Supernatural happenings, curses and romances, heartbreaking arias and vocal fireworks — what’s not to love?
Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” (“The Magic Flute”), a wildly popular gateway opera, has been a frequent presence on stages since its premiere in 1791. It’s a fair bet, though, that Simon McBurney’s production, which opens at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, is the first to feature a ringtone duplicating the bird catcher Papageno’s five-note musical trademark. Or to use about 100 speakers strategically placed all over the house.
For McBurney, the use of technology is less about embracing the present than about nodding to the creation of “Zauberflöte.” That was at Theater auf der Wien in Vienna, which was run by the multitasking Emanuel Schikaneder, the opera’s librettist and originator of the role of Papageno.
“Schikaneder had the latest ways of making thunder, he had machines make the sound of rain, he had bird calls, he had people making the sound of horses’ hooves,” McBurney said in an interview. “The use of sound creates a magical world, and yet at the same time at the heart of ‘The Magic Flute’ are real human concerns.”
The juxtapositions of intimacy and cosmic scale, simplicity and complexity, low and high technology have long been emblematic of McBurney’s work as a founder and artistic director of the London-based theater company Complicité. Audience members at his solo show “The Encounter” (which had a Broadway run in 2016) experienced the production through earphones, immersing them in sophisticated soundscapes. Something that could have added distance between performer and theatergoer brought them closer.
McBurney experimented with sound again for “Zauberflöte,” which was first staged in 2012 at the Dutch National Opera and has been presented around Europe. (It replaces the 19-year-old Julie Taymor production at the Met; her abridged, English-language version for families remains in the repertory.) A distinctive trait of McBurney’s “Zauberflöte” is the importance of the sonic environment.
“For a forest scene I have five or six bird tracks that I can send out, a running brook that I’m going to put in a speaker in the far right side of the stage, two tracks of wind blowing in trees,” Matthieu Maurice, a sound designer, said at a recent rehearsal.
The singers are amplified through body microphones, though only for the spoken sections — plentiful in “Zauberflöte,” which is a singspiel, a numbers show with dialogue between arias. The mics are turned off for the sung parts, requiring constant adjustments by two sound mixers.
“There’s so much more I can do with the dialogue with a mic,” said the soprano Erin Morley, who plays the pure-hearted princess Pamina. “I can face upstage, I can whisper something. I’m sure there will be some purists out there who will hate this, but the important thing is that we are not singing with mics.”
Nathalie Stutzmann, this production’s conductor, was also on board. “In a house as big as this one, it is obvious to me that we need to use modern technology,” she said. “The Met is huge. It’s a lack of intelligence not to adapt to a space. It’s normal to help the singers fill the space when they are speaking. It’s also important that the volume of the spoken parts match the volume of the sung parts in an opera like this one, otherwise it feels like two different works.”
Amplification also allows the integration of a live Foley artist, Ruth Sullivan, who operates out of a self-contained space, visible stage left, that looks like a zany inventor’s laboratory. “Her relationship with the actors is a musical one, essentially,” McBurney said of Sullivan. “They know the sounds she is going to make, and so it is a dance in the same way Nathalie Stutzmann is dancing with the singers, trying to make the cellos and the voices work together.”
Stutzmann works as closely with Maurice as she does with the musicians and singers. (The associate sound designer, he has been implementing Gareth Fry’s original vision for the past eight years, while adding flourishes of his own, including the ringtone.) The sound effects are indicated on the sheet music, so she knows exactly what to expect and when.
Adding to the increased interconnection among the opera’s moving parts, the pit is almost level with the stage.
“We decided, ‘Let’s raise the orchestra, let’s make people aware of the players,’” said Michael Levine, the set designer. “Because we’re so used to the players being hidden, and they weren’t in the 18th century.”
During the spoken sections at rehearsal, players in the orchestra turned toward the stage like flowers to the sun. They could watch the action for a change.
“There’s nothing more boring than being an orchestra musician and being in the back of a cave with no idea of what’s happening on the stage,” Stutzmann said. “Can you imagine spending three or four hours, five for Wagner, at the bottom of a pit and have no idea what’s happening above you?” Not only can the musicians see this “Zauberflöte”; some also become part of the action.
Being positioned higher creates a challenge, though. “We have to be careful not to cover up the singers,” Stutzmann said. “The sound balance is changed because we’re up and above, so we’re louder. You have to be vigilant while avoiding being bland.”
Much of the production’s visuals are also created in plain view. The artist Blake Habermann contributes drawings and ingenious effects — watch how he renders a starry sky — to live projections. “I show all my tricks and then they become doubly magical,” McBurney said with an impish grin.
For Levine, making the entire house part of one organism reminds everybody that the artificiality and evanescence of the art form constitute its strength. “What we wanted to do is to bring the audience into the fallibility of theater,” he said. “Things are being made before your eyes, and it’s live, and it’s not going to happen again. And the people that are constructing it are here with you in the same room, and we’re all doing it together.”
If the projections are the modern equivalent of the magic lanterns developed in the 17th century, McBurney and Levine also came up with a contemporary version of a magic carpet: a central square platform that can transport the characters, but that also suggests the instability they experience. It can go up and down, and it can be inclined as various angles; the singers can scamper on top or scurry below. “It is much more secure when you’re on it,” Morley said. “From afar, it looks terrifying.” Laughing, she allowed that “when we go underneath the platform, there were a few moments in rehearsal when I said, ‘You want me to do what?’”
Some modern directors have been criticized for overemphasizing an opera’s staging over its music, and forcing interpretations that depart from the familiar. But McBurney’s North Star remains the music, and trying to stay faithful to what it meant for its creator.
“I think that for Mozart, if you can make music so beautiful, people will come out changed,” he said. “We can debate whether he was right or not well, but it’s called ‘The Magic Flute.’ The flute changes the way that people behave.”
Mozart, he added, had confidence in his music: “He knew that it could move people in a way that might alter their lives.”