Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Magic Flute and Its Possibilities

By Olga Putilina

As the Artistic Programming Assistant for The New Victory Theater, I think of my department a little bit like the squirrel in that well-known fable about preparing for winter. We plan future seasons of New Victory programming by seeking, arranging, and helping to make sure everything is neat and cozy for the arrival of the new season. By the time the artists grace our stage, it feels like welcoming old friends to a new party. Last year, I helped make travel plans for our Director of Artistic Programming, Mary Rose Lloyd, to see Isango Ensemble's The Magic Flute at the Tollwood Festival in Germany. I've been excited to see it on The New Victory stage ever since Mary came back with glowing things to say about the production. But my love for Mozart’s The Magic Flute opera goes back even further.

Imagining and rendering costume sketches for all of the characters in The Magic Flute was one of the final projects in my college costuming class. This first necessitated pinning down a world for the characters to inhabit which, in all of its limitless possibilities, initially seemed to be a task as daunting as composing an opera in two acts. The universality of themes in The Magic Flute coupled with its mysterious and fantastical elements makes it perfectly adaptable to a wide variety of contexts and cultural adaptations. How was I supposed to choose just one?

In anticipation of Isango's wholly unique South African version of The Magic Flute opening at The New Victory this week, I wondered how others may have envisioned this work. Here are some unexpected takes on this endlessly inspiring opera.

The Magic Flute as a Movie
Sarastro (Ulric Cold) in his chariot in Bergman's 1975 film.
Foto: Per Adolphson; © SVT Bild.
After seeing a Swedish Royal Opera House production as a twelve-year-old, the famous movie director Ingmar Bergman always held a special place in his heart for The Magic Flute (or Trollflötjen as it is known in Swedish). His elaborate childhood puppet theater, which he created at the age of 11, adopted Trollflötjen into its repertoire. In 1975, Bergman realized his dream to work on The Magic Flute with the making of a film version (originally made for TV). An exact replica of Stockholm's Drottingholm Palace Theatre, an opera house built for the Swedish Queen in 1766, was created inside of a film studio. The movie was, in its time, the most expensive Swedish TV film production ever. Here's Sarastro in the lion chariot of my dreams!

The Magic Flute Transported in Time
Taking somewhat the inverse of Bergman's approach, director Barrie Kosky teamed up with the British theater company 1927 to create a stage version of The Magic Flute that reimagines the opera in the style of a silent film from the 1920s. The resulting work, which premiered at Berlin's Komische Oper in 2012, has performers interacting with whimsical hand-drawn animation to tell the story of Tamino, Pamina, the Queen of the Night and the rest of the charmingly costumed bunch - dressed in Prohibition Era suits and cloche hats, no less. I'm really won over by how all of Papageno's lines appeared onscreen in the same way they did in early films.

The Magic Flute Transported in Space
Okay, I realize that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was Austrian, so an Austrian production of The Magic Flute isn't exactly groundbreaking …unless the whole set is floating on a lake. The Bregenz Festival is an annual opera festival that takes place on a floating stage in Lake Constance (officially added to my bucket list). I love how the set of the festival's 1985 production, directed by Jérôme Savary, seems to be inspired by the Austrian alpine landscape and rises, dreamily, out of the water. I'm also fascinated by how the festival's most recent The Magic Flute production, directed by David Poutney and presented in the summer of 2014, took an entirely different, yet no less impressive, approach by incorporating dragon dogs (!) and fairy tale elements such as unicorn-looking horses ridden by the Three Ladies.


Sketch by Christina Reimer
The Magic Flute – A Cultural Celebration
The creators of Vancouver Opera's 2007 The Magic Flute developed their production in consultation with Canada's indigenous First Nations people. This version emphasized the rituals and the wonders of the natural world, as featured in Mozart's original opera, and embraced the mythologies and richness of 10 different tribes. I can't stop looking at this costume sketch for the Queen of the Night, which drew inspiration from moon moths and ceremonial Nisga'a masks, traditionally used by indigenous people in British Columbia. The production's co-designer, John Powell, states the natural connection between the First Nations and The Magic Flute saying, "it's a hero's story and the Northwest Coast culture is full of hero stories."

The South African context of Isango Ensemble's production is every bit a hero story as well. Artistic Director Mark Donford-May was inspired by South African history and by the Tsonga legend of and lati birds who, according to myth, cause lightning and can only be stopped by an enchanted flute. From costumes to percussion, there's triumph and beauty at every beat.

Consider me inspired. If you need me, I'll be over here, doing this Family Activity in which I get to reimagine The Magic Flute in a New York setting!

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