Emily White ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The Isango Ensemble brings Mozart’s The Magic Flute from Mozart’s native Austria through the ensemble’s home in South Africa all the way to Boston in an incredible opera experience like no other. Even if audiences have seen The Magic Flute before, this is a version like no other, infused with multiple different musical styles, including, but not limited to, do-wop, African beats, and even disco. Even if audiences have never seen an opera before, this version of The Magic Flute is entirely accessible and enjoyable to audiences of all ages and experience levels with opera, infused with the incredible enthusiasm of the talented performance ensemble. The Magic Flute is pure theatrical magic, in a multitude of ways.
The Magic Flute tells the story of a young man named Tamino who must face a multitude of challenges, with the help of a magical flute, in order to win over his love, Pamina, the beautiful daughter of the Queen of the Night. The story’s strange supernatural elements, including mischievous magical ladies, birds of thunder and lightning, trials of fire and water, and, of course, the mysterious magical flute, have always astounded and confounded audiences throughout the centuries. Intriguingly, these elements parallel a story in Tsonga tradition of lightning as caused by mystical mountain birds. The lightning can only be stopped by a brave person who climbs to the top of the mountains and plays an enchanted flute until the birds are subdued. This parallel may or may not have directly influenced Mozart’s story creation, but it is highly emphasized in this production, which sets the story in a mystical forest in Africa, and is performed mostly in English, but also partially in an African language.
The choice of language is very interesting and engaging in the context of this opera. Unlike many traditional operas performed today, which maintain the original language of composition in the performance but use subtitles on a screen to convey meaning to English-speaking audiences, there are no subtitles since the majority of the performance is in English. However, given the nature of operatic singing, it takes a careful listener to fully understand each and every word of the composition. This makes it fluid and beautiful when all of a sudden a performer begins to sing or speak in an African language. The change is almost undetectable, but indicates a profound shift in the characters’ thought. Characters divert from English most often when they don’t know each other, or in times of extreme anger or passion, which emphasizes these emotional shifts.
In addition, the passionate, full-bodied, dance-focused performances of the ensemble add a great deal of meaning to the words that made the whole house uproar in laughter, and the ensemble updated and changed the Mozart piece through musical choices. The instrumentation of the show was almost entirely marimba, drum, and vocal, which gave the familiar and old-fashioned music a fresh and lively feel. The performers all gave incredible and complex dance performances as well, which crossed decades, perhaps centuries of styles, from traditional to contemporary which wowed audiences, who lauded the company with a standing ovation at the end. And, of course, all of the vocal performances were absolutely incredible and note-perfect, not a weak link in the large group.
The experience of this opera can only be compared to seeing a Shakespeare play performed live for the first time. It was engaging, challenging, eye-opening, and fun all at once, and it should certainly not be missed by audiences of all ages and experience levels.