“Indisputably beautiful”: Taking ‘The Magic Flute’ outdoors

Local singers deliver an unconventional take on Mozart’s classic

The last six months have left us starved for live music, with the country kinda-but-not-really shutting down to handle the pandemic. Luckily for us, last month a cohort of young singers took it upon themselves to stage the first full opera production in Oregon since March. These singers, collectively known as Lark Opera, started with the obvious first task: finding and securing a performance venue. The task became even more complicated when their first scheduled performance, set for September 19th at Utopia Vineyard in Newberg, was smoked out by the fires rampaging through the state that week.

But the smoke cleared, and the second-now-first performance went forward on the 27th at Lady Hill Winery in St. Paul, another of the many small vineyard towns south of Portland. Watching a performance of The Magic Flute lit by the dimming sunset over the Willamette valley, sitting on the lawn and drinking a light, tart, sour-cherry wine seemed a distinctly Oregon way to experience opera. 

Soprano Angelica Hesse, who spearheaded the production, played Pamina, a role she told ArtsWatch she’s wanted to play since her earliest dreams of becoming an opera singer at thirteen. She said that the last few months “have made it clear to me that I can’t go a year without this, that [opera] is something that really matters–and I had the feeling that is the case for audiences too.” 

The eleven singers had earlier taken a Zoom course on The Magic Flute, and like all musicians they were already familiar with the music. With funding from an ongoing Indiegogo campaign and a series of backyard rehearsals (with masks on), they put their new skills to use in an unconventional way. Hesse asked herself, “how do we make this happen?”–and her answer runs through the whole production.

One part of that was to make the problem-solving a collaborative effort: although Hesse was the driving force getting the production rolling, there was no musical director. All major artistic decisions were made by committee, and reflect the limitations given to artists working during this time of crisis. 

'The Magic Flute' outdoors in St. Paul, OR, September 2020. Photo by Catherine Oldham Bell.
‘The Magic Flute’ outdoors in St. Paul, OR, September 2020. Photo by Catherine Oldham Bell.

The production was far from a typical opera performance. This was partially due to the aesthetic considerations of the young performers, and partially from the circumstances of its staging. There was almost a Shakespeare-in-the-Park feeling, a communal gathering of art sans air conditioning (but with the language difference, maybe it’s more like Schiller-in-the-park? How about Goethe-im-Park?) The blankets and benches certainly played a part, as did the cherry wine, but I think the experience goes a bit deeper than that.

Nature itself became part of the stage. By the end of act two the sun had disappeared over the coast range, the moon taking its place in the center of the sky. Swallows darting overhead gave way to fruit bats as crickets began their evening song. During Papageno’s entrance, he was literally singing to the birds.

There were few props and no set pieces; costumes were simple but effective. Aside from a few small lights, an electric piano and some mics, this was about as minimal as opera can be. As with Shakespeare-in-the-Park, all pretense and extravagance disappears, leaving behind only what’s most important: words, music, and acting.

The plot of The Magic Flute is your typical story of love, magic, trials of character––it all seems old-fashioned, though there are parallels to the current moment to be gleaned. In particular, Papageno–the Falstaffian man of simple pleasures–contrasts with the hero Tamino, who is motivated by big ideas of love and wisdom. Papageno’s arc is one that should be familiar to us, especially in 2020: the realization that there’s more to life than bread and wine, that we need to feel connections with other people, with art, with opera.

'The Magic Flute' outdoors in St. Paul, OR, September 2020. Photo by Carolina Allen.
‘The Magic Flute’ outdoors in St. Paul, OR, September 2020. Photo by Carolina Allen.

It’s important to contextualize this performance within the broader scope of what’s presently happening within opera, a realm which–like all the arts–has been engaging with questions of identity and representation. The Met Opera in New York will cancel this upcoming season and return with their first ever opera by a Black composer: a new work by award-winning trumpeter and longtime Spike Lee collaborator Terrence Blanchard (whose BlacKkKlansman score earned him an well-deserved Oscar nomination)

We should also note that the Met has only staged two operas by women in its 137-year history: Der Wald by Dame Ethel Smyth, and L’amour De Loin by Kaija Saariaho a century later. The Met is at least starting to grapple with these questions, even if there is so much more they could be doing to catch up with the more progressive Pulitzer-Prize winning operas that living composers have been creating. Progress can be frustrating and slow, however, and it seems it will be a while before the canon of eight or so operas that are regularly performed becomes more diverse, at least among the major companies.

Back in Oregon, the vineyard Magic Flute dared change a few lines, editing the German libretto to remove some of the more sexist and racist elements of the original. While some may consider it blasphemous to sully the immaculate beauty of the original, others see it as a welcome change. I grew up in a generation of sampling, Spotify, remixes and mash-ups, so I’m one who welcomes the change: no piece of music is beyond re-contextualization, and all is endlessly mutable to the desires of artists and audiences. If it supports the performers and audience being comfortable with the material, I’m all for it. Besides, in all likelihood most of the audience wouldn’t have picked up on that minor textual change anyway.

This production also took a loose approach to gender roles, with Katherine Goforth and Allison Knotts playing Tamino and Monostatos respectively. Women in traditionally male roles are nothing new, especially for audiences in Portland. The Queer Opera Experience at Portland State similarly opens any role for any gender (read about them at ArtsWatch here and here). While the “queering” of opera didn’t seem like an overriding concern for this production, that is in itself a notable fact: both performers and audiences accepted it as perfectly normal.

And, despite the haphazard circumstances surrounding the staging, the cast showed their exceptional talents well. Of particular note was soprano (and director of Renegade Opera) Madeline Ross as the Queen of the Night, effortlessly nailing the character’s famous high staccato arpeggios.

In this political climate, I have to ask the question, “Why Mozart?” This comic opera is over two centuries old, written in an era of powdered wigs, Habsburg Archdukes and the moral degradation of the latest dance craze, the waltz. In doing some research on the opera I was interested to learn that the original librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, was a Freemason, as of course was Mozart.

Nowadays when we hear the word “Freemason” and either think of a global conspiracy seeking a New World Order (which it is not) or an organization for men who want to drink and discuss ideas with each other (which it actually is). Another theme lost on modern audiences–but obvious to Mozart’s–is the Queen of the Night as a stand-in for Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa, who banned Freemasonry from Austria in 1743.

Contemporary America and nineteenth-century Austria are very different places politically, of course, and I don’t want to imply any hidden agenda behind this staging of The Magic Flute. I bring all this up only because art is shaped by the world of its creation and renewal; just as Mozart couldn’t resist allusions to his moment in the music and libretto, this performance in its staging alludes to our moment.

'The Magic Flute' outdoors in St. Paul, OR, September 2020. Photo by Marissa Shaver.
‘The Magic Flute’ outdoors in St. Paul, OR, September 2020. Photo by Marissa Shaver.

The most overt difference is that outdoor setting. Inside a theater there is a separation from reality. We experience the opera as a pure escape from the world outside, engrossed in the costumes, drama, vocal acrobatics and catchy tunes–except for those fleeting moments when tardy audience members sneak by or the streetcar rumbles outside.

I couldn’t help but feel that this façade was entirely eliminated when I could see, in plain sight behind the performers, land that had been engulfed in yellow smoke a few weeks ago. This space of tension is what particularly fascinated me about this production: the tension between fantasy and reality, between art as escape and art as reality.

But above all else, I enjoyed the excuse to leave the Metro area in favor of Oregon’s beautiful wine country, to wind through back roads and escape the city for a few hours. And Hesse’s answer to “why Mozart?”–she told me, “Mozart is indisputably beautiful, and right now that’s what we need more than anything.”

In moments of tumult, returning to old favorites is a good way to cope. For the right audience, the light fun of The Magic Flute is exactly the sort of experience necessary in this moment.

'The Magic Flute' outdoors in St. Paul, OR, September 2020. Photo by Catherine Oldham Bell.
‘The Magic Flute’ outdoors in St. Paul, OR, September 2020. Photo by Catherine Oldham Bell.

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