Tulsa Opera dedicates one of its productions each season to a youth-oriented opera. Last season, it treated us to The Little Prince. Next season will bring us Hansel & Gretel. This year, Tulsa Opera produced Mozart's The Magic Flute, a whimsical fantasy about a prince caught in a power struggle between The Queen of the Night and Sarastro, a priest wielding the power of the sun.
The dark, forbidding scenic design seems a bit heavy for what has been advertised primarily as an opera appropriate for children. However, the production favors a presentational style of acting, reminiscent of typical children's theater. It's really the goofy serpent attack in the first scene that prepares the audience for a lighthearted, family-friendly evening. The serpent resembles a giant plaster sock puppet, and is slain by a lame little pinch of flash powder.
Given the elaborate set and lighting design, this flash doesn't feel like a cheap special effect. Well, it does, but intentionally so; it got some good laughs. The production seems to wink and say, "Wasn't that silly? See, opera can be fun!"
Later, the effects get serious, and it's the kind of spectacle kids will love. We get to see spirits suspended above the stage on wires, huge rear projections, copious loads of fog (which, caught swirling in so many spotlights, distracts the eye), and bold, flashy lighting design (washed out, unfortunately, by the fog).
These special effects seem to mount toward a final climax. In the Tulsa PAC's publication Intermission, stage director Tara Faircloth said, "The most difficult scene to stage is invariably the "Trials of Fire and Water"... This scene is where we pull out all the stops, special effects-wise."
However, the spectacle to which the production treats us is far more underwhelming than even the serpent's death, and this time it doesn't feel as though the humorous effect was intended. The heroes enter a cave, underlit red for fire and blue for water, as Tamino plays his magic flute to protect them from the elements. The cave leads offstage.
And so they wander around backstage for about a minute.
And then they come back on.
And we frown and say, "Really? Not even a little flash powder?"
Sometimes grand visions fall through, for whatever reason. I assume that's what happened here. There's plenty more to enjoy in this production.
The aforementioned spirits (played by youths Christine Price, Karlee Aery and Elizabeth Hays) charm the audience as if with actual magic. The woodland creatures and Papagano's children, who appear to be unlisted in the program, are just as charming. Children love to see other children onstage. It gets them excited about theatre, and makes them want to take an active role in the cultural health of their community. The choice to cast children in these roles was a strong one.
Romantically minded children will identify with the heroes, Tamino (Vale Rideout) and Pamina (Christine Steyer), whose love for each other causes them suffering but brings them joy in the end. Both have strong voices that will attract children to opera as an art form. Both actors make some creative choices, which will enliven children's minds to the possibilities of theater. (I especially liked Pamina attempting to chew off her chains.)
Kids will also love Papageno (Corey McKern), whose clownish behavior endears him to the audience. His constant chatter during the "vow of silence" sequence is hilarious, doubly so because the idea of opera singers forbidden to sing is so wonderfully frustrating. Mozart was a musical genius, of course, but he was also a man who loved to laugh. Nothing was safe from his sense of humor, especially the concept of manliness.
Though The Magic Flute reinforces, on the surface, the popular idea that the union of a strong man and a submissive woman provides the ultimate foundation for a stable civilization, the opera contains many exciting, subversive ideas about gender roles.
It's true that the rebellious Queen of the Night and her servant women, along with the "Moor" Monostatos (Calvin Ellis Lee), suffer and perish for their ambition. And it's true that an elderly patriarch, Sarastro (played by Charles Temkey, whose appealing baritone voice is almost as much of a spectacle as the production's various special effects), rules his chaste followers with a firm, masculine hand. Indeed, he resembles another great patriarch from children's fantasy, Aslan, with his long, flowing hair and his costume in the final sequence, a golden halo-mane. Sarastro is, of course, a representative figure of a father God.
But children won't identify with him. I mean, he's got a neat voice and all, but he's totally boring and talky. "There is no victory in vengeance, only in forgiveness." What does that even mean?! Now, on the other hand, that Papageno guy, that guy was interesting!
Mozart probably thought so, too. Papageno, faced with danger, cries out, "I wish I were a girl!" Mozart himself was not a terribly masculine man, either, and preferred hilarity and mockery to the sobriety of ethics and culture.
For instance, Pamina threatens to kill herself when Tamino, bound by his vow of silence, won't speak to her. Mozart soon parodies his heroine's grief (read: childish angst) with Papageno's own suicidal threats. Of course, he's too much of a coward to follow through, and some fun audience interaction just makes him more hilariously pathetic.
Papageno's discovery of his Papagena (Amanda Mansheim) provides a useful contrast to the sappy, facile romance of the main heroes. Initially, Papageno believes Papagena to be an old woman, and concludes that it's better to love an ugly woman than to be alone. Later she reveals herself to be an attractive young girl, and mocks Papageno for his shallowness. But his goofy charm has appealed to her, and she decides to mate with him anyway. (Don't worry, parents. They mate only with their song, and the children appear instantly, without any of that messy birds-and-bees business.)
But their romance, if it can be called that, is much more realistic than that of Tamino and Pamina, and therefore, in its own little way, more heroic. After all, when these kids ask their parents how they met, there won't be any nonsense stories about dragonslaying and trials of ice and fire. Unlike those distant, noble heroes, the Papas seem like folks you can talk to. Furthermore, they don't seem like the kind of people content to plop their kids down in front of Disney movies all day long, the kind of stuff that turns our nation's daughters into princesses instead of presidents.
No, they seem more like the kind of folks who'll pick up their young ones, nuzzle their noses, and say, "Honeybear, you can grow up to be whatever you want to be."
That's why, to me, these comedic figures are the real heroes of The Magic Flute, and why Tulsa's children should see this production.
Tulsa Opera's The Magic Flute plays at the Tulsa PAC on May 2 at 7:30pm and on May 4 at 2:30pm. For tickets or more information, visit tulsaopera.com or call 587-4811.
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