Branagh unveils plans to bring 'The Magic Flute' to the cinema

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The Independent Culture

After working his box-office magic with William Shakespeare, Sir Kenneth Branagh is turning his attention to opera. The actor and director, who brought the Bard to the masses with his stirring Henry V and the star-filled Much Ado About Nothing, is to direct and possibly star in a big-screen version of Mozart's The Magic Flute, to be made in English.

Rehearsals and casting are due to start early next year after Branagh signed up to the project, which is being bankrolled by the arts philanthropist Sir Peter Moores. "It seems to me that The Magic Flute is the ideal opera to film in English which will appeal to a broad audience outside the opera house," Sir Peter said.

With its multitude of characters and complicated plot, The Magic Flute, which Mozart wrote in 1791, may seem a daunting proposal to turn into a film. But Sir Peter is convinced that Branagh will be able to put a modern spin on its themes of power, wisdom and beauty and hopes that the fantasy setting will give the director greater freedom of interpretation.

Despite its reputation for elitism, opera is playing to full houses across the country, having become popularised by the Three Tenors and Charlotte Church and by the increasing availability of high-quality recordings on CD and DVD.

Although ticket prices in the stalls can reach £120, these often subsidise the cheaper seats which sell at £10 or under.

"It is completely old-fashioned to think of opera as elite nowadays," said Antonia Couling of Opera Now magazine. "Performances are almost always sold out and there is a real cross-section of society."

Branagh's new departure may be the most recent and high-profile attempt to popularise opera but it is not the first. Attempts to bring opera to the screen by filming a stage production live have been unsuccessful. But critics liked Joseph Losey's film version of Don Giovanni in 1970 and a version of Tosca that was filmed on location in Rome and included black-and-white scenes of the orchestra setting up.

The contemporary standard has been set by the imaginative way in which Baz Luhrmann incorporated elements of La Traviata into the box-office success, Moulin Rouge, according to Ms Couling. "The Magic Flute is a good choice because you can put any interpretation on it and put it in any location," she said. "I was very impressed with Much Ado About Nothing [starring Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington and Michael Keaton] and if he shows the same imagination I think it will be a hit."

Moore's childhood passion that turned into a passionate charity

By Matthew Beard

Sir Peter Moores' interest in opera was sparked in his childhood by the music collection of his father, Sir John Moores, founder of the Littlewoods mail order and pools empire.

He worked as an administrator at Glyndebourne and became a production assistant at opera houses in Rome, Naples and Vienna.

Sir Peter, who was educated at Eton and Oxford, established his charity in 1964 with half of his inheritance. The Peter Moores Foundation has given more than £93m largely for projects in music and the arts but also for education, health and the environment.

One of its main achievements has been to improve access to opera through performances and recordings and funding scholarships and voice training. Already a philanthropist in his early twenties, he recognised and backed the talent of Dame Joan Sutherland, Sir Colin Davis and Sir Geraint Evans. The foundation has funded 80 recordings of operas, including the largest collection of operas in English translation and the performance of rarely heard works. "My aim is to open doors without pushing people through them" Sir Peter said yesterday.

Sir Peter backed the establishment in 1994 of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Gallery in Liverpool's Maritime Museum.