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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. magic fluteSarastroSM.jpgSarastro 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. Tamino SM.jpgTo 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.

While there was no scenery to speak of, the costumes by Leigh Bishop were remarkable for clever detailing. For example, the birds who sing with Papageno wear a two-piece orange playsuit that has a color-coordinated patterned gusset in the pant leg and the back of the jacket has a studded word spelling out BIRD which is appropriately flashed by all six birds at the same moment for maximum effect. Other memorable costumes include those for the three Ladies that look like an American women's dressed up fashion of the 1950's complete with skirt and boxy jacket, gloves and small handbag on a chain. Queen of the Night SM.jpgThe prim-and-proper costumes for the three Ladies play against the more down-and-dirty look of the Queen of the Night and her Spirits whose basic togs look like workout leotards that are occasionally dressed up with breastplates and heavy feathery skirts reminiscent of dust mops. Otherwise, the costumes were a mix of camouflage pants and vests and traditional African clothing like Dashikis, safari shirts, kanzu robes, and colorful two-piece skirt and top sets.

Margaret Mackinnon's poem "The Invented Child" condenses the tension seen in The Magic Flute between the youthful lovers wanting children as birdman Papageno desires with his intended Papagena and the wise old leader Sarastro who has no son and daughter of his own to succeed him in his secret brotherhood. Thus Sarastro reinvents himself by stealing the affection of the Queen of the Night's daughter and gaining a son in the process.


I spring from the pages into your arms.
Someone who once knew him said 

Walt Whitman sang before breakfast 

behind his bedroom door-- 

broken arias, bits of patriotic tunes, 

the way my child sings this morning 

in early spring, the way 

the raucous mockingbirds fill the warming air 

with their own borrowed songs. 

The world is once again its hopeful green. 

Bold forsythia bursts its spindly stalks. 

The young trees again flicker on the slopes, 

and when he ended his days on dusty 

Mickle Street, Whitman must have remembered 

mornings like this-- 

Nights, no longer really sleeping, confined 

to the paralytic chair, say he remembered 

that earlier, softer air, the light on the water 

in that clearing he had called Timber Creek, 

the idea of it-- 

Say he thought again of those days 

when he was still fat & red & tanned, 

when he'd strip off his clothes 

and roll his great flesh in the pond's black marl.

In that close, bug-ridden room in Camden, 

he spoke, sometimes, of a grandson, 

fine boy, a southern child who sometimes wrote, 

once stopped by-- 

No one ever saw him. 

An old poet. His invented child. 

Though why shouldn't a man 

who'd always lived in words create something 

to endure his sore, soiled world?

There, at Timber Creek, Whitman wrote about the trees, 

their rough bark, the massive limbs and trunks, 

as if they were the bodies of those he'd loved. 

Some people believe the souls of unborn children 

rest in trees. Say he saw them, then, 

caught their soft breath 

sweet as the spice bush, lush as the early crocus. 

In the long, hard work of his imagination, 

say he watched their disembodied hearts 

sway among the new leaves,

watched the eager light shine on another fine morning 

until the sky lifted above him 

like exultant, fresh desire-- 

and the children descended, 

and then the crowns of the trees were all on fire.

by Margaret Mackinnon
from The Invented Child, winner, 2011 Gerald Cable Book Award

Copyright © 2013 Margaret Mackinnon

Photo credits:
Ruphin Coudyzer: Tamino and Papageno
Keith Pattison: Queen of the Night, Sarastro


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 19, 2014 10:43 PM.

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