Gender and German get some updating in Northwestern Opera Theater’s “Magic Flute” 

Sat Feb 25, 2023 at 4:11 pm

By Katherine Buzard

Northwestern University Opera Theater is presenting a new production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Men and women, day and night, hot and cold, left brain and right—these were the dualities at play in Northwestern University Opera Theater’s production of The Magic Flute on Friday night at Cahn Auditorium. United both visually and philosophically by the concept of yin and yang, this campus update of Mozart’s beloved fairy tale singspiel focuses on restoring equilibrium and righting wrongs through the pairing of two young lovers, Tamino and Pamina.

Gender politics are at the center of the production by director Joachim Schamberger, who, with co-creator Alexis Martin, developed modernized English dialogues to address issues of misogyny within the libretto. In this telling, Pamina is a champion of love for all, regardless of the stark binary world she inhabits, declaring, “Love is love.”

Small changes were also made in some of the sung German, most notably in the Act I duet between Pamina and Papageno, “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” — in English, “Men who feel the call of love.” For example, the line “Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann” (“Man and wife, and wife and man”) became “Mann und Mann, und Weib und Weib.” It was a clever change, especially since the character of Papageno is portrayed as gender nonconforming, dressed in a long blonde wig, floral dress and polka dot wellies. With male characters from Sarastro’s kingdom dressed in white and female characters from the Queen of the Night’s domain in black, Papageno was one of the few characters sporting colors — a choice that further delineated him as outside the gender binary and outside the purview of either ruler.

Baritone David Wolfe was a vocal and comedic standout as the endearing Papageno. Wolfe had the most consistent vocal presence of the cast in both his sung and spoken material. Even in the most comedic moments, such as his drug-fueled rendition of “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” he did not sacrifice tonal quality. He also had good chemistry with soprano Michelle Ravitsky’s Papagena, who matched Wolfe in physical comedy prowess.

The more serious characters were at a slight disadvantage dramatically when it came to the spoken dialogues. While the comedic characters’ lines were more colloquial and more natural for the young actors, the lines written for the opera’s strictly dramatic roles often came across as a bit stilted, particularly for opera students who may not have had much prior experience doing spoken theater. 

Among the characters not conceived by Mozart as laugh getters, soprano Isobel Anthony as Pamina was the most natural. Whether singing or speaking, Anthony was never stiff or overwrought. Possessing a remarkably even voice throughout her vocal range, Anthony delivered the most technically accomplished and thoroughly musical singing of the night with a stunning rendition of “Ach, ich fühl’s.” The high notes were floated perfectly, and she connected phrases that lesser singers would have needed to breathe between. 

She had a great ally in conductor Andrew Bisantz, whose tempo kept the aria from becoming a dirge. The role of Pamina will undoubtedly become a mainstay of Anthony’s repertoire, and it will be interesting to hear if her voice acquires more color and weight over time.

Bisantz’s tempos were spot on for the most part, and he kept the opera moving along at a good pace, although he could have relented a little bit in both of the Queen of the Night’s arias, among a couple of other points in the opera. Soprano Rena Maduro acquitted herself well in the high-flying role, though Bisantz’s breakneck orchestral clip prevented Maduro from getting the breath she needed to reset and fully support the coloratura. Still an undergraduate, Rena has plenty of time to grow into the challenging role.

As Tamino, steely-voiced tenor William Johnson deftly negotiated the high tessitura of the role. The fiendish Act I aria “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” was solid, and he found some lieder-like nuance later in the show, particularly in his scene with the Speaker, sung staunchly by bass-baritone Andrew Sprague. In some of the ensemble numbers, however, Johnson seemed to be holding back, either to save his voice or to not stick out.

The Magic Flute is a great choice for a student production in that it offers plenty of smaller roles that give more people stage time. This is particularly important for sopranos, who outnumber other voice types in most music departments but generally have fewer small roles available to them. To maximize performance opportunities, the roles of the three ladies and three spirits are triple cast. In Friday’s show, the three ladies were sung by Uma Singh, Lauryn Nelson and Lillian Lansdell, while the three spirits were sung by McKenna Troy, Carly Passer, and Skye Tarshis. In both trios, the singers were vocally well matched. The Act I quintet with the three ladies was particularly tight.

In the sun realm, bass-baritone Ryan Dearon was an imposing Sarastro. Again, suffering from the stilted dialogue assigned to him, his spoken text was a bit stiff, but he acquitted himself well in “O Isis und Osiris.” Tenor Alexi Ortega Chavez was a wiry Monostatos, and Adam Clayton, Daniel Uglunts, Mark May, and Lifan Deng had nice step-out moments as the priests and armored men.

Under Bisantz’s direction, the orchestra was in fine form. Their playing was tight and stylish, especially from principal flutist Joey Xiaoying Zhuang in her solos at the end of the opera. With the pit at Cahn Auditorium completely uncovered, brass sometimes overpowered the singers. But overall, Schamberger’s production was a fun romp that elicited consistent laughter from the audience. 

Though the production is relatively childlike in its humor, parents of young children should be advised: there are drug references, as Papageno’s music box is powered by marijuana, and sexual innuendo during the Papageno/Papagena duet that is not super subtle. Nevertheless, the updated dialogue, gender fluidity and other creative touches gave this mainstay of the operatic repertoire a worthwhile fresh spin. 

The Magic Flute repeats at Cahn Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25 and. 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26.

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One Response to “Gender and German get some updating in Northwestern Opera Theater’s “Magic Flute” ”

  1. Posted Feb 25, 2023 at 6:43 pm by Traditionalist

    I was planning on attending the performance. However, upon reading the review, I am glad I did not waste my time and money being brainwashed in Cancel Culture and Wokeism by the Alt Left. Lyric’s 2022 Flute was an enough of a travesty with audiences leaving the Hall during the performance.

    With this being an academically presented Flute, it is not surprising this production was so presented. The academics and their Alt Left colleagues are brainwashing students, so why not the public? It is one thing to contemporise an opera, it is another to abuse the libretto.

    Sad, so Sad!

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