The Magic Flute: Impempe Yomlingo, Duke of York's Theatre, London

Mozart magic meets African brilliance
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This updating of The Magic Flute to South Africa offers such a miraculous glimpse into a possible musical future that it's hard to watch without a lump in the throat. It speaks directly out of the townships, yet it's entirely true to Mozart.

The performers draw the harmonies of the overture from a battery of unamplified marimbas, and they dance and sing their way through the story. Tamino's Masonic induction becomes a Xhosa boy's initiation rite; the musical mode shifts almost seamlessly to and fro between Vienna and Cape Town, as does the timbre of the singing.

One of the most astonishing things that director Mark Dornford-May reveals is that neither Mhlekazi Andy Mosiea, who deploys a beautiful sound as Tamino, nor anyone else in the cast has had formal Western-style conservatoire training. "All his training has been through choir networks. But if you sing in these from the age of seven or eight, and do established Western repertoire as well as traditional South African music, by the time you get to your early twenties your vocal development can be seriously good."

He's surprised and relieved at the show's success, after its 18-month gestation (it is transferring from the Young Vic): "We had no idea how people would react – we were, after all, playing about with one of the greatest pieces of music theatre ever written. But after our Carmen I felt we could go on a step, and replace the orchestra with an African sound, and this seemed the perfect piece with which to try it. It's all to do with reconciliation, which for South Africans one doesn't have to explain."

A film is on the cards, and the transfer will mercifully stay acoustic. "Though most of our audience may not realise this, the fact that it's natural unamplified sound communicates a sense of truth and immediacy, and that's what people react to. We've already taken a marimba and a couple of singers into the new theatre, and it sounds perfect."

By Michael Church

9 February to 12 April (0870 060 6623)