I was tallying up the list of shows I've got scheduled to see how I'm doing on my 52 weeks/52 shows goal for the year (I'm pretty close) and had a minor panic attack when I realized that I had not yet fulfilled my goal of seeing an opera. I've never seen a live opera! Seems like a pretty big gap in my theater repertoire, I may need to try and see one a year just to keep things interesting. Luckily I realized that I had a ticket to see The Magic Flute by the South African theater group Isango Ensemble. And as bonus it also qualifies as "something different" which is always a goal with me; don't settle for just the familiar.
This show certainly qualifies as that, taking a German piece of work and placing it in the vernacular of South African culture. I really enjoyed the show, they imbued the performance with wit, whimsy and a whole lot of energy. While I'm no aficionado of opera I thought the voices were beautiful, especially the iconic aria by the Queen of the Night. She kind of killed it, which is appropriate considering she's directing her daughter to commit murder. Among the serious machinations of our star crossed lovers, Tamino and Pamina's quest for love, truth and not dying, the show interjects these bright spots of levity with a knowing wink to the audience. Papagano, is the reluctant sidekick to our hero, is hilarious (loved his "birds") and I loved the three Spirits in their lovely lavender suits and feathery wings, they were delightful. And then out of nowhere 'fros and 70's bell-bottoms pop out, ridiculous but it worked so well. They made the show much fun.
I was surprised that there was actual dialog in the show and first thought that may be a deviation but it was written that way; I tend to think of operas as all singing all the time. It was actually probably a good thing because I have discovered that even if the opera is sung in English it can still be a little difficult to follow. The vocal acrobatics distort the words from their commonly understood form. Although I'm not unconvinced that parts were not performed in a different language. There were certainly times when the dialog was definitely in a foreign language, mostly in the ceremonial scenes. Reading the synopsis in the playbill is also helpful.
A very interesting element of the production was the entirely percussion based orchestra consisting of marimbas and a variety of drums. How closely it held to the original orchestration I lack sufficient knowledge to determine but I really enjoyed the spin on the orchestration, I do enjoy good percussion and it really provided the appropriate exotic otherworldly atmosphere to the show. The lone musical instrument was the trumpet that was the voice of the eponymous Magic Flute. What is really impressive is that the cast was also the orchestra (it flanked both side of the raked stage), there was a constant revolution of characters moving from singing to playing the instruments in a perpetual round robin that made the orchestra a physically integral part of the show. Can you just imagine the level of coordination and concentration that would take? The actors where not always playing the same instruments and when cast members were neither performing or playing they were still part of the orchestra providing additional vocals and sometimes breaking out in random joyous dance. This makes the cast quadruple threats, actors, dancers, singers and musicians. Some people would call that showing off...not that I'm bitter or anything.
The Isango Ensemble is performing this show in repertory with another Opera, Venus and Adonis, which I am unfortunately not going to get to see before they leave. They're performing at the Lansburg Theater (Shakespeare Company) until Sunday but they're on tour in the US through early November. Sorry I haven't been able to find a schedule of cities they're visiting you can check their website here.