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A reimagined Magic Flute is using 21st-century wizardry to dazzle and delight

Dazzling entertainment: Barrie Kosky and 1927’s The Magic Flute. Photo/Supplied

The Magic Flute was Mozart’s last opera – he died, aged just 35, a few weeks after the premiere.

Since Barrie Kosky’s fabled version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute premiered at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2012, it has dazzled almost half a million people in 22 cities around the world. Now, it’s the turn of the Auckland Arts Festival, which has programmed the extravagant production to appeal to both opera newbies and adventurous aficionados.

Kosky whipped up his confection with the creative team at 1927, a UK theatre company that combines live performance, music, handmade animation and film. When Kosky proposed a collaboration on Flute, neither animator Paul Barritt nor director-performer Suzanne Andrade had ever seen an opera.

They apparently took some convincing, but judging by his past interviews, one suspects the fast-talking, innovative Australian-born Kosky is highly persuasive.

The Magic Flute is a fantastic fairy tale, based on a libretto by the actor-impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, who played the bird-catcher Papageno in the first performance, in 1791, while Mozart conducted. Librettist and composer both imagined the opera as an extraordinary theatrical entertainment with special effects. Flute is Mozart’s last opera – he died, aged just 35, a few weeks after the premiere – and, unlike his other famous works in Italian, it’s in German and a Singspiel, meaning it includes speech as well as singing.

Kosky and Barritt’s treatment of the Singspiel aspect brings 21st-century wizardry to the work, with the spoken dialogue becoming text captions for the imaginative, witty and virtuosic handmade animations. These are projected on to an enormous white screen, with small platforms protruding on which singers perch precariously, wearing unobtrusive security belts. The work marries the excesses of opera to the silent-film era, with backdrops that evoke the sharp angles and shadow play of German Expressionism. The silent captioned sections are accompanied by Mozart’s music played on a honky-tonk piano.

“Bored shitless” with conventional productions: Barrie Kosky. Photo/Supplied

The Flute characters are already larger and stranger than life, and Kosky and 1927 don’t resist hyperbole. The coloratura soprano singing the Queen of the Night role, complete with those stratospheric high Fs, has the body of a huge skeletal spider. The engaging Papageno is modelled on Buster Keaton. There are pink flying elephants and animated butterflies, and the heroine, Pamina, sings an aria inside a snow globe. Edinburgh critic Fiona Maddocks (who claimed she sought aspirin afterwards) described the hero Tamino’s flute becoming a “naughty, naked Tinkerbell whose flight across the stage leaves a vapour trail of notes”.

Audiences of all ages have been thrilled, but there are fears that Mozart’s glorious music inevitably plays second fiddle to the spectacle. Kosky is unrepentant. “Bored shitless” with conventional productions, he sees his business as transformation and opera as “the most extreme and emotionally powerful” performing art. “In an opera evening,” he said recently, “your senses must be intoxicated. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Komische Oper Berlin/Barrie Kosky/1927 with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Auckland Arts Festival, March 8-10.

This article was first published in the March 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.