Dreamy, inventive, not-your-grandma's opera
Having never been to a live opera before, I really didn't know what to expect when I took my seat at the Tripoli Shrine dome on Monday for the Milwaukee Opera Theatre's production of Mozart's Zie Magic Flute. I figured there would be beautiful voices of course, but I had also mentally prepared myself for a slew songs sung in German and, therefore, a storyline I'd have to work hard to follow.
Did I ever underestimate the creative magic that is the Milwaukee Opera Theatre! This particular production is performed in conjunction with Quasimodo Physical Theatre and Cadence Collective, so that's something special right off the bat. Then there's the venue, the Tripoli Shrine dome, which I'd never been to and is every bit as beautiful inside as out — mosaic tile for days, set aglow with theatrical uplighting. The seating encircled the dome with the "stage" set in the middle and a pianist, cellist, and flutist poised to fill the space with music.
Zie Magic Flute — a fairytale at heart — starts with a chorus of angelic voices raining down from the dome's second-floor balcony and a paper shadow-puppet prelude projected on a large white sheet, to give a taste of the adventure to come. The gist of that adventure: Three ladies rescue a prince from a serpent. The prince asks if there's anything he can do to repay them. Turns out, the ladies are envoys of the Queen of the Night, on a mission to save the Queen's kidnapped daughter. The prince agrees to win the princess's freedom and, after seeing her portrait, her heart. He is gifted a magic flute to help him through the fantastic trials that lie ahead — and the rest, you'll have to see for yourself.
While the show program offers a helpful synopsis of Zie Magic Flute, you needn't be too dependent on it because (surprise!) the songs are performed in a mix of German and often-hilarious modern English. I totally didn't see it coming, so when the Queen's three envoys bantered back and forth about the "sexy boy" they'd saved (imagine a trio of sopranos singing words like "no way José" and "huh-uh"), it was an absolute hoot! Clearly this ain't your grandma's opera.
Though the Milwaukee Opera Theatre doesn't take itself too seriously, it certainly maintains the integrity of classic opera when necessary. For instance, the Queen's famous aria — performed by Sarah Richardson — was sung sans humor and with all the glorious high notes perfectly executed. Though, even when humor abounds, the quality of singing is never, ever compromised. These opera pros are a joy to behold.
Then there are the costumes, staging, props, and movements of Zie Magic Flute. They're all so inventive, I found myself gazing in wonder at the playfulness of it all. The princess's "portrait" is in fact a toy viewfinder, the serpent's fiery breath — a ribbon dancer, and the serpent itself — an immense Chinese dragon-style puppet manned by the entire ensemble. A tutu-ed bird flies by on roller skates, at times dancing with the cellist as she plays her flawless melodies.
In short, Zie Magic Flute is pure theatrical magic from start to finish — a dreamy, escapist evening spent in fairy land, where the dragon is slain and love prevails. It remains to be seen if the Milwaukee Opera Theatre can top this first opera experience for me — they certainly set the bar high! I simply can't wait to see what else this imagination-sparking company has up its sleeve.
Zie Magic Flute plays now through Sunday, January 29th. Tickets at http://ziemagicflute.bpt.me.