Magic Flute 2.0

The interesting thing about staging any opera is that you can virtually indulge in no lenience in the timings and details of what happens on stage. The music will go on, ruthlessly taking everything with it – improvisation, cuts and spontaneity are all impossible. This become even more complicated if you are staging an opera that everyone knows, like The Magic Flute. Yet Barrie Kosky, in his very special, exciting and highly successful production, manages to break up this stiffness of the operatic format. His production was recently at the Edinburgh Festival, having been in Berlin, Zurich, Düsseldorf and is now also going to Los Angeles.

This tour de force pays tribute to the fact that with his production Kosky created a stunning piece of art in its own right. This is mainly owed to the all-round visual entertainment in which the audience is indulged for a full three hours. The stage is non-existent and instead the actors stand inside and in front of a huge wall onto which the scenery – if that is the right word – is projected. Cigarette smoke turns into hearts, birds fly around, cats climb on trees and the people are running across rooftops at night, all animated in beautiful detail. 

This idea isn’t entirely novel but what sets Kosky apart is that while other directors have dared to enrich opera with video , Kosky turns the opera into video. The completely vertical perspective on the events as well as the holistic visual integration of the singers into the animations around them can make us forget that we are sitting in an opera house rather than a cinema. 

“Bored shitless” is how Kosky described his own first experience of The Magic Flute as a child. So it seems no wonder that in his own production he set everything on one card: enticing and invigorating entertainment. Everyone appreciative of the greatness of Mozart’s music will struggle to settle the conflict between ears and eyes Kosky kindles in his production. This is all embedded within a powerful and fast-paced way of narrating the story, which is mainly due to radical cuts in the libretto: Kosky and his team show us that the extensive spoken dialogues in Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto can be reduced to a few lines projected on stage, stylistically mid-way between a comic book and a silent film. As if the audience could not survive without constant auditory and visual entertainment, piano music is layered under the short intervals of projected dialogue, where Mozart’s original score would have the music come to a halt.

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Kosky takes a deliberate stand against the common trope of the characters’ path of self-chastising tests in their pursuit of greater happiness. Mozart might have meant this happiness to be the values of freemasonry. But despite the recurring projection of words such as ‘Wisdom’, ‘Truth’, and ‘Beauty’, this development arc is not what Kosky’s flute is fundamentally about. Rather it is about human indulgence in beauty, which the characters find in the love they procure. We, the audience, find this beauty in an opera experience that unites some of the most beautiful music ever written with the purest indulgence in a sea of exquisite details, heartwarming animations and highly romantic peaks. This might not be what the grey-besuited opera lover would love to see done to his all-time favourite; but it might just be what opera needs today – to be fun again!