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Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at Ithaca College

The Ithaca Times
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
By Patrick Valentino

Start with a dragon, a bird-man, an evil queen, helpful spirits, and the eternal quest for wisdom and enlightenment. Add copious vocal pyrotechnics, suspense, love, and humor, and the result is Mozart's fascinating and enduring final operatic masterpiece, "The Magic Flute." Ithaca College will present this pillar of the operatic repertoire in the Hoerner Theatre from February 24 to March 3.

The production is a departure from the already active and varied musical theatre schedule at the college, as this season director David Lefkowich and conductor Brian DeMaris decided to challenge the performers with a challenging, substantial, and well-known work. It will be a treat for the Ithaca audience, while raising the bar on the all-student cast and crew.

The opera, which more specifically is in the style of the German Singspiel (involving both sung and spoken text), tells the fantastical story of the brave but simple prince Tamino, who finds in trying to prove his love for Pamina that he must walk the path to his own enlightenment along the way. Pamina is held captive by Sarastro, whom Tamino initially believes to be an evil sorcerer. But during his trials Tamino discovers Sarastro actually lights the path of wisdom and truth.

Though a seemingly simple storyline, "The Magic Flute" remains an enigmatic work. "There's so many different ways to do it," DeMaris says, "that a creative person just hungers to see it their own way ... or their own five ways." Both the director and conductor must make many decisions for an effective production: How much should one emphasize (or de-emphasize) the Masonic elements in the plot and music? How will one make a story arc in an opera whose two acts seem to come from two different tales? And in the modern age, how does one address the issues of class and gender relations, which permeate, and at times date, the work?

One approach DeMaris and Lefkowich took was through the use of language. Although the work was written in German, the IC production will be presented in both English and German, though not the way one would think. Often times, operas are presented with their spoken dialogue and recitativo in the vernacular, and the choruses and arias in the original language. For this production, though, the use of language becomes an element of the overall theme of enlightenment. The characters outside Sarastro's temple of wisdom, in the Queen of the Night's kingdom of darkness and superstition, speak and sing in English, while those in the temple use German.

Lefkowich explained, "You have the world of Sarastro, which is this world of light and knowledge, contrasted with the insular, protected world of darkness which is the realm of the Queen of the Night." There is both a practical and an artistic reason for changing the language of most of the first act to English. "It was written as a piece for the people, not the aristocracy," says Lefkowich. "However, we're in America, so doing it in German seems the wrong decision, it felt too heavy and too removed from our present circumstances." Also, while English would be more readily understood by an American audience, since the opera was written in German, those musical numbers sung in the original language ironically have more a natural quality to them than those sung in the more familiar, but musically alien, English.

The production team has used other methods to delineate the light from darkness, the unenlightened from the wise. Said Lefkowich, "The set is a staircase, to show the ascent to the temple of wisdom. The queen and her characters are often seen descending it, while Sarastro and the priests are ascending it. Costume-wise, the world of the queen uses blues and blacks which symbolize night and shadows, and the objects we use are sharp and angular, which go with the music. In Sarastro's world, it's the opposite."

The opera contains some of the most well known tunes in the repertoire, including the Papageno's ‘hummed' aria (sung after his mouth was padlocked for uttering falsehood), the Queen of the Night's stratospheric aria, not to mention the famous overture. Conductor DeMaris muses, "Mozart is one of the hardest composers to sing, even though his writing informed vocal technique for generations. Mozart has such a specific style, and his operatic writing is the pinnacle of what he did stylistically. He was breaking his own musical boundaries, not to mention all the societal boundaries in terms of what stories and characters people saw on stage, and what they were saying about their society."

Social commentary was common in Mozart's operas, and The Magic Flute is no exception. DeMaris explained one striking example. In an opera which at first blush can seem to have themes of misogyny, "Schikaneder [the librettist] might have written the Masonic idea that the temple and the quest for wisdom would only include men, but the way Mozart has composed it - by putting the female chorus in the temple with the men, singing about freedom and enlightenment, I think makes a bold statement."

Both director and conductor got a twinkle in their eye when talking about the student cast a crew, and the experience of working at Ithaca College. DeMaris pointed out, "Our number one goal is to provide the students with an authentic educational experience. Everything is students - undergrads primarily - from the cast, to the backstage crew, to the people who tear your tickets."

Lefkowich agreed, "That's what I love about Ithaca College - students run the show. I've never seen another institution more dedicated to that. I have a whole network of people who I've worked with here, who are out in the real world, doing it, and I couldn't be more pleased. I know their integrity is high, their quality of work is incredible, and I trust them to make sure the product will be good, both here and in the professional world."

The Magic Flute opens on Friday, February 24, with a preview on February 22. For a complete performance schedule, please call 607-273-4497 or visit ithacaevents.com.
 



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