NEW YORK — LIGHTNING flashes, thunder roars, the black clouds rip open, and floating downstage comes that supreme star of the Mozart Hit Parade, the Queen of the Night. We are at the Metropolitan Opera's latest production of Mozart's ``The Magic Flute,'' part of the Mozart Bicentennial at Lincoln Center under the red velvet and crystal chandeliers of the Met. The Queen of the Night, sung with shimmering bravura by Lucianna Sera, scoops up bravos. Her high silver crown tops a billowing, caped costume of black tulle, sparkling with star-like sequins. Her voice, as beautiful as it is sinister in this role, pierces the night.
James Levine conducts this production, with its controversial sets by painter David Hockney that upstage the music and are almost anti-Mozart in tone. In the orchestra section, a mink-layered audience meets and greets each other as if it were old-home week. Students at the back of the hall with librettos and standing-room tickets lean against red velour railings draped with ski parkas and duffle coats.
The man in the black Homburg, a glutton for Mozart, is at the long evening performance of the ``The Magic Flute'' and at the opening concert of the Mozart bicentennial the next day. A SRO crowd overflows the cream and gold Avery Fisher Hall. They are paying homage to Mozart in this 200th year since his death and to the music he performed and conducted himself in Vienna on March 23, 1783. Millions more watch the concert broadcast on public television conducted by the Juilliard School's Raymond Leppard. I t is a surfeit of riches: the Haffner Symphony, piano concertos No. 5 and 13, the Sinfonia Concertante in G, and solo works and arias, all performed on a stage draped with huge fuchsia and green silk banners emblazoned with ``WOLFGANG,'' ``AMADEUS,'' ``MOZART'' and the bicentennial seal.
Outside, animal rights activists wearing old fur coats with the words ``Fur is Dead'' painted on them in blood red protest the wearing of mink coats to a Mozart concert. ``It takes l00 dumb animals to make a fur coat for one dumb human'' yells a man. Inside, all is Mozartian harmony as the arias, concertos, rondos, and the blithe Haffner symphony leave the audience smiling with delight.
THE Mozart mystique has seized not only Lincoln Center, but most of the world's music capitals. Five hundred performances of Mozart's works (all 825 of them) are being given at Lincoln Center over 19 months, ending in August 1992.
The New York Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta, is shepherding several symphonies, ranging from the composer's first to his last, the Olympian ``Jupiter.'' Mr. Mehta says, ``I recently did them both, playing one after the other, and thinking that this child - from age 8 to about 33 when he wrote the Jupiter - what an evolution he went through.... To play them just five minutes apart, it was a jolt to us as musicians, shows us the scope of the entire spectrum. From the first bar of the first symphony, y ou hear Mozart, you hear Mozart from the beginning.''
Conducting Mozart, he says, ``is sheer joy, sheer pleasure.'' Mehta talks about what has charmed audiences for the last 200 years: ``Mozart wrote a letter to his father saying `I sometimes like to write music people can hum along with immediately, catchy tunes, and sometimes like to write music so complicated intellectuals pretend they understand it. But they don't understand it at all.'''
The conductor says, ``No music gives me as much pleasure as when I'm conducting a Mozart piano concerto or a Mozart opera. He was primarily an opera composer, that was when he absolutely blossomed.... And then of course the finale of the Jupiter. You feel you're standing in the middle of the cosmos, with five themes spinning around you like molecules or atoms. I look forward to this whole year.''
Lincoln Center's Mozart Bicentennial will include all of the center's music and arts companies joined in common cause: to perform everything Mozart ever wrote, and more. It is billed as the largest and most comprehensive tribute ever: including 373 orchestral works, Mozart's 90 sacred and dramatic works, among them his five major operas by the Met and the New York City Opera, 98 chamber music works, and a variety of Mozart's ``house music.''
This mega-Mozart bicentennial will also include two massive programs by the Mostly Mozart Festival, which celebrates its 25th season this year; five operas by the visiting Salzburg Marionettes; several ballets like ``Mozartiana,'' to be danced by the New York City Ballet in 1992. The Film Society of Lincoln Center will give us a spritz of Mozart movies including his operas (Ingmar Bergman's ``Magic Flute''), and Milos Forman's brilliant ``Amadeus,'' which followed the Peter Schaffer play and made Mozart a matinee idol to millions.
Mozart, who always enjoyed a good romp, might be pleased with the Lincoln Center Out of Doors jazz productions of Mozart themes, ``Matriculating Mozart,'' as well as Daniel Esrelow's playful use of plastic bubbles and inflatables in his new work set to Mozart's comic arias. The Center is even celebrating Mozart with ``E-Motion-al Mozart: If Mozart Could Juggle, This Would Be It,'' juggling to works of Mozart.
In the Center's shops is the musical jingle of money as cash registers ring up sales of ``Queen of the Night'' sleepshirts, Mozart wrist watches and beach towels, ``Magic Flute'' note paper, ``Don Giovanni'' sweat shirts, and Mozart libretti, books, tapes, and compact discs.
THIS year Philips Records is releasing a set of 190 Mozart CDs; the complete paperback of all Mozart's works is being published for $1,425. All other classical composers rank below him in popularity. Performances of his operas zoomed from 187 in 1984 to 256 this year. Mozart hit the Top 40 in the '80s (``Rock Me, Amadeus'') and is chic on television commercials, hyping cars, coffee, and banks.
The rest of the world is also celebrating the Mozart bicentennial, so that many Jupiter Symphonies, Magic Flutes, ``Elvira Madigan'' piano concertos, and more than ``A Little Night Music'' will be orbiting the earth from New York to Salzburg to Tokyo. (See story to right.)
As Opera Monthly asks: ``How much Mozart can you take?... At year's end, we may discover there is such a thing as Mozart Overkill.'' Mozart scholar Neal Zaslaw, musicological adviser to the Lincoln Center Bicentennial, raps the idea of Mozart overkill: ``To say it's commercialized is already nonsense. Public concerts charge admission, are commercial ventures.... The question is whether it's well done or poorly and are people going to burn out? I can only speak for the Lincoln Center Mozart festival.... Our programming was done with enormous care, and the choice of artists was likewise done with great care. So it includes most of the names of performers famous for their insight into Mozart.... And therefore I don't see anyone substituting quantity for quality at all.''
How do the performers feel about Mozart?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will be singing ``The Marriage of Figaro'' at the Met. She says ``the challenge in Mozart's style is that it's so much pure singing, purity of voice, singing pure lines.'' She adds, ``I started with Mozart when I started my career, and it's been the saving grace of my career, singing Mozart almost exclusively. My teacher says, `Mozart is a lubricant for your voice. If you can sing Mozart, you can sing anything.''' She suggests ``Mozart's charm is his brilliance. It's breathtaking to think you're singing a particular song which he composed when he was 12; it was just tumbling out of him.''
VIOLINIST Young Uck Kim says of playing Mozart, ``It's like walking out in space with all your nerves exposed. It doesn't feel great. It takes so much concentration to be able to play Mozart.... ``One of the most demanding things about Mozart is a lot of times it is like an opera.'' To make the violin sing, he says, ``you have to play many different roles very convincingly.... It requires you to change personality very quickly. That's the hardest thing to do: it's like question and then an answer, question and then an answer.''
Bass Samuel Ramey, who is doing ``Don Giovanni'' and ``The Marriage of Figaro'' for Lincoln Center speaks of Mozart's charm. ``I think Mozart just has something in his music, this natural buoyancy in his music that makes people smile.... When I hear Mozart it's just very uplifting,'' says Mr. Ramey whose favorite composer is Mozart. ``His pieces are really awesome.''
Pianist John Browning, who has been a ``Mostly Mozart'' soloist under conductor Gerard Schwarz, says, ``Those of us who play a lot of Mozart joke that it seems to lie so well under the hand, but it can be very deceptive, it tends to turn, to play tricks on you. You think it's simple but ... you have to practice it very, very carefully. He used the expression himself that some passages should sound `like flowing oil.'
He writes as a true virtuoso for the keyboard,'' Mr. Browning says of Mozart, who was considered the greatest pianist in Europe. As a composer he says, ``The taste is immaculate but at the same time never precious....always a bubble, always a giggle.'' But he also says there is also ``something so gallant about the way Mozart handles his personal tragedy, a bravery ... which concentrates on the human condition but not his own personal tragedy.''
He says of playing Mozart, ``If it goes well, that's the happiest I'm capable of feeling. You walk on air afterward.... We all tend to work harder on Mozart than anyone else. It has to be transparent.''
That praise would have been music to the ears of Mozart, who so often felt spurned, underpaid, and unappreciated except in Prague, where as his biographer Marcia Davenport wrote, they adored him, ``and from the depths of his heart he wrote his greatest opera (``Don Giovanni'') for them, fired by the unique experience of being wholly appreciated the only time in his creative life.''
Ms. Davenport brings to life the composer often swaddled in musical mythology. She traces his life as a genius from the age of four when he wrote his first concerto for the clavier ``so difficult that nobody could play it.'' We read of his stunted life as a child prodigy, on the road endlessly with his ambitious father Leopold, a musician. He played for the crowned heads of Europe with his sister, like some musical circus act. Davenport puts the the joys and tragedies of his adult life into sync with hi s music: his marriage to Constanze Weber, the early deaths of four of their five children; his composing triumphs, indignities, and the jealousy of rivals like Salieri who intrigued against him. Finally she explains the pressure of the bills that mounted up and contributed to his early death.
In a l979 update to her book, she wrote ``Mozart gives ever more impressive proof that there really is immortality.''
On the date of his death, Dec. 5, his sublime and unfinished ``Requiem,'' written for himself, will be performed at Vienna's St. Stephen's Church by the Vienna State Opera led by Sir Georg Solti. And on the same day, half way around the world, it will also be performed by the New York Philharmonic, led by Erich Leinsdorf, and by the National Symphony under the baton of Robert Shafer in Washington.