Presenting opera in new, vibrant and often surprising ways is Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s calling card, and its exuberant aesthetic is on full display in its current production of "Zie Magic Flute" at the Tripoli Shrine Center through Jan. 27.
An expanded remount from two seasons ago, MOT is once again collaborating with members of the Quasimondo Physical Theater troupe and Cadance Collective, a small group of performers that combine music-making and modern dance. The two-hour, new-and-improved production includes more songs and a few additional characters from Mozart’s classic opera, which has been seriously augmented with what MOT artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik calls "deliberate silliness."
Injecting topical references, vaudeville humor, kitschy costumes and props, oversized puppets and very casual, modern slang into the centuries old "Magic Flute" might seem sacrilege to serious opera lovers, but for audiences seated under the ornate building’s grand dome Monday evening, it was a delight. Encircling a single piano, cello and flute that provided accompaniment for Mozart’s sweeping melodies, we were serenaded by a cast of 17, entering from every aisle and gazing down at us from the balcony. Given the relatively small playing area, this version of the cast and pit orchestra felt just right.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the plot is like a grand fairy tale. There is a handsome prince, a bumbling sidekick, an evil queen, an imprisoned princess, a benevolent but tricky king, a quest with magic weapons, and lots and lots of fierce creatures to slay or subdue, including snakes. In this production, the wildlife also includes bunnies, frogs, dinosaurs, birds and tigers.
While the elusive love interest Papagena (Christal Wagner) does enter dressed in the white swan dress that Bjork made famous on the red carpet years ago, and she does "soar" around the stage wearing roller skates, MOT’s "Zie Magic Flute" regards the score and vocals with reverence. Many fine voices are on display as the cast tackles some famously difficult melodies.
A commanding Nathan Wesselowski lends his strong, warm bass to the role of the red feathered Papageno, providing much comic relief but also doing a lot of the vocal heavy lifting in the show. An accomplished opera performer, his portrayal was both accessible and impressive, as he and the rest of the cast toggled between singing in English and German.
And you better cast strong sopranos in the roles of Queen of the Night and her daughter Pamina. Sarah Richardson acquitted herself admirably of the notoriously difficult glottal stops that pepper the her signature Aria, and Lydia Rose Eiche wrapped her gorgeously full soprano around a lot of emotion as the princess celebrated the joy, despair and celebration of young love. As the prince Tamino, Benjamin Ludwig was a likable, somewhat androgynous hero with a versatile tenor. Notably the king, Sarastro, spoke his lines instead of singing and for that you need an actor with different but equally accomplished vocal acumen. Renowned classical actor Mark Corkins was a marvelous choice for the loving and forgiving ruler (decked out with a bejeweled Tripoli Shrine fez, natch) who set several tests for the young lovers in act two.
While there is no need for a set, since the audience is surrounded by the opulent, gold encrusted architectural wonder that is Milwaukee’s miniature Taj Mahal, the offbeat collection of props to fill out the goofy world of the opera is extensive. Plastic kites are deployed from the balcony as swooping birds for Papageno to chase. Lite Brites are used as sign posts. A Viewmaster shows the prince a picture of Pamina, and a horn made of plastic building blocks stands in for the flute. These lighthearted objects match the "we made this for a school pageant" look of the costumes, which also featured plastic winged helmets and a lot of EZ-sew capes and tunics.
Movement was modern and freeform and even included the musicians getting into the act; Alicia Storin strutted around the stage dressed in black and outfitted with feathery wings, using her cello and bow to seem even more menacing without missing a note. Likewise the English translation of the German libretto was aggressively current, with singers declaring "No way, Jose," "TTYL" and "Shut your pie hole."
The result of all these mash-ups is a performance that is incredibly accessible. The vibe is inclusive, casual, fun and full of surprises. It’s also a little rough around the edges, which is OK. Not all the singers are equal in ability or training, and that goes double for the actors and dancers. This stuck out most when performers needed to work together – the chorus of spirits seemed disorganized and under rehearsed at times. Other minor disappointments included the sloppy shadow puppet show that started the performance, limitations of the sight lines (it was sometimes difficult to see what was going on in the balcony) and the funky acoustics (which made the choruses sound fuller but muddled some of the spoken lines).
But as a veteran of many roundtable discussions about identifying and removing the barriers that prevent audiences from attending arts events, it’s easy to applaud "Zie Magic Flute." Unpretentious, amusing and filled with beautiful music, it’s an opera experience that’s unforgettable.