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All About the Magic

Cincinnati Opera offers a cinematic version of 'The Magic Flute'

By Anne Arenstein · July 27th, 2011 · Onstage
Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is a perfect point of entry for kids. There’s plenty of fantasy, a happy ending, no one dies and the music is sublime. But for director Tomer Zvulun, it’s all about the magic.

A member of the Metropolitan Opera’s directing staff, Zvulun has staged productions in Atlanta, Seattle, Cleveland, Dallas and for Indiana University. Flute was Zvulun’s first opera, but it wasn’t a live performance. Growing up in Israel, he studied acting and piano.

“I was a really unusual kid,” Zvulun says. “My obsession was film, and I was into (Ingmar) Bergman, (Federico) Fellini and (Alfred) Hitchcock. I was 16 when I saw Bergman’s film of The Magic Flute, and suddenly it all made sense.”

Mozart and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder created a Singspiel (musical numbers with spoken dialogue) that offered popular entertainment along with barely disguised allusions to both men’s esteemed Masonic ideals. The Queen of the Night enlists Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from her rival Sarastro. In short order, Tamino and Pamina fall in love and undergo a series of trials before initiation into the higher realms of being.

Although instruments get the magic started, Mozart’s utterly delightful score and characters like the bird catcher Papageno, his mate Papagena and a host of birds and animals are the opera’s true magical forces. When Zvulun first staged Flute for Indiana University, he returned to his experience with the Bergman film.

“Rather than getting bogged down in Masonic philosophy, I went back to the basics of the story, which is what Bergman does,” he says, alternating between Hebrew and English.

“What I want to do is bring the theatrical magic into this production.”

This is the third time Zvulun directs his production, most recently staged for Atlanta Opera in 2010. Whimsical set designs conjure the worlds of light and darkness, meshing childlike imagery with the color palette of Maxfield Parrish. The performers are joined by a large supporting cast of Technicolor puppets of birds and wild animals, manipulated by professional and first-time puppeteers.

“The inspiration for the puppets comes from contrasting Sarastro’s upper world with the one inhabited by Papageno,” Zvulun says. “He never catches the birds but they follow him around and help him to find Papagena.”

A giraffe, a flamingo and a porcupine are among the animals appearing in the first act.

“We made the puppets colorful to appeal to children, but I want to appeal not only to children but also to the child within,” he says, tapping his chest.

“It’s a complicated show in terms of special effects, and we’re not holding back on them,” he continues, noting that there will be “fire, water and a dragon. I designed it to be cinematic, with one scene following another, so you won’t be able to tweet until intermission.”

He plans to add some local color to the dialogue. Three-ways, Christian Moerlein and Kentucky Bourbon Ale are in the lineup.

Soprano Nicole Cabell sang Pamina in Atlanta, and Zvulun is delighted to work with her again, calling her “an incredible performer.” He has high praise for the rest of his cast that includes tenor Shawn Mathey, bass Owen Gradus, soprano Audrey Luna, baritone Brett Polegato and several CCM students and alumni. As for tenor Stephen Cole, Zvulun says, “What can I say? He’s going to steal the show.”

Despite the opera’s charm and magic, there’s a nasty undercurrent of racism and misogyny in the dialogue. The lofty Masonic ideals had no room for anyone who wasn’t a white Christian male.

“Personally, I hate it, although we can’t ignore the fact that those were the beliefs of the times, Zvulun says. “In the English dialogue, I tried to omit the offensive lines.”

Recently married, Zvulun adds, “On a personal and much higher level, women are smarter than men. Pamina tells Tamino that she will lead him through fire and water — and she does.”

Just as Bergman slips in an image of Mozart during the overture, Zvulun makes him a physical presence, appearing at the beginning and end of each act. It’s a fitting tribute to the maestros of cinematic and musical magic.

THE MAGIC FLUTE is presented by Cincinnati Opera at Music Hall 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call 513-241-2742. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.



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