The Magic Flute as staged by the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway is about my favorite cultural/artistic experience I’ve had in five years. The last time I saw something this inventive with established art forms to bring the audience into a new and confusing-as-hell world was Inception (four years ago, but who’s counting?).
In as few words as possible, it’s just frickin’ cool.
Even if you have an aversion to opera for various reasons, this is an entirely accessible reimagining and combination of several art forms to create a unique and enjoyable new thing you didn’t know existed, but once you did, wondered where the hell this thing was before – like the first time you had seared pork belly on a burger.
Now, I know I’ve been pretty superlative on the blog lately with the things we’ve been to – the orchestra, Sharon Jones, and the Jim Hodges art review that’s on Droste Effect. Becky and I have had one of those few-in-a-lifetime string of awesome events worth writing about. I’m at the point where I fear the end of the run of luck. Especially after this opera.
So you know I’m not blowing smoke and can follow along better, watch the video trailer for this production before proceeding further:
Let’s get some stuff out of the way at this point. Forget sense. This opera makes very little sense – dragons, spider queens, bird catchers, quests where the main characters are supposed to be silent, yet talk more than I do in a typical day. Even reading the synopsis of the events of the play provided can give you a headache. It’s a fairy tale told by an acid trip.
Basically it’s a quest. The main hero comes out of nowhere and is sent on a quest to rescue the queen’s daughter. Why anyone would fall for the daughter of a literal spider woman is beyond me – again, forget sense. At one point, they also swim like fish. So there’s that.
There’s also not much in the way of overwhelming emotion found in other Operas. By the end, I found myself trying to figure out why I gave a damn about the main hero, even a little. He’s pretty hapless, needs a lot of rescuing himself, and basically wins the day by knowing how to follow rules. His friend, the bird catcher, is much more personable and relatable. He’s an id – ruled by basic human impulses, and all the more fun for it. Plus he also wins in the end, so screw rules, right?
Here’s that bird catcher singing a song you may recognize if you’ve watched Amadeus, but this time, surrounded by pink elephants.
So, there’s little sense, not a lot of deep emotional pull, and some tough to relate to characters. You may be wondering at this point how I can call such an event the best thing I’ve seen in five years.
I don’t think there was five minutes during this thing I wasn’t grinning ear to ear. For fans of the silent movies of German expressionism like the Cabinet of Dr. Calagari or Metropolis, or Nosferatu, or the movies of Buster Keaton, this opera is like someone took all the best silent movies had to offer – mind bending scenery, outlandish villains, inventiveness – and let them loose in a new medium.
I get the impression, even from my vague outsider point of view of opera, that opera fans are not into The Magic Flute. They put it on a lot more out of obligation – like ballet companies having to slog through the Nutcracker once again. I think sometimes great art can come out of that sense of just having to make something new out of sheer force of will to keep yourself sane when putting together your 12th production of the same opera. They certainly did it with this production.
Here’s another perhaps familiar tune if you’ve seen Amadeus, but this time, through a nightmarish German expressionist lens that would make Tim Burton squeal with delight.
I mentioned Buster Keaton because of both the 1920’s era costumes and Keaton’s movie “Sherlock Jr.” where he literally jumps onto the screen and enters a world were anything can happen between one step and the next.
This is the primal chord that the Minnesota Opera hits with this production – it’s like watching Willy Wonka’s factory or Oz come to life. There’s a lot of influence from Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python as well.
It also hearkens back to the silent movie era, where iris shots and fantastically elaborate fonts were used like creative weapons to tell stories with little plot and plainly archetypal characters who must deal with the forces of love, evil, and humor. So in that way, silent movies are a perfect motif for setting an opera with similar dramatic difficulties. It’s the seared pork belly on the musical burger.
For three hours, starting with the first note, absolutely anything can happen. Forget a magic flute, the entire world is enchanting.