CINCINNATI -- Blending 21st century technology with 17th century stagecraft, "The Magic Flute" at Cincinnati Opera transports audiences to a 1920s movie theater.
Hand-drawn animations projected onto the stage take the place of scenery and props in this production, which debuted in 2012 at the Komische Opera in Berlin. The show runs July 15-23 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.
The only light on stage comes from the projector. The set is a tall, wide, white wall, fitted with five doors at various heights; these allow the actors to appear and disappear as they interact with the animations playing on the wall. The actors must never allow their shadows to appear.
Every opera production comes with comprehensive binders of instructions that outline how everything should look, from the set to costumes -- right down to the curl on an actress' forehead, said Ashley Tongret, public relations director for Cincinnati Opera. This production of "Magic Flute" requires even more precision from each of the singers, so every movement is completely integrated into the animation.
"The entire effect is that you feel like you're in an old vaudeville movie house, watching a silent movie," said director Daniel Ellis.
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Dialogue between songs has been turned into title cards, just like in a silent movie. The characters are made to look like movie stars of the era -- Pamina becomes bob-haired flapper Louise Brooks and Papageno is big-eyed Buster Keaton -- and move in the same exaggerated style, telling stories with every gesture. A damsel in distress throws her arm against her forehead. A man in love clasps his heart.
But despite the animation and the time shift to the 1920s, Ellis said, this "Magic Flute" is very traditional and faithful to Mozart's original work. The revolving doors and the way actors magically appear and disappear from darkened corners of the stage are techniques that would have been used in the very first productions of the opera.
"It's an homage to technology and the roots of opera," Ellis said.
"The Magic Flute" is a story of romance and adventure. The hero, Tamino, is on a quest for a princess, encountering magical creatures and armed with the magic flute. He is chased by a fire-breathing dragon. A cheetah is walked on a leash. The animation brings these fantastical elements to life.
"We're able to tell the story in the way that Mozart talked about," Ellis said. "... If Mozart were alive, I think Mozart would really dig this 'Magic Flute.'"
The first time Ellis saw this production of "Magic Flute," he was sitting in a theater with 3,500 high school students, all awed into complete silence.
"It's a 'Magic Flute' that I always encourage families to see," Ellis said. "It's funny and very family-friendly."
Sung in German with projected English translations, "The Magic Flute" runs three hours with one intermission. To learn more about the production, come an hour early for Opera Insights, free to all ticketholders.