Although Mozart’s fairy-tale opera The Magic Flute overflows with invention and whimsy, two particular elements stand out: pictures and silence. Early in the first act, a handheld portrait of the princess Pamina causes the heroic prince Tamino to fall instantly in love; he sings a tender aria to her image, setting the plot in motion. As for silence, the bird-catcher Papageno fibs and has a padlock snapped on his mouth by the Three Ladies. Later, Tamino and Papageno are twice told to remain quiet in order to gain their hearts’ desires. Put the motifs together and you get silent pictures—the early celluloid aesthetic that informs an astonishing staging coming to the Mostly Mozart Festival July 17–20.
The brainchild of Australian director Barrie Kosky, head of Komische Oper Berlin, and Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt of the English theater company 1927, this Magic Flute is unlike any you have seen before. Rather than taking place in a three-dimensional world of giant serpents, castles, and forest animals, the production positions actors before and around a stage-filling projection screen. The screen becomes the eye-popping canvas for filmmaker Barritt’s surreal, hand-drawn animations, with which the singers interact. Cast and crew have 900 live cues through which they tell the story of two much-tested young lovers, the vengeful Queen of the Night, and the mysterious Sarastro. Costumes and makeup reference the 1920s—everything from early motion pictures to Weimar cabaret to German Expressionism. The uncanny blend of humans and digital spectacle is like watching a living cartoon.
How did this remarkable project come about? Kosky happened to attend 1927’s show Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which also featured performers interacting with projections. (Lincoln Center audiences will remember the troupe’s ingenious, satirical Golem from 2016.) “Within minutes,” Kosky says in an interview with dramaturg Ulrich Lenz, “this strange mixture of silent film and music hall had convinced me that these people had to do The Magic Flute with me in Berlin!”
Taking their primary cue from Hollywood silent film, Kosky and his collaborators quickly found visual analogues for the principal characters. Pamina bears a distinct resemblance to film star Louise Brooks. Papageno is a silent clown in the Buster Keaton mold (audiences can see The Great Buster: A Celebration, a documentary about the star, on July 16). Sarastro’s professorial look was influenced by French film director Georges Méliès. And the villainous Monostatos looks just like the vampire Nosferatu.
But it’s not all cinematic iconography. The Queen of the Night, for example, is rendered as a towering spider-skeleton. The goal is not an apples-to-apples illustration of the 1791 opera, but an excavation of its psychic depths and cultural resonances. “We don’t do a theater piece with added movies,” co-director Andrade tells Lenz. “Everything goes hand in hand. Our shows evoke the world of dreams and nightmares, with aesthetics that hearken back to the world of silent film.”
Paul Barritt expands on that, pointing out that the cultural references are not just filmic. “We take our visual inspiration from many eras, from the copper engravings of the 18th century as well as in comics of today,” he says. “The important thing is that the image fits.” As an example, he points to Papageno’s aria “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen” (“A Girl or Little Wife”) in Act II. According to the libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, Papageno is served a glass of wine. “We let him have a drink, but it isn’t wine,” Barritt says. “It’s a pink cocktail from a giant cocktail glass, and Suzanne had the idea that he would start to see pink elephants flying around him. Of course, the most famous of all flying elephants was Dumbo—from the 1940s—but the actual year isn’t important as long as everything comes together visually.”
Clearly, the fanciful, ever-shifting nature of The Magic Flute lets the creative team revel in the liberating aspects of multimedia. “Basically, we have a hundred stage sets in which things happen that normally aren’t possible onstage,” Kosky says. “Flying elephants, flutes trailing notes, bells as showgirls. We can fly up to the stars and then ride an elevator to hell, all within a few minutes.”
In case you’re worried about overstimulation—between Mozart’s heavenly music and the acres of animation, Kosky also values pulling back. “There are also moments when the singers are in a simple white spotlight,” he says. “And suddenly there’s only the music, the text, and the character. The very simplicity makes these perhaps the most touching moments of the evening.”
Apart from the unique visual world of the production, there is another notable change: Schikaneder’s dialogue is not spoken, but projected via intertitles, as in silent movies. As for the work’s cryptic Masonic symbolism (Mozart and Schikaneder were ardent Freemasons), the creative team have gently de-emphasized that aspect in favor of Tinseltown relatability.
Anyone who knows the early days of film knows that the medium was handmade, whimsical, still a bit magical and strange. Somewhat like The Magic Flute. That’s as it should be, director Kosky believes. “Any attempt to interpret the piece in only one way is bound to fail,” the director cautions. “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.”
David Cote is Content Coordinator for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. He’s also an arts journalist, opera librettist, and playwright.