The Magic Flute - Welsh National Opera
Wales Millennium Centre
Image credit: WNO
If there's to be opera in the future, today's children need to be discovering it now.
So one of the many delights of experiencing Daisy Evans’ new production of WNO’s The Magic Flute at the Wales Millennium Centre alongside a few hundred school children, was seeing and hearing their spontaneous, unschooled reactions.
“That was weird” exclaimed one teenager at the end, while another imitated Queen of the Night’s high notes, scarily well.
I noticed their stunned silence in the first half, followed by whoops of delight in Act 2, and smatterings of laughter.
It was clear that this experience was opening a door to an art form that for many of them would otherwise have remained firmly shut.
This production is a feast for the eyes, bright and visually rich in colour and light. Daisy Evans rethinks and avoids awkward old conventions such as Tamino pretending to play the Magic Flute - instead the flute’s theme is playfully accompanied by colourful musical balls of light handled by puppeteers.
Whatever you do, don’t leave in the interval - Act 2 contains one of the best moments of opera I’ve ever seen, bringing together great singing, characterisation, costume, lighting and staging, all complementing one another beautifully in that way that only opera can do, and only when skilfully handled as it is here. I had to stop myself from leaping out of my seat to shout appreciation.
It’s a huge relief to experience opera minus the misogyny that pervades so many productions. The re-thinking and re-telling that underlies this interpretation is illuminating and refreshing. It sheds new light on some of the deepest issues we grapple with, including the false dualism of male rationality and reason, and female intuition, instinct and madness. Making Sarastro and the Queen of Night, Pamina’s estranged parents, brought this duality home in a way that will be relatable for many.
The references to an outdated education system with the dysfunction it breeds will ring sadly true too.
There are some beautiful moments to treasure in this production - the famous Pa pa pa duet between Papageno and Papagena is rendered extra sweet by the dancing of the two birds that accompany and represent them - a very beautiful love duet danced out between Philip Pullman-esque spirit animals as the humans sing.
The WNO chorus delight with their rich and vibrant singing as always, the orchestra play beautifully and the cast are well chosen.
My admiration was only enhanced by the indignation of the broadsheet critics, who seem to feel cheated by a woman - who does she think she is?? - of a gendered, racist narrative. Rather than taking the view that art is alive and changes with every production, translation, playing, interpretation, design, the consensus has been that she has gone too far. I beg to differ. It’s about time we rethought outdated references to gender and race, among other things, in the opera canon, and this, finally, is a production I’d happily take my children to.
I hope you’ll take yours too. And if they find the first half slightly bewildering, don’t give up - the second half will delight.
Zoë Challenor - B’Opera
WNO's The Magic Flute is at Birmingham Hippodrome on Wednesday 3rd, Thursday 4th and Friday 5th May 2023 at 7.15
- booking here
Zoë is giving the pre-performance talks each night at 6.15 - the talk is free but don't forget to book here