At the risk of sounding like Rex Reed, let me just throw out a few preliminary comments: “Run, don’t walk to this extravaganza,” “You’ll want to pay the piper for this ‘Flute,’” “If there’s one show you see this season…,” “The hottest ticket in town!” Well, you get the idea. The new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at LA Opera is a triumphant update of the most fundamental premise of opera: a feast for the ears, eyes and intellect. It really is rare to experience such a fresh, new creative vision. You feel like it’s something you have never seen before — and you really haven’t.
Perhaps the most astounding idea about this production is that it all takes place within about two feet of depth. There is no “set” per se, no flats or furnishings of any kind — simply a white scrim with a few openings cut into it. The singers are either out in front of it, on the floor, or high up on the scrim on revolving doors. But not to worry, the production is far from minimalist; the scrim effectively dissolves and comes alive with a dense multitude of projections of the most inventive sort. I guess you might call it an animated opera, rather like a cartoon, a form that suits the inherent silliness of The Magic Flute very well. But this is unlike any cartoon you have ever seen.
As the well-known notes of the opening overture wind down, you see a figure running; it’s Tamino, but he’s not actually running. His moving legs are projected onto a half-barrel positioned in front of him and he just pumps his arms to make the illusion. A giant chuffing dragon’s head looms above him, pursuing him. This morphs smoothly into the next scene where Tamino sees a picture of the bewitching Pamina. A flock of pulsing hearts floats across the scrim, and as characters reach out and touch them, they pop. That, to me, is one of the most magical things about this production — how the live actors interact with the animations, seemingly directing, or being directed by, the animated illustrations.
Stylistically, there is a lot going on. Try to imagine characters from The Great Gatsby in a vintage Max Fleischer cartoon, having gone steampunk, trapped in a psychedelic Weimar cabaret, as conceived by Tim Burton with art direction by Peter Max and set design by Rube Goldberg. There are so many layers of allusions here, it is fun to peel the onion and get at what is underneath.
The production, with its obvious salutes to silent film, feels somehow European in its sensibility, and, indeed, the creative minds behind it are British. Dual directors Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky are English and Australian, respectively. The artist behind the graphics is Welshman Paul Barritt, who besides being an illustrator is a filmmaker and university lecturer in animation. Andrade and Barritt have collaborated for years under the auspices of the theater company they founded, known as 1927, experimenting mixing live music and performance with film and animation.
When Kosky, who was recently appointed intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin, viewed a clip of some of the 1927 animation work, he saw a possibility of a dynamic new way to present Mozart’s classic opera to German audiences for whom The Magic Flute is like mother’s milk. Perhaps adding to the challenge was the fact that 1927 had never done an opera before and was barely even aware that there existed a work called The Magic Flute. But Kosky’s intuition was correct: The world premiere last year in Berlin sold out its 13 performances in a matter of hours.
The imagery is just spectacular. Men “running” on giant wheels; flying pink elephants; swarms of butterflies in outer space; creepy shadow hands playing across a bed seen from bird’s eye perspective, but tilted up 90 degrees; a chorus line of werewolves doing the can-can. Recitative passages appear onscreen in a silent film style using projected “cards” with distinctive typefaces. Occasional German words like tugend (virtue) and weisheit (wisdom) appear on the scrim, alluding to the mystical Germanic roots of the opera.
The singers are all in pancake white face, and the characterizations and costuming dreamed up for them evoke a distinctly 1920s-era silent film vibe: Papageno looks like Buster Keaton; Pamina is a ringer for Louise Brooks; Monostatos, the ghoulish helper of the mysterious Sarastro, could have stepped out of the German silent film Nosferatu. His scene with a pack of animated snarling attack dogs pulling him along on a projected leash is indelible.
For me, the best character was the Queen of the Night. Played by Erika Miklosa, she appears high up on the scrim, presented as a giant mechanical spider. She is a magnificent and malevolent creature with enormous 15-foot-long articulated legs who traps the unfortunate in the webs she weaves. I happened to be sitting next to a young boy, and I could tell by the way he sat motionless on the edge of his seat that he was completely riveted by what he was seeing.
It’s not really a criticism, but with such a splendiferous visual display, the singers seemed at the mercy of the graphics and not vice-versa. I didn’t notice any shortcomings in the quality of the singers, but perhaps I was so distracted that I didn’t notice or care. Same for the orchestra.
For those who wonder whether opera is doomed to appeal mainly to an ever-shrinking class of superannuated dilettantes, this Magic Flute will seem like a beacon, leading the way forward to a new age and a new audience. I believe (and hope) we will be seeing more of this intoxicating potpourri of film, animation and traditional opera.
—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA
The Magic Flute continues through Dec. 15 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. For tickets or more information, call (213) 972-8001 or visit www.laopera.com.