Playing to a different tune

'The Magic Flute' - opera, panto or sacred rite? Nick Kimberley looks at three new stagings that offer rival readings of Mozart's problem piece
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The Independent Culture
What kind of an opera is Mozart's The Magic Flute? Is it masonic propaganda, artfully revealing while concealing the procedures of freemasonry with which both Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were closely associated? Is it an opera-a-clef, in which the dashing hero Tamino represents the emperor Joseph II, and the star-flaming Queen of the Night is a thinly veiled caricature of his mother, Maria Theresa, a Catholic responsible for banning the masonic brotherhood? Is it, as Nicholas Till suggests in his 1992 study Mozart and the Enlightenment, the kind of rite-of-passage story present in every culture, complete with rejection of the mother (the Queen of the Night) and recognition of the father-creator (Sarastro)? Does it botch the narrative, changing its mind a third of the way through about who is good and who is evil? Or is it simply a fairy-tale for children of all ages, as Ingmar Bergman seems to be suggesting, in his film of the opera, by repeatedly turning his camera upon an audience of grinning innocents?

These views are not mutually exclusive, of course, and it's characteristic of The Magic Flute that it willingly embraces all these possibilities, and more besides. Some companies refuse to touch it, seeing its masonic sympathies as anti-Christian; others stage it as a thoroughgoing masonic ritual, complete with shortened trouser-legs and arcane handshakes. Now, three new productions hope to reveal fresh facets of the Flute. For British Youth Opera, Stuart Maunder directs a full-scale (if low-budget) staging with complete cast, orchestra and chorus, not to mention a central role for certain puppets. David Freeman's Opera Factory production reduces the orchestra and the cast, the whole show taking place in a circus ring. Then, in Sarah V Chew's staging for Porpoise Productions, the orchestra has been replaced by one keyboard and a computer, the plot has been thoroughly modernised, the libretto reduced so that the piece runs for only half its normal span, and the music has been rearranged, with new words, for non-operatic singers. The piece even has a different title: Forbidden Flute.

For Freeman and Chew, reducing forces is partly a financial necessity; but, says Freeman, it's something more besides: "In our production, the principals take the role of the chorus, and there is a lot of doubling. But such constraints are helpful, they make the piece more theatrical. Sarastro becomes the Speaker, for example, and it helps Sarastro's character enormously to have more to say. There's a circus ring, and there are moments when characters do circus-like things: Papageno and Monostatos are clowns at some level, and in a certain sense Sarastro is a lion-tamer. But the circus ring is a concrete place in which to play the piece, it's not a naturalistic solution."

Some will see this as wilful tampering. Freeman insists that reducing the cast brings positive advantages: "A theatre event is always a journey with a number of people, and anybody who is on stage and doesn't understand the journey is undermining it. If you follow every little structural detail, every stage direction that Mozart and Schikaneder put there, you don't actually get closer to the piece. You end up with a travelogue, a magical mystery tour: 'Here's another magical set to look at'. But the extraordinary very quickly becomes ordinary."

Few aspects of the opera have been subjected to such close scrutiny as its masonic infrastructure, built on multiple verbal, visual and musical signs and symbols. Surprisingly, perhaps, Stuart Maunder's British Youth Opera production sweeps much of that aside: "I have deliberately moved away from any masonic implications. We try to present the opera as Tamino's Big Adventure Book for Boys without giving it a gloss of religiosity or filling it with silly rituals which rob the piece of its humanity. This, as much as The Marriage of Figaro, is a very human piece. For me, the work's credo lies in the perfect union of man and woman, a union which takes them to a higher level. If I can take the audience through Tamino and Pamina's journey, then it has worked. For all the masonic motifs, you could see it as an anti-masonic piece. We're talking about a sect in a kind of Waco compound, a secret society that has ossified, and Sarastro is the person who will lead it forward. In a way everything that Sarastro does, goes against the order. For me, he's a full-blooded visionary who, at the start of Act 2, is fighting for his political life in order to change things."

"I don't think you've got a chance of doing the opera if you ignore its masonic side," insists Freeman. Yet his views otherwise echo Maunder's rather closely: "You have to translate it into humanity, rather than dead symbols. This is a piece that uses a great deal of masonic symbolism, but which also does many un-masonic things. Although Mozart and Schikaneder believe in the masons as a spiritual alternative to dogmatic religion, they are saying,'No life without women. Don't be exclusive, be inclusive.' People say it's misogynistic, but I don't find that convincing. Even though misogynistic things are said during the opera, they don't amount to a misogynistic message."

Sarah V Chew, on the contrary, firmly asserts that the opera is "sexist, racist, every 'ist' you can possibly name, and I hope that there's something in our show that brings that to light in an amusing way". Her version, which has just played the Edinburgh Festival en route to London, moves further still from opera house conventions. As she explains, "It's a devised piece, telling the same story as Mozart's opera, but in our show Papageno, for example, is no longer a bird-catcher, he's the Queen of the Night's official soap-opera watcher, with a video collection of which he's very proud. The situations have been changed, but the characters, and the way they react to each other, don't change. Our Papageno is the same obsessive character as the original."

If funds had been available, Chew would have gone further still: "My ideal would have been to have done it as music hall, with perhaps three acts interspersed with comics, bands, jugglers: a celebration of all the performing arts. The opera was written much more as a vaudeville, a comedy revue, than as the serious grand opera we're used to. The Queen of the Night would have had to hit those top notes night after night for a year, so we guess that the quality of the singing would have been very different from what we get now. Our performers are actors and comics, rather than primarily singers, although our Queen, Atalanta Harmsworth, has sung at Ronnie Scott's. Each song in the show is loosely based on a Mozart theme, but we wanted a musical style rather like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a pastiche of different musical styles."

The Magic Flute teeters on the cusp between Enlightenment and Romanticism, a position our era readily recognises. That's one reason why the opera fascinates and infuriates. However it is staged, a successful production acknowledges light as well as dark. Certainly that is what Stuart Maunder hopes: "We're not going for panto, but you have to highlight both sides of the opera. What we have tried to do is set out a logical Flute, with a fairy-tale feel. It takes place somewhere where you can believe in serpents and magic. In the end, it's almost in Star Wars territory: the struggle between Good and Evil."

n British Youth Opera's 'The Magic Flute' is at the Wimbledon Theatre, London SW19, 3, 5, 7 Sept (0181-540 0362), and at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 10, 13 Sept (0131-529 6000). Opera Factory's 'The Magic Flute' is at QEH, London SE1, 4, 6, 8, 11, 13, 15, 18, 20 Sept (0171-960 4242), then touring. 'Forbidden Flute' is at Riverside Studios, London W6, 9-21 Sept (0181- 748 3354)