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The Magic Flute Speaks English

On May 3, 2014, Washington National Opera premiered a highly colorful interpretation of Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute. Co-produced by San Francisco Opera Association, Opera Omaha, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Opera Carolina, Kelley Rourke's translation of Die Zauberflöte, Emanuel Schikaneder's original libretto in German, sparkles with contemporary references and current day idioms without going overboard. What's particularly interesting is Rourke has recently done two English translations of Die Zauberflöte. The other produced by Boston Lyric Opera premiered in 2013 and reframes Schikaneder's story using a Mayan setting and a contemporary and dreamscape timeframe. The WNO production directed by Harry Silverstein, conducted by Philippe Auguin, and using sets and costumes by visual artist Jun Kaneko veers into a fantastic world bringing to mind Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and the Sergei Diaghilev-Erik Satie-Jean Cocteau-Pablo Picasso ballet production Parade.

But wait, this Silverstein-Kaneko production of Flute had other English translators. San Francisco Opera Association, Opera Omaha, and Lyric Opera of Kansas City used David Gockley's English-language translation and Conductor James Meena for Opera Carolina used his own adaptation of the widely used Ruth and Thomas Martin translation. And shall the Dresser mention that Lyric Opera of Kansas City presented Flute sung in English with German subtitles? What does all of this say about the words used to present Mozart's singspiel comic, but still serious, opera? Perhaps this matters only to a critic who has seen these numerous productions scattered around the United States or to a critic like the Dresser who has a focus on the written word. The Dresser has to assume for this production the only parts that have to remain the same to make this production identifiable are the music, the direction, costumes, and sets.

Flute 3 T-P-Scott Suchman.jpg

With a runtime of three hours and presented in two acts with one twenty-minute intermission, the story concerns a youth's journey to prove himself a man and win the hand of a kidnapped young woman. Flute 1Queen-Scott Suchman.jpgHer mother, the Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek sings the well-known bel canto aria "The Vengeance of Hell boil in my heart" quite satisfyingly) demands that daughter Pamina (Maureen Kay) kill Sarastro, her kidnapper. Sarastro (sung by bass baritone Soloman Howard) has told Pamino that her mother doesn't have her best interests in mind. Dealing with a bigger problem--how to save his secret society brotherhood from extinction, Sarastro sees that Prince Tomino (Joseph Kaiser) has potential to lead his waning brotherhood and Pamina would be the best reward for the prince. While Tamino and Pamina are pawns of Sarastro and the Queen of Night, they are destined to be a loving couple. Side characters to the main love story are the evil Monostatos (John Easterlin) who covets Pamina, the clownish Papageno (Joshua Hopkins) who serves as an unwilling aid to Tamino, and Papagena (Ashley Emerson), the woman who will become Papageno's wife.

Flute 6-by Scott Suchman.jpg

In looking back at the production, many aspects of the show were enjoyable. The Dresser particularly loved the duet between Papageno and Papagena where they agree to marry and proliferate. The scene is colorfully populated with baby chicks because after all, these two are lovebirds. Baritone Joshua Hopkins stands out for his consistently excellent performance throughout the opera. Stealing the show goes to the three Spirits, child singers--Will McKelvain, Jared Marshall, and Arya Bailan. They sound like the Munchkins whom Alice meets in Oz. The audience first experiences the heavenly voices of the Spirits as they ride across the "sky" in individual buckets. Another favorite scene was the bird ballet that made the Dresser think of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe performing in the highly art-filled Parade.

While the Dresser realizes Kaneko has introduced Eastern inflection into this production that includes the Kabuki-style white face makeup used for most of the characters except Tamino, Paminam and the Queen of the Night, there seems to be a chaotic mix of influences that begins with the evolving and devolving colorful stripes that paint the backdrop of the stage as the overture plays. Perhaps had the Dresser never seen The Magic Flute before she would have given no thought to understanding why these Mondrian-like stripes were playing across the backdrop. The net effect for the Dresser was that the fantasia of stripes detracted from listening to Mozart's overture. Later, the Dresser saw that Kaneko used some of the stripe patterns as set décor which was fine, but that didn't alter her feeling that stripe fantasia interfered with hearing and appreciating the overture.

As to the costumes, many seemed Kabuki-ish with exaggerated collars and extended headdresses, but Tamino's costume looked like something a Russian peasant might wear and Pamina's costumes looked like the dresses of a little girl but, in particular, Alice in Wonderland. Also there were the eye-catching costumes of the Queen of the Night and her three Ladies who initially wore dresses with a big black spot painted over their left breasts. Was one to think that the three Ladies had black hearts?

And despite the scenes with a dragon that makes the prince faint, the fascinating awkward bird ballet, and the spawning of little Papagenos and Papagenas, the production seemed static. Perhaps some of the exaggerated costumes like the one Sarastro wore made for limited movement by the performers. Flute 5 Sarastro-Scott Suchman.jpgNo, the lack of action had something to do with the tone set by the director. Well, WNO is offering ten performances in total, so there is time for you, Dear Reader, to see this production and decide for yourself.

In Hailey Leithauser's poem "Shoot-Out at the So-So Corral," you's situation is much like Prince Tamino's--he doesn't know what is coming at him but he must maintain a high moral standard and keep his eyes on his goal. And yes, there are higher-ups (like General MacArthur and his soldiers in blue or Sarastro and his secret brotherhood) watching. And maybe the unstated question is what do you get if you win? Maybe a good cup of coffee (mountain ground) with some yellow corn four tortillas in a rundown town--the happy-ever-after domesticity of a stable married life.


It is possible
is coming for you.

It is possible someone
is gunning for you.
There is a general

feeling that General
MacArthur, or
his partners in blue,

are coming for someone
who is now;
or is not now, you.

My God, says the firing squad,
how we all
have our ups and owns.

My God, sings the swung
cattle prod,
how we all have our downs

and our ups.
The moral:
Aim your steps

to the left,
your sights to the right,

in other words:

Keep your guns
at your thigh, your eyes

on the trophy
or tiger or skies,
your wit

and your powder,
than dustbowls

of mountain ground,
shanty town,
yellow corn flour.

Hailey Leithauser
from Swoop

Copyright © 2013 Hailey Leithauser

Photo credit: Scott Suchman


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 4, 2014 8:32 PM.

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