Isango Ensemble's Magic Flute Pageantry
Pageant. The Isango Ensemble's interpretation of Mozart's The Magic Flute is an elaborate, colorful, and dramatic presentation reaching out to the public that speaks to African tradition and thereby meets the definition of pageant. The slightly less than two-hour love story with one intermission is joyful and dance focused. It is not your grandmother's opera.
A quick summation of the story is that Prince Tamino falls in love with Pamina whom her wicked mother, the Queen of the Night, says is being held hostage by Sarastro. Sarastro is her protector and when he learns Tamino is in love with her, he gives Tamino a series of challenges to test the young prince's leadership abilities. Sarastro is looking for someone to replace him as leader of a secret brotherhood. Papageno is enlisted to help Tamino and if Papageno does well, he too is promised a wife.
As the Dresser absorbed the September 18, 2014, performance sponsored by Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre, comparisons between Isango's creation and Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts surfaced. Pageant is also how the Dresser would describe Four Saints. However, Four Saints is more a parade, and a religious parade at that.
Founded in 2000, the Isango Ensemble, a nonprofit seeking to work with its "clash of cultures, races, and experiences," selects performers who are at various levels of artistic achievement from townships around its base in Cape Town, South Africa. The Ensemble members work collectively to create each production. Like the all Black cast Virgil Thomson chose for Four Saints in Three Acts, the Black performers of Isango bring something unexpected and new to the opera written by two white men, composer Amadeus Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. In the case of Four Saints, again an opera written by two Caucasian artists, Thomson said he chose the Black cast--a first in 1934 in the United States--because they had better diction and less prejudice against Gertrude Stein's experimental writing that included such phrases as "Four saints prepare for saints it make it well well fish" and "pigeons on the grass, alas."
Ah, diction. The Isango interpretation of Flute is rendered in English--the original was in German, but the Isango English comes with a South African accent. Few of the Isango players except Zamile Gantana as Papagena and Nontsusa Louw as Papagena delivered clearly enunciated English. Surtitles would have helped but given the pageantry of the production, the Dresser did not occupy herself with the problems of word delivery as she recently had when Washington National Opera partnered with numerous other opera companies to produce multiple English-versions of Flute directed by Harry Silverstein.
In fact, the Dresser didn't focus on how the Isango voices could not fill the Lansburgh Theatre. While Siyasanga Mbuyazwe as Queen of the Night executed a pleasing "The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart," this coloratura aria, directed against the protector of the Queen of the Night's daughter, is supposed to electrify and a listener should feel the Queen's hateful vibration inside his or her body. Instead what the Dresser felt were the energizing slapping of unshod feet on the raked stage and the warm tones of the marimba orchestra that flanked both sides of the raked portion of the stage. Also exciting the airwaves were the players who danced as their mallets hit the keys. And these musicians were alternately the dancers, the actors, the singers showing an impressive display of versatility and unlimited joyful energy. Also inside the listener's body at various times were the beating of drums.
Two aspects of African culture heighten British-born South African theater director-filmmaker Mark Dornford-May's Isango production. The first is the tribal meeting of Sarastro's secret brotherhood showing ritual hand washing and handshaking in a particular order according the rank of its members. The second deals with Dornford-May's program notes detailing the possible connection of an African tale to his adaptation of The Magic Flute. The African tale relates that lightning is caused by the andlati bird, which lives in high mountains. It causes death and destruction during storms. To stop this bird, someone courageous must go with a flute to tame the destructive bird. What's unusual is the sound of the flute in Dornford-May's production is actually a trumpet. The more vigorous sound of the trumpet brings attention that this flute, still representing the sound of a bird, is the fearsome andlati.