Even if you’re not an opera buff, you’ve heard classical music since childhood in cartoons, movies and TV ads. And Mozart’s music is among the most familiar, including his overture to “The Magic Flute,” which will be providing the lively opening to Yale Opera’s latest production at the Shubert Theatre Feb. 16-18.
But there are other gems to behold in this show that might strike chords of familiarity (or amazement in this case).
“I think the Queen’s Aria is one of those famous, most recognizable pieces of music,” says Dustin Wills, the Yale School of Drama alum who is directing the show.
Another former Yale alum, Shawn Boyle, who now lectures in the Drama School, will provide projection design for the show, which is roughly about how the Queen of the Night sends Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from captivity under the high priest Sarastro.
“We’re actually doing quite a bit of projection for this,” says Wills, “in trying to integrate those ideas into the show — because of how I’ve tried to ... recontextualize the production in a more modern way.”
Wills researched Mozart and the period, including the Enlightenment and Freemasons, who have a part here. Here he tries to understand the questions Mozart was asking in his day and apply them to today. This leads to an innovative take on the opera.
“I think we’re trying to create a bridge between that era and modern questions. During the Enlightenment, they were asking, ‘What is our relationship to God? Can we be gods? How can we be individuals? ... And I think there were huge, horrible complications in that era, like women don’t have rights and the black slave is not considered a human being. So I think today we’re watching, in my opinion, sort of a crumbling of the Enlightenment.”
Israel Gursky will conduct the large and skilled Yale Philharmonia in the aural feast that is Mozart’s music as it accompanies what is a “fantastical story.”
“There are princes, and queens. And temples. So we keep all that language, that’s fine, but what we’re seeing represented is something that feels more modernized ... more familiar to us,” Wills says. “Where, suddenly today, the world of (virtual reality), the world of artificial intelligence, all of these worlds being created by humans, in some ways via a God complex, are just as fantastical as these worlds that were imagined back then.”
Having worked in Yale Cabaret and directed edgy new plays, Wills says he isn’t that interested in naturalistic, kitchen-sink drama or the like, preferring works that are “absurd or overwhelming or grotesque or larger than life.”
Which, young people out there take note, is opera.
“It’s unavoidable; there are going to be these larger-than-life figures,” said Wills. “But for me it was just hard to do ‘The Magic Flute’ as written because I find it to be really problematic. ... It’s pretty racist, misogynist; it has really strange consent issues going. I mean, there is a lot of really messed-up stuff in this opera.”
He couldn’t do it conventionally, he says, because “I find it repellent, actually; I can’t hear the music because I’m so wrapped up in trying to unpack the complicated politics. ... Some people don’t have that problem, but the world I’m seeing today, the theater that I’m going to, the patrons I’m talking to, this is a conversation that’s being had and we can’t ignore it.”
“The Magic Flute” is a “songspiel,” an opera with German language tunes (translated in supertitles) and spoken dialogue interspersed in English (the better to explain the plot twists).
“It’s a bonkers opera. It’s got love, it’s got villains, it’s got queens ... chase scenes and weird mystery. ... He (Mozart) was not holding back.”
All that said, the music and vocal talents will carry the entertainment load. Which opera fans know is magic flute enough to follow.