It is impossible to define great art, as part of what makes art great is its character of circumstance, subjectivity, and personal interpretation. However, there are qualities recognizable in certain pieces of art that help to convince us that they are parts of culture. One is timelessness—the ability for a painting or a selection of words to reach an audience long after the original strokes of composition were made across the page. The other is translation—the ability for a story or a piece of music to have power over audiences even after it has been subject to a new interpretation. The Vancouver Opera’s (VO) production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute proves to us, once again, that the great composer’s opera can transcend both time and culture, proving it to be an epic piece of art.
The VO originally put on their interpretation of The Magic Flute in 2007, and brought the production back for the 2013 season on Mar. 9, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 17. The VO’s version of the opera has been under construction since 2004, when General Director James Wright and Randy Smith, the Artistic Planner at the time, decided to create a new interpretation of Mozart’s masterpiece, fusing the European composition with traditional influences of Canadian First Nations people.
The nature of the opera’s story is a malleable one: a hero is on the quest to rescue his true love, and he discovers much about bravery, evil, and truth along the way. The fusion of the classic plotline with West Coast First Nations influences proves to be fitting and smooth. Tamino’s journey through old-growth forests and temperamental coastlines, searching for his Pamina with the help of the colourful Papageno is aided beautifully by allusions to First Nations culture.
The mesh of influences is handled carefully, and with great attention to accuracy and detail. Words from the Musqueam people’s language are incorporated into the dialogue—Tamino is referred to as “prince” in the traditional tongue—and as the actors were trained by language coaches from the Musqueam Nation and the references are incorporated smoothly into the story. The lyrics to the music are also customized to fit the new theme of the opera. Often Tomino and Pamina look to The Creator for guidance, and the great leader Sorastro often communicates with the Great Spirit through song.
West Coast First Nations culture is incorporated into the story through character and choreography as well. Spirits guide the heroes through the most difficult parts of their journeys, and Sorastro’s character is represented in the form of a tribal leader. Almost every musical sequence features dance routines that pair traditional First Nations movement with the classical music, resulting in a combination that is as fitting and fresh as the other cultural blends.
The costumes are epic pieces of art in themselves. Designers John Powell and Christine Reimer drew influences from nature, First Nations art, and traditional First Nations dress to create a detailed and historically rich set of outfits that are stunning, even from across the theatre. The costume construction team, headed by Parvin Mirhady, worked closely with the designers and incorporated textures and materials to authenticate the costumes. Each individual piece is unique and exquisite. The Queen of the Night’s giant wings of blues, blacks, and greens combine both peacock-tail and butterfly influences, commanding a regal attention that reflects upon her dark character, while Sorastro’s golden and brown layers are appropriate for his role as ruler of the light.
Performances are meticulous as well. Tenor John Tessier succeeds as the modest and heroic young Tomino, while Rachel Fenlon, soprano, who played Pamina during the Mar. 10 performance, is convincing as the innocent daughter and lost lover. Soprano, Teiya Kasahara commands the challenging role of the Queen of the Night, and Phillip Ens, bass, is fitting as the wise, noble Sorastro. However, it is baritone Joshua Hopkins who steals the show as Papageno. Hopkins’ ability to master the musical and dance sequences, deliver dialogue, and capture perfect comedic timing and stage presence makes him the most enjoyable character and the strongest member on stage.
However, the most powerful part of The VO’s The Magic Flute is the setting itself. High definition screens and projectors are used to truly transport the audience into the world of the production. The video sequences of stormy coastline serve as powerful reminders of the locality of the magical story. In forest scenes, screens are lowered and images of trees are projected to create a three-dimensional and legitimate feeling, proving the triumphant possibilities of advanced stage technology.
The production succeeds in seamlessly incorporating West Coast First Nations culture into the opera in terms of language, costume, and setting. And while the storyline is well balanced between the classic, Eurocentric tale and the new influences, the pacing suffers at the end of the production. The beginning opens with a beautiful film sequence of urban life in Vancouver, serving to transport audiences from the modern world outside the Queen Elizabeth Theatre into the mystical forests and waters of the Pacific Northwest as Tamino’s journey begins. However, the end of the opera feels rushed—Tamino and Pamina’s long-awaited unity and the defeat of the Queen of the Night are all suggested in the final scene, and the end of the opera does not have the gradual, transformative feel that is shared with the audience in the beginning.
Despite the unsatisfying ending, The VO’s The Magic Flute offers a creative, innovative, and visually eloquent interpretation of Mozart’s masterpiece. In every aspect, from song to set, the production is unique and strong, proving it to be a worthy adaptation of the great composer’s transcendent piece of art.