The Alchemy Of 'The Magic Flute'

Thomas Dolie as Papageno and actor William Nadylam in Peter Brook's 'A Magic Flute.' i i

Thomas Dolie as Papageno and actor William Nadylam in Peter Brook's 'A Magic Flute.' Stephanie Berger/courtesy of Lincoln Center hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie Berger/courtesy of Lincoln Center
Thomas Dolie as Papageno and actor William Nadylam in Peter Brook's 'A Magic Flute.'

Thomas Dolie as Papageno and actor William Nadylam in Peter Brook's 'A Magic Flute.'

Stephanie Berger/courtesy of Lincoln Center

There's a quite telling moment near the beginning of A Magic Flute, the new adaptation of Mozart's opera directed by theater legend Peter Brook that is now up in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

In the midst of Pappageno's introductory aria, "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja," Prince Tamino starts singing along. "Oh, so you know this aria?" says Pappageno in an spoken aside. It's a knowing joke with the audience. Of course Tamino knows this little ditty; we all do.

Even — or especially — given such familiarity, few operas have proved as alluring to creative directors as The Magic Flute, especially those who usually work in theater or film. Perhaps that's because this opera — Mozart's last, which premiered only three months before his death at age 35 — is a singspiel, a "song-play" that intersperses speech with music, and is thus less forbidding to directors used to working with actors rather than singers.

In this deeply provocative Brook production, the Magic Flute is reshaped from the ground up. What we get in A Magic Flute is a show stripped of all frippery, from costuming to Masonic metaphysics. The only props are bamboo poles. The cast is whittled down to just seven characters. The three spirit boys and the three ladies are gone; instead, there are two unnamed actors — "magicians," Brook has called them in interviews — who function by turn as guiding spirits, consciences and slaves as well as stagehands.

Even the orchestra is gone, replaced by a single pianist faced with a herculean task. Brook and his team create a musical pastiche of sorts by mixing in other Mozart works, including the slow-movement theme to the Piano Concerto No. 27 and a song, "Die Alte," which they give to Pappagena disguised as an old hag. You can learn more about Brook's retelling in a piece by my colleague, Jeff Lunden.

Lincoln Center/YouTube

Peter Brook's 'Magic Flute' at Lincoln Center, 2011.

But what is it about The Magic Flute in particular that creates such a draw for artists who normally dwell far from the opera house?

There's the Bollywood-esque overdrive of Kenneth Branaugh's 2006 film adaptation, set during World War I and complete with pouring rainstorms and flying nuns:

theorah/YouTube

Kenneth Branaugh's 'Magic Flute' from 2006.

Or Ingmar Bergman's famous, atypically playful and cheery adaptation for Swedish television in 1975, with Håkan Hagegård as Papageno:

GCCgal/YouTube

Ingmar Bergman's 1975 television production of 'The Magic Flute.'

And William Kentridge's 2005 staging, which recasts the tale as a meditation on colonialism throug the director's multilayered mix of elements:

art21org/YouTube

William Kentridge's 2005 production of 'The Magic Flute.'

And Julie Taymor's (pre-Spiderman) charming puppetry extravaganza for the Metropolitan Opera that premiered in 2004:

Metropolitan Opera/YouTube

Julie Taymor's 'Magic Flute,' originally staged in 2004.

The list goes on and on. But what is it about this work in particular that makes it such a draw? I think it's because it's a piece that — thanks to the essential genius of Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder — works on a whole host of levels. There's the childlike fairy tale of two couples finding true love with the aid of some good old-fashioned magic. This makes The Magic Flute so popular for children's and local-language adaptations; even Bergman made his production entirely in Swedish.

But there are other, weightier aspects as well. There's the metaphysically oriented narrative about the dualities of light vs. dark and good vs. evil with a bunch of Masonic references thrown in. One can also interpret the foundation as a lightly hooded exaltation of the triumph of rationalism, led by the benevolent ruler Sarastro. (The Magic Flute was written in 1791, just around the start of the French Revolution.)

Brook, who is now 86 years old, says that A Magic Flute is his final production for Paris' Bouffes du Nord theater, where he has been artistic head for the past 36 years and which co-produced this staging with the Lincoln Center Festival. According to Brook, he and his collaborators "listened to the music we knew, looked at the libretto we knew and tried to make one distinction between what has accumulated, not only by tradition and practice, but what were the sacrifices directly in the period that both Mozart and Schikaneder had to make, quite rightly, as practical people, to the taste of their time."

Is The Magic Flute so sturdy a work that it can withstand all kinds of tinkering — and Brook's assertion that Mozart and Schikaneder had to make certain adaptations themselves? And what's the most successful production of The Magic Flute you've seen? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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