Mozart meets the marimba in the Isango Ensemble’s production of “The Magic Flute,” and the result is a joyful fusion of two cultures. The South African company, composed of performers from the townships surrounding Cape Town, is known for re-creating Western classics in a South African context. The troupe doesn’t just transplant the opera to a township setting, complete with full orchestra and colorful costumes. It takes the opera apart and reassembles it, creating a new vision entirely.
The opera, presented by ArtsEmerson, plays through Sunday at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
You know this isn’t your grandmother’s opera when conductor Mandisi Dyantyis takes the stage in a white T-shirt and camouflage cargo pants. Standing with his back to the audience, his image projected on a giant screen, Dyantyis starts to shake his hands and move his body while eight musicians play the overture on the marimba, a percussion instrument with wooden bars that are struck with a mallet. Dyantyis seems to channel the music through his body, and the sound that emerges is an ingenious mix of Mozart’s 1791 opera and contemporary African culture.
The libretto, with its somewhat convoluted plot, is translated mostly into English, with a smattering of the South African languages of Xhosa and Tswana. The hero, Tamino, is rescued by three women after being chased by a serpent. He and his sidekick, a portly clown named Papageno, encounter the Queen of the Night, who orders them to rescue her daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped by Sarastro and is courted by the evil Monostatos. Tamino is given a magic flute for protection, and Papageno receives magic bells. Of course, Tamino instantly falls in love with Pamina, and he must undergo trials before they can unite.
The story does get told, with some standout performances, including a noble presence from Mhlekazi “WhaWha” Mosiea as Tamino and hilarity from Zamile Gantana as Papageno. But the ensemble work is the highlight of the evening. The singers double as percussionists, and the musicians dance and sing. They all do everything, and they play the music entirely from memory. The Queen of the Night (played majestically by company cofounder Pauline Malefane) sings an aria one minute, then moves right over to the marimba. Much of the score is sung a cappella, and the performers boast powerful voices without the intrusion of microphones.
The adaptation and direction by Isango cofounder Mark Dornford-May is delightfully witty and full of invention. The music of the magic flute becomes a bluesy solo trumpet, played upstage by the multitalented Dyantyis. The magic bells are played on glass bottles and spoons, while a disco ball projects circles swirling around the stage. The score, played on marimbas, oil drums, and found instruments, is infused with doo-wop, clapping, foot-stomping, and African chants. The dialogue and lyrics, spoken in several languages, are very much of the moment, as when Papageno tells us he wants a woman who is “sunny and funny — and with money.”
The fanciful production is punctuated with a memorable and somber moment in the second act, after the Queen of the Night has revealed her treacherous side. As Sarastro (the magnificent bass Ayanda Tikolo) sings about denouncing revenge, he is surrounded by prone bodies draped in dark blankets. His aria (“In Diesen Heil’gen Hallen,” or “Within These Sacred Halls”) is accompanied by the sound of the performers humming softly like a dirge, and the effect is spectacularly solemn, suggesting the blood that was lost in South Africa’s own struggle for freedom.
Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography makes you want to get up and dance, and Leigh Bishop’s costumes are wonderfully whimsical. The Spirits, with their tailored miniskirt suits, white gloves, and pert bob wigs, resemble a ’60s girl group (The Supremes, anyone?). They also appear in orange baby doll pajamas, carrying matching teddy bears. The Lady of the Night wears a poufy frock bedecked with black and white feathers, and three men clad in paisley shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and peace sign necklaces look like they stepped out of Motown in the 1970s.
The set, by Dornford-May and Dan Watkins, is a simple raked wooden platform, with metal scaffolding upstage. White sheets are used as backdrops, and the marimba orchestra plays on both sides of the stage. It feels like a small village, where everyone plays multiple roles and where music and dance are part of everyday life. A little Mozart, a little marimba: Isango has created a global village, where cultures blend and joy unfolds.
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.