Vancouver Opera's Magic Flute: A journey between cultures to infinity and beyond

Vancouver Opera's Magic Flute: A journey between First Nations  and Western cultures… to infinity and beyond

The Magic Flute – W.A. Mozart
Vancouver Opera
January 27, 30 – 2007
February 1, 3, 6, 8 – 2007
Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver BC
Director –  Robert McQueen
Conductor – Derrick Inouye
reviewed on Tuesday, January 30

Why would Vancouver Opera take a perfectly good Mozart opera and spend
it's largest single event budget to try to give it a First Nations

Why would Vancouver Opera consult with First Nations artists to create
costumes and dances and set designs reflective of First Nations art and
culture, when the Magic Flute was a 1791 production set in a faraway
land, filled with Mozart's newly learned knowledge of Free Masonry and Masonic rituals?

The real question is not simply “why not?” but rather “Why hasn't something like this been done before?”

All the pre-event buzz of a First Nations Magic Flute was worth
it.  All the endless rounds of community and cultural
consultations working with the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council, was thorough on every level.  All the Where Cultures Meet
public presentation/forum events at the Vancouver Public Library and the Chan Centre peaked
people's interest and challenged their notions of opera and culture.  I reviewed the November 8th event
Can Cultures Merge?
James Wright, general director for Vancouver Opera, has been making
the company more representative and responsible for the community,
history and culture of Vancouver.  In 2005, “Naomi's Road” debuted
as a 45 minute opera for schools.  It was based on the children's
novel version of Joy Kogawa's award winning novel “Obasan” which told
the story of the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WW2. 
This was only the 2nd original commission in the Vancouver Opera's
history, following The Architect (1994). 

Last fall the Vancouver Opera's Touring Ensemble revealed their 45
minute version of Mozart's Magic Flute. The normally 3 hour long opera
underwent a radical adaptation to become a First Nations story about a
young man who must prove his worthiness to his father, Sarastro, by
finding the “box of shadows” from T'sonokwa, the Wild Woman of the
Woods.  Along the way he meets bird catcher Papageno, and the
beautiful Pamina who are also on their own quests to find love and
family.  A complex Mozart opera became a delightful opera about
the value of family and community.  I loved it immediately when I
saw it performed at the Vancouver Academy of Music in December.

And now the full-length version embraces First Nations culture, while
staying true to original storylines.  A long creative process saw
collaboration and mentorship between First Nations cultural consultants
and artists with the opera company.  Similarties were found in
Mozart's opera between the Masonic spiritual rituals and First Nations
mythology and spiritual values.  An opera representatively set on
the Pacific Coast with a multicultural cast has emerged from the
swirling mists.  Vancouver Opera opened a box of possibilities and
and now give mainstream culture a taste of what has been happening on
the Vancouver cultural arts scene for years on a much smaller and
edgier scale.  This is a rich and worthy project and deserves to
be seen.

Before the opera began on Tuesday night, Chief Leonard George of the
Nation (Burrard Band of the Squamish Nation) came out to welcome the
audience to traditional Salish/Squamish lands, and spoke about the
collaboration between Vancouver Opera and First Nations peoples in
creating this production of Magic Flute.  He stated that it was
wonderful that the high culture of of First Nations is now recognized
as  equal with the high culture European opera.  The son of
the late
Chief Dan George, he is also an actor and film consultant as well as a
lecturer,  and First Nations traditional singer and dancer. 
Beating on a hand drum, Chief Leonard George sang a song that helped
prepare the audience for the special cultural journey for the evening.

The overture opens with a film projected onto the vast scrim of the
Queen Elizabeth Theatre.  Images of urban street scenes of
buildings, alleys and cars give way to forest trees and ocean lapped
rocky shores.  This high tech staging device helps to transport
the audience from the traffic hassles of parking the car on the same
night as a Vancouver Canucks hockey game, into the anticipated world of
the First Nations Mozart opera.  And maybe this also explains why
the main characters Tamino and Pamina are wearing contemporary style
clothes, as they too are transported from the contemporary into this
brave new, yet ancient
world.  There are 70 amazing individually designed costumes by
John Powell and Christine Reimer, which provide lots of “ohh factor” for
this production.

In the original Magic Flute production, Tamino is an Italian
prince, attacked by a sea serpent,
before being cast up on the shores of Egypt (spiritual birthplace of
Masonry).  Now he is a First Nations man of noble heritage, who is
attacked by a double
headed First Nations serpent, and landed on the rocky coastline of
the  Coast Salish forest. Phillipe Castagner is a splendid Tamino,
of self-determined
bearing and strength of will and song.

prone Tamino is discovered by Three Ladies, attendants of the Queen
of the Night who killed the sea serpent to save him.   The
Third Lady is played by mezzo-soprano Marion Newman of
Kwakwaka'wakw/Coast Salish heritage.  The ladies
are dressed in traditionally inspired First Nations styled costumes
that contrast with the urban leather pants worn by Tamion.  The
ladies also have blue skin and bald heads.  It is
apparent that Tamino's journey is truly to a different land.

Papegano is dressed in the wonderful blue and black raven costume that
you see on billboards and ads around Vancouver.  Raven is perfect
for Papegano, as Raven is the classic “trickster” figure in First
Nations culture.  Papageno is the first character that Tamino
meets, and promptly becomes his sidekick and travel companion for
adventure.  Played by Etienne Dupuis, he brings much comic relief
to the opera, stealing many scenes, long before the famouse
Papageno/Papagena duet.

The Queen of the Night is played by Korean soprano Hwang Sin
Nyung.  She is a ravishingly thrilling Queen of the Night hitting
the famous high F note with ease.  Her head is bald and her
costume looks like it was picked out of a Jack Shadboldt painting – a
butterfly on acid, striking with blacks, blues and silver.  Her
wings are used to great effect as she wraps herself in them or they
simply hang or flow, dependent on her movement. 

Instead of visiting a sacred Masonic temple, Tamino
finds himself at a cathedral like forest which itself is sacred in
First Nations culture. 
He is met by “The Speaker” played by baritone Gene Wu, the
Chinese-Canadian last seen in Vancouver as Naomi's father in Naomi's
Road.  Wu is dressed completely in green, with large leaves
evocative of being a tree himself.  His baritone is lyrical as he
challenges Tamino to see past the deception and lies of the Queen of
the Night, and to understand Sarastro as a benevolent and wise man.

Sarastro, is played by African-American Kevin Short, as a dignified
chieftain.  His bass-baritone is strong, and provides a strong anchor
against the other voices, especially with the male chorus or the mixed
chorus, and the finale with the Queen of the Night.  His costume
includes a copper shield breast plate – an artifact of high honour in
West Coast First Nations culture.  From high priest to wise
chieftain, this role easily fits in with the transformation, as he is
surrounded by his tribal council – each dressed in costume
representative of the 12 different West Coast First Nations.

Michel Corbiel is the menacing Monostatos who is threatening Pamina
when we first meet them both. He is dressed as a rat with ears and a
tail, but with knickers remnescient of 18th C. Europe, as are his
followers.  I guess this is the political statement about European
colonialism in North America.

Director Robert McQueen has indeed attempted to embrace the
almost-impossible, balancing political correctness with First Nations
protocol, European opera traditionalism with new creative vision. 
He wisely sticks to the central universal themes of love, and heroic
myth.  We met him during the intermission after he had just been
congratulated by Lt. Governor Iona Campagnolo.  McQueen was still
very actively engaged in tweaking with the production, as there were
still projection problems.  But he was amazingly optimistic and
certainly happy with the production. 

Mozart's Magic Flute score is filled with hummable songs and famous
arias, and easily stands on its own.  Vancouver born conductor
Derrick Inouye writes in the program:

“Great theatrical and musical works
have always been re-invented and re-imagined by adventurous directors
and composers, setting Rigoletto for example in Chicago in the 1930's, or Romeo and Juliet as West Side Story
While not all these creative offshoots are successful, some of the most
inventive re-interpretations can not only spark our imagination but
also bring a new richness to our perception of a familiar work and
evoke the underlying truths of human experience and emotion that can
encompass such an evolution of the original intent.”

And this Magic Flute production indeed sparks our
imaginations.  What if Ballet BC were to do something similar such
as set Swan Lake in First Nations mythology?  What if Vancouver
Opera and other mainstream arts organizations commissioned new original
works with BC's diverse heritage and culture in mind?  Will we see
Naomi's Road blossom into a full scale opera?  Will we see First
Nations stories emerge into the mainstream?  Will we see a Chinese
Canadian opera about building the railroad and paying the head
tax?  The possibilities are infinite and only defined by the
limits of our imagination.

Vancouver Opera's full scale Magic Flute runs until Feb 8th.

But if you can… also check out the 45 minute version that was created
for school children.  While the 3 hour version is amazing with
brilliant moments, there are also scenes that drag a bit.  The 45
minute version sustains “the magic” from start to finish. Melody
Mercredi who plays the Queen of the Night understudy for the Queen
Elizabeth performances, is a frightening wonderful T'sonokwa/Queen of
the Night.  I talked briefly with her in December, and the Metis
native told me that while growing up, she heard many stories
about T'sonokwa, so she felt she could really relate to the First
Nations retelling of the opera.

Feb 9, West Vancouver Memorial Library
April 7 & 8, Firehall Arts Centre

Check out this other links and reviews

Innovative Magic Flute justifies the buzz

NationTalk – Vancouver Opera Presents A New Production of W.A. Mozart

Welcome to the Vancouver Courier Mozart, with a first nation touch

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