A year ago, I would never have considered watching an opera. I had many ingrained preconceptions around this art form. Being a working-class Mancunian, I was convinced that opera had an elitist audience. I believed that I wouldn’t be able to understand the story because it is sung in a foreign language. I also thought that opera would be boring. Opera North’s production of Tosca proved me wrong. The misconceptions I had were shattered, and I was surprisingly converted. But was it a fluke? It was the first opera I had ever watched. Is all opera worth watching, or was it just a strong revival of Tosca? I decided to put my doubts to the test with Opera North’s version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
The Magic Flute is sung in the English language so there is no need to worry about it being in a foreign language or having to read captions, something that puts some people off watching opera. The story of Mozart’s opera is largely simple to understand and follow, thanks to the inclusion of spoken dialogue, rather than it being entirely sung. A fantastical fairy-tale of love, magic, and a heroic quest, the story is accessible and utterly enchanting, even for novices.
Loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prince Tamino (Kang Wang) is given a quest by the Queen of the Night (Samantha Hay). He must rescue her daughter, Pamina (Vuvu Mpofu), who is being held captive by her mortal enemy, the Priest of the Sun, Sarastro (John Savournin). Aided with a magic flute, and accompanied by the bird catcher, Papageno (Gavan Ring), Prince Tamino embarks on a testing journey that will unite him with his true love.
I have to admit, I struggled to distinguish the lyrics being sung at times. To my untrained ear, it is hard to decipher some of the words sung by sopranos, due to their high pitch. This rarely becomes a hindrance in The Magic Flute as there is enough interaction with other characters, during their songs, to understand the foundations of what was being sung. The performers’ superb acting and characterisation also helped, but I believe some captions may have provided additional aid too for us beginners!
Like Tosca, the production design for Opera North’s The Magic Flute is breath-taking. Colin Richmond’s spectacular set design effectively switched locations, starting in an enchanting forest. Colossal trees have bloody, vein-like roots, conveying a feeling that the forest is actually alive, enhancing the dark, mysteriously eerie nature of the woodland. The forest is then efficiently transformed into magnificent, palatial stone temples of the Sun within Sarastro’s kingdom. Draped banners, emblazoned with images of the sun, give a dystopian impression of an autocratic dictatorship. The monumental scale of the production design is impressive, and deserves the utmost credit.
Similarly, Richmond’s costume design is equally remarkable. The chorus members of Sarastro’s order, who worship the sun, all wear striking red clothes, with a pendant of the sun hanging around their necks. Resembling the cardinals of the Vatican, it is immediately evident that they are members of a religious cult. Although personally, I felt that the red costumes of the female singers reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, further enhancing the dystopian atmosphere that the imposing set created.
The precise attention to detail in Richmond’s costume design is also worth mentioning. This is particularly evident in Sarastro’s lavish, beautifully embroidered suit and cloak. With a swish of his cloak, he becomes majestic and regal. Gold is woven into the white fabric, meaning that whenever light illuminates his character, he shines brighter than anybody else. Perfectly suiting his role as a Priest of the Sun, Sarastro’s costume design is inspired. Richmond’s costumes were the highlight of The Magic Flute for me!
In addition to superb set and costumes, visual effects are brilliantly used to depict the magical elements of the opera. Whenever the Magic Flute is used, video projections add enchantment to this fantasy realm. As Tamino and Pamina encounter several ordeals concerning water and fire, a transparent screen drops at the front of the stage. Onto this screen, water and fire are projected onto it, creating a visually dramatic, stunning imagery. Douglas O’Connell’s astonishing video design underpins the entire production, adding the crucial magical elements to Mozart’s opera.
Overall, I loved The Magic Flute! It proved that opera truly can be appreciated by people from all walks of life. I think opera is now going to become an addiction, as I make up for the years that I was too blinded by prejudice to consider watching it. I wouldn’t have believed it a year ago, but a working-class girl from a council estate in Manchester can enjoy opera!