to the power discrepancies and sexism in order to provoke thought.

For me, what is most important is that I make a character as three-dimensional as possible. There are still women today who are abused, oppressed, silenced, or not expected to play a leading role in their lives. There are women today who fight for power unsuccessfully. Some women sacrifice everything for a man. Does that mean that they are not brave, curious, hopeful, or full of joy? Can you still love a life that isn’t fully “liberated” by today’s standards? I think showing women as fully human is ultimately the most important thing. And when we do that, we can see these stories onstage as an opportunity to hold up a magnifying glass and ask, “Hey, does seeing that make me uncomfortable? Why or why not? What do I want to do about it?”

OW: Is there anything else you would like to share?

KG: Opera is fascinating because it has one foot in historical practice and another foot in the here and now, which is elevated thanks to the live, in-person component of the art form. I love that we can have discussions that show us how much we have grown and shifted as a society and how much we are still the same. Pieces that draw questions like these are most often still performed because of the brilliance of the music. Can we embrace the gray area of loving something beautiful that is perhaps “flawed” in other ways?

I’m honestly not sure if real love works any other way.


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