African Traditions and European Expectations: “The Magic Flute”

Presented by ArtsEmerson
Performed by the Isango Ensemble

Based on the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and libretto in German by Emanuel Schikaneder

Adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May
Music Arranged by Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis

November 6 – 10, 2019
Open Caption Performance: Sun, November 10, 2PM
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
Boston, MA

The Magic Flute is performed in English, Xhosa, Zulu and Tswana

Review by Kitty Drexel 

(Boston, MA) This weekend the Isango Ensemble returns to Boston for a weekend of performances of The Magic Flute. It is an exceptional performance of a classic, beloved opera. They overhaul Mozart’s composition by obliterating the standards of white, European traditions. Their production instead incorporates indigenous African performance traditions of dance, music, and storytelling. It’s a pleasant culture shock to the senses. 

Isango Ensemble’s production exceeds expectations and dashes them at the same time. In this production, an operatic style of singing is used by many of the lead performers. But, unlike traditionally European opera, the operatic singing style is one of the many tools Isango Ensemble uses to tell their story. It isn’t the only singing style used in their performance. They have incorporated contemporary pop belting, du wop harmonies, and straight tone. One should not judge Isango’s performance choices by European standards.  

There is a great deal being said in the opera world by its leaders about diversity and accessibility. Some of the chatter is positive: non-binary and trans vocalists are singing roles suited for their vocal ranges, not just their appearances. Opera’s surplus of female-identifying vocalists is being honored with non-traditional casting in roles previously designated for men. This is good! Some of the chatter is not good: color-blind casting in a whiter than white performance genre is still the default. Casting crews and vocalists are arguing that it’s better for white people to tell the stories of people of color than to not tell them at all. They are wrong. 

Color-blind casting, when it benefits white people, is racist and at least twenty years out-of-date. Casting requisites for theatre and dance now include race, ability, and identity in addition to a role’s other needs. These policies let people of color tell their own stories. Othello is only played by a Black man. A play about traditional Japanese fairytales is cast with people of Japanese first. It is understood that a theatre company should to select another play if they can’t find the correct artists to perform the roles (this includes people of the correct race). Anything less is appropriation. 

A frequent defense of racist casting is universality. Universality in the theatre is understood to mean that the themes and morals in a play have greater application than the play itself. Unfortunately, many a racist casting decision has been made in the name of universality. True universality means that a play like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman can be played by non-binary, Mexican-Ameican little people and still teach neo-nazis from West Virginia about identity issues during times of change. It doesn’t mean white people can cast themselves in an opera set in India because it’s inconvenient to find Indian opera singers.  

Universality is taking an opera like Mozart’s The Magic Flute and adapting it for the non-European gaze. The Isango Ensemble modified The Magic Flute for eight marimbas, a mixed-choir, and found percussion instruments. Mozart’s story is largely untouched albeit reduced. Changes include the elimination of Pamina’s aria “Ach, Ich fühl’s,” cutting of the scenes between the mysterious woman and Papageno, adaptation of most all characters’ arias to incorporate ensemble singing, and the three child-spirits are played by adult women.  Most importantly, the message of The Magic Flute remains: a person who sacrifices immediate personal gain to celebrate virtue, wisdom, and truth is rewarded with enlightenment. 

Isango Ensemble tells the story of The Magic Flute by referencing Tsonga myth. A helpful note in the ArtsEmerson program by director Mark Dornford-May explains the application of the Tsongan lightning mythology this way. 

“Lightning is caused by birds called the ndlati. These birds, with their multicolored plumage, live in the high mountains. When a storm is brewing, they fly towards heaven and then dive out of the clouds towards earth, striking a tree, a house or a person, causing death and fire in the middle of rain. The only way to prevent this bird from causing destruction is to find someone brave enough to climb into the mountains as the storm is breaking. Once they have climbed high enough, they are to play on an enchanted flute. The sound of this flute will force the birds to spare the musician and his immediate community.” 

Donford-May said in the program that he wonders if Mozart knew of the ndlati myth because it is so similar to the Magic Flute story. In Mozart’s opera, a handsome hero named Tamino is given a magic flute by the Queen of the Night to rescue her beautiful daughter Pamina. The flute has the power to turn evil magic into good. Pamina has been kidnapped by the evil sorcerer Sarastro. Tamino falls in love with an image of Pamina and promises to rescue her. He and Papageno begin their quest. 

With the help of three spirits, Tamino and Papageno meet Sarastro who promises to unite Tamino with Pamina if he and Papageno complete three trials: silence/isolation, fire and water. The trials will prove their virtue. Papageno fails utterly. Tamino and Pamina complete the trials together with the help of the magic flute. All are rewarded for their efforts. The opera ends happily. 

Among the many surprises of the evening was a new musical interpretation of the Queen of the Night. Isango Ensemble transposed the Queen’s coloratura arias down to better suit the instrument of dramatic soprano Nontsusa Louw. Mozart originally composed the Queen’s arias for his sister-in-law Josepha Hofer in 1791. Hofer’s flexible voice with an extensive upper register was an anomaly of the times. Even today, it is unusual for sopranos to have such great elasticity in their highest notes. That Mozart wrote such a difficult aria for a specific voice tells vocalists who study opera that the Queen’s arias are not to be undertaken by just anyone. These arias require a specific type of voice to be sung without damaging the artist.  

The Magic Flute – Queen of the Night aria (Diana Damrau giving an exceptionally strident performance, The Royal Opera)

“O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” is the Queen’s first aria in the Magic Flute. It introduces the Queen to the world of the opera. In it. the Queen requests that Tamino save her kidnapped daughter. If he rescues Pamina from Sarastro, Tamino and Pamina will be together forever. This is the least difficult of the Queen’s two arias. Nontsusa Louw sings it with acute drama. Her storytelling has the audience on the edge of its seat with attention. 

Operatic circles know the Queen’s act two aria, “Der Hölle Rache,” as one of the most difficult arias in classical music to sing well. It demands a vocalist have virtuosic singing technique, a commanding stage presence and, above all, the ability to sing above a full orchestra. The aria has a range of two full octaves, has a high tessitura (a range of notes in which a voice presents its best-sounding tone quality), and brief, swiftly moving notes in the musical stratosphere. Vocalists can study the coloratura (a vocal category which specializes in elaborate ornamentation of a melody; frequently women but not always) opera technique for years and never master this aria. 

In addition to strong technique, a singer must have the acting chops to communicate unmitigated rage: the Queen sings this aria to because she demands revenge against Sarastro. She says that Sarastro stole her temple, leaving her powerless. She orders a terrified Pamina, her daughter, to kill Sarastro or be forever estranged. Combine the dramatic demands with the vocal demands, and this aria becomes a rigorous test for any coloratura soprano’s abilities.

Isango Ensemble’s transposition of the aria to Louw’s range was not enough to make it singable. Nontsusa Louw has a powerful, rich dramatic soprano voice. It has the weight necessary to reach the far corners of the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre without a microphone. 

 Louw struggled with the aria on Wednesday night because Mozart did not compose this aria for a dramatic voice. He composed it for a coloratura. The nimble, light quickness required for “Der Hölle Rache,” even in a lower key, is strenuous for a voice like Louw’s. Louw fought mightily with Mozart’s music meant for another voice but the music won.  

 Isango Ensemble’s production of The Magic Flute puts emphasis on storytelling above all other crafts that make up the production. The entire ensemble takes a turn playing the marimbas (memorized no less), providing percussion or dancing. Cast leads are as responsible for ensemble singing as other roles.  Everyone is as necessary as everyone else. The Magic Flute isn’t a pretty sounding as an opera performed in the European tradition but it is a lot more interesting.

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