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A new ‘Magic’ for Mozart’s opera

by Rick Schultz

November 20, 2013 | 3:55 pm

Barrie Kosky

Barrie Kosky

Opera director Barrie Kosky didn’t like Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” when he first saw it at age 10. Mozart’s Singspiel — a genre of opera characterized by spoken dialogue, along with singing — was a big hit in 1791, and the composer himself goofed around on stage during some of the performances. Ideally, given its broad comedy and fantastical characters, the opera should be able to engage kids.

“I have been attending opera since I was 7 years old,” Kosky, artistic director of the experimental Komische Oper, said from Berlin, where he was preparing a new German production of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” for the company. But “The Magic Flute” didn’t appeal, Kosky said. “I found it boring and not funny.”

Now 46, Kosky said he came to appreciate the opera as he got older, which led him to explore fresh ways of conjuring its magic for a new generation — a magic that, for him, had been tamped down by an awkward and talky libretto. 

Kosky began by cutting all of the dialogue, reconfiguring his production by using elements drawn from silent film. “The Magic Flute,” which premiered last spring to sold-out audiences at the Komische Oper Berlin, will have its American premiere at the L.A. Opera on Nov. 23. The five evening and two matinee performances run through Dec. 15 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Kosky’s idea to reimagine the opera crystallized after he attended a performance by the alternative British theater company called 1927 — its name comes from the year of “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature-length talking picture. 1927 was co-founded in 2005 by director Suzanne Andrade and animator Paul Barritt and proved the perfect company to help develop Kosky’s silent film concept for “The Magic Flute.”

“Their work is witty, weird, grotesque, childish, profound and deeply moving,” Kosky said. “Like the opera.”

While Kosky was in Berlin shepherding “West Side Story” to its Nov. 24 opening — (he’s scheduled to attend the final matinee performance of “Flute” here) — Andrade has directed the Los Angeles rehearsals of “The Magic Flute.”

“His style is different from ours, but we shared a sense of humor — slightly dark and a bit silly,” Andrade said of Kosky during a rehearsal break. “And we were all into cartoons and silent films, which really helped.”

After agreeing to work on “The Magic Flute,” Andrade found she had second thoughts. “I watched a YouTube video of the Papageno-Papagena Duet done traditionally in a bird outfit and thought, ‘What have we agreed to do here?’ It was so hammy and awful. But these moments kept pushing us to come up with good ideas.”

Andrade said they were careful not to be too campy, silly or dark. “We didn’t impose our own vision on it,” she said. “We let it come from the music, characters and story. We borrowed heavily from early animation, comic books and graphic novels. Kids will love it because there’s such an element of spectacle.” 

For example, the Queen of the Night (coloratura soprano Erika Miklósa) is portrayed as a huge angry spider.

Andrade added that using classic Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin gags also helps keep this “Flute” afloat. “But it’s done stylishly and as simply as possible,” she said. “They’re universal. One of the things Barrie said to us was, ‘I want this production to be loved by 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds.’ That was the challenge he set for us.”

The cast also faced its own challenges. For instance, the spoken dialogue is replaced with projected titles of text and colorful, inventive animations that force the singers to freeze and hold poses. 

“As an opera singer, we’re trained to tell the story not only with our voices, but also with our entire bodies,” soprano Janai Brugger, who plays Pamina, said. “Since a lot of the film animation is helping to tell the story, as well, you want to be synchronized with what’s happening behind you on the screen.”

For tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who portrays Tamino, holding poses has been a fun part of Kosky’s unorthodox version of “Flute.” “My background includes working at an amusement park for several years as a singer and dancer,” Brownlee said, “so there were times we had to strike poses or use our body in certain ways.”

Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera’s president and CEO, said James Conlon, the company’s music director, was charmed by Kosky’s Berlin production. The score remains complete, with additional excerpts from two of Mozart’s Fantasias for Piano — K.475 and K.397 — used as interludes. Only a duet between two priests, about four pages, was cut from the Mozart original.

Koelsch said the awkward dialogue in traditional productions has always been the opera’s Achilles heel. But Kosky’s and 1927’s inventive and sensitive streamlining may make this a “Magic Flute” for people who think they don’t like “The Magic Flute.” 

“Sometimes when you get into the second act, you can lose the forest for the trees,” Koelsch said, “but this production is so fleet of foot that people can’t believe how fast it goes by.”

Kosky, who was born in Melbourne, said his parents “always supported my love of music and theater.” He added: “There is a huge Jewish population in Australia. It’s not the South Pole.” 

For Kosky, risk is part of the fun of being an opera director. Before he became artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin, he presented controversial shows in Australia, like “The Operated Jew” at the Gilgul Theater Company, which he founded. 

“ ‘The Operated Jew’ was a vaudeville show exploring the theme of how the Jewish body manifests itself through Jewish self-hatred and anti-Semitism,” Kosky said. “I did a version of it in Vienna, home of Jewish self-hatred!”

Kosky’s Komische Oper plans include programming little-seen operettas by early 20th century Jewish composers, including Kurt Weill’s “Der Kuhhandel” and Paul Abraham’s “Ball im Savoy.” 

“I can do anything I like at the Komische Opera,” Kosky said. “It is a fantastic playpen for me and my team. I would love to rework ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ sometime.” 

“The Magic Flute” runs Nov. 23 to Dec. 15. For more information, call (213) 972-8001 or visit LAOpera.com/tickets.

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