Cincinnati Opera’s ‘Magic Flute’ evokes silent film era

Photo by Dan Norman, Minnesota Opera

Photo by Dan Norman, Minnesota Opera

By Thom Mariner

Mozart’s final completed opera, “Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute), remains one of the most enigmatic and frequently debated musical compositions. Is it fairy tale or philosophy? Glib entertainment or profound inspiration? Or all of the above and more?

Cincinnati Opera closes out its season with four performances of this revered work, July 15, 20, 22 and 23.

Its underlying complexity, and the timelessness of the story, have opened “Magic Flute” to imaginative stagings, especially as technology has expanded the set designer’s toolbox.

And this year’s production, premiered at Komische Oper Berlin and brought to the U.S. by Los Angeles and Minnesota Opera, is considered one of the most original yet.

“You almost have to celebrate the contradictions and inconsistencies of the plot and the characters, as well as the mix of fantasy, surrealism, magic and deeply touching human emotions,” said Barrie Kosky, co-creator of the production being staged this summer.

Kosky is executive and artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin. He happened to attend a performance of the first show created by the British theater company known as 1927. Within minutes, that production’s mix of live performance with animation convinced Kosky to collaborate with the theater company’s founders, Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, on a production of “Magic Flute.”

Yes, the name 1927 does refer to the year when Al Jolson performed in “The Jazz Singer,” the first “talkie.” “Our Papageno is suggestive of Buster Keaton, Monostatos is a bit Nosferatu and Pamina perhaps a bit reminiscent of Louise Brooks,” Kosky said in an interview in Berlin.

But more than simply emulating the ’20s, Andrade explained that their shows “evoke the world of dreams and nightmares, with aesthetics that harken back to the world of silent film.”

Her 1927 partner, Paul Barritt, added, “We take our visual inspiration from many eras, from the copper engravings of the 18th century, as well as comics of today.”

“Magic Flute” is constructed as a singspiel, more like today’s musicals, with songs (arias) interspersed with spoken dialogue. According to Kosky, these dialogues “were condensed and transformed into silent film intertitles with piano accompaniment,” using an 18th century fortepiano (precursor to the modern piano) and incorporating music from two of Mozart’s solo piano works, giving “the whole piece a consistent style.”

The production is highly visual in orientation. “This emphasis on the images makes it possible for every viewer to experience the show in his or her own way: as a magical, living storybook,” said Kosky. The animation is tied closely to the rhythm of Mozart’s music, Kosky said. And the singers interact directly with the animation, so staging and choreography must be precise.

Cincinnati Opera intentionally hired singers who have done this production before, and stage director Daniel Ellis directed this production for Komische Oper Berlin a couple years ago.

But Kosky stressed that, above all, Mozart’s humanity remains at the core. “During the performance, the technology doesn’t play in the foreground. Although Paul spent hours and hours sitting in front of computer to create it, his animation never loses its deeply human component. You can always see that a human hand has drawn everything.”

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