Everybody loves “The Magic Flute.” Ever since its Vienna premiere in 1791, just 10 weeks before Mozart died, this philosophical fairy tale has been his most popular opera, and one of the most frequently performed in the repertoire. (Actually it’s not an opera but a singspiel, a kind of operetta, with long sections of spoken dialogue.)
Given its abstract and nonrealistic setting, “The Magic Flute” has always appealed to directors and designers, who have responded with fanciful interpretations in every imaginable setting, from Alaska to outer space. Film directors including Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Branagh (his version was set in the World War I trenches) have also produced notable screen versions.
But if you ask someone who has just seen “The Magic Flute” to retell the plot, they might well stumble. Yes, there’s a serpent, they might tell you, and a handsome stranger who gets bitten, and a bird catcher dressed up as a bird, and a lovely maiden, and three mysterious boys, and some sort of high priest cruising around in a chariot drawn by lions, and an evil Queen of the Night enthroned among transparent stars, and a Temple of Examination. And that’s only Act 1!
Things get even weirder in Act 2, when the hero Tamino has to go through a sort of mystical hazing at the hands of various unearthly creatures before he can win the hand of his beloved Pamina.
Confronted with the dated sketchiness of Emanuel Schikaneder’s original libretto, the creators of Boston Lyric Opera’s new English-language adaptation have done some radical updating and streamlining, resetting the action among Mayan ruins in present-day Mexico. Instead of a prince, Tamino (renamed Tommy) is a college dude on a study tour with friends. When he gets bitten by a snake, he starts hallucinating. Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” he falls into a long dream-state that takes him on a vision quest through a magical labyrinth, populated in part by people from his real life, reincarnated and transformed.
It was Leon Major, the production’s director, who came up with the idea. “Years ago I took a trip with my family to the Yucatan in Mexico,” he explained in a phone interview during a rehearsal break. “We saw the Mayan ruins at Cichen Itza and Uxmal, and the mystery has always remained with me. The original libretto sets much of the action amid an ancient temple. And the Mayans were very attendant to astronomy and the sun, important elements in the opera, so it seemed to make sense. And proceeding from Tommy’s hallucination means we can do almost anything on stage — it gives us a lot of freedom.”
Major is no stranger to BLO. He was the company’s artistic director from 1998 to 2003, and directed John Musto’s “The Inspector” in 2012. In working out his new concept of “The Magic Flute,” he collaborated with John Conklin, BLO’s artistic adviser, for the design, and with writer Kelley Rourke for the English adaptation. Currently dramaturg for Glimmerglass Festival and Washington National Opera, Rourke recently fashioned a witty English adaptation of Verdi’s early comic opera “Un giorno di regno” (“King for a Day”) for the 2013 Glimmerglass season.
Rourke and Major have drastically cut the spoken dialogue. “I have always found the preaching in ‘The Magic Flute’ problematical; there are pages and pages and pages of it,” Major confessed. “We have just enough dialogue to carry us through the story.” In a phone interview, Rourke said that she has created rhyming verses for nearly all the arias, as in the original. For the different characters, she has used different levels of language; the bird catcher Papageno, for example, speaks in a more colloquial idiom than does high priest and ruler Sarastro.
Rourke and Major have altered not only the language of the piece, but also its philosophical message. In the original libretto, Tamino is confronted with a clear struggle between the dark forces of evil (represented by the Queen of the Night) and the good forces of light (Sarastro). “But our version,” Rourke explained, “sets up a world in which the Queen and Sarastro both represent two extremes, neither totally bad nor totally good. Tamino must find the middle road between them. When Tamino and Pamina complete their journey — together — they realize true enlightenment by joining and balancing these aspects of themselves. Because nobody gets to live in the sunshine, or dark, forever you have to be able to navigate both and all worlds.”
BLO’s new “Flute” retains Mozart’s enchanting score intact, but Major and conductor David Angus have reordered some of the arias. “Some of the pieces have been rearranged to make for better dramatic sense and more logical continuity,” Major explained. They are also eliminating most of the repeats. As a result, this lighter “Flute” will run just over two hours, nearly a half-hour shorter than the original.
For Major, the message of “The Magic Flute” is that “obedience is not the best thing in the world.” Rourke agrees. “What we’ve ended up with is a true journey of enlightenment, but one that will be more accessible to a [contemporary] audience.”
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version misidentified directors who have created film versions of “The Magic Flute.”