One of the many intriguing moments in Milos Foreman’s 1984 film, Amadeus, depicts Emperor Joseph II and his court discussing the language of an opera that is to be commissioned from newcomer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While the emperor desires an opera in German and his chamberlain advocates “plain German for plain people,” the Italians in the court argue that Italian is the language of opera and that German is “too brutal for singing.” Of course, the Emperor gets his way and Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) is commissioned.
While the facts of the commissioning are true, the scene itself is completely fictionalized, as is the film’s general premise of court composer Antonio Salieri as a vindictive antagonist. However, there is an important historical truth lurking behind the creative license. The emperor, in fact, spurred nationalistic feelings in a late 18th-century German-speaking Europe that yearned for alternatives to the dominating repertoire of French and Italian opera. Generally, the choice was to elevate the humble German Singspiel, a combination form of sung music and spoken dialogue in the vernacular, to loftier results. It is in this spirit of popular theater in a Singspiel form—a form not unlike American musical comedy—that Mozart’s final opera, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), from 1791, was born.
The libretto for The Magic Flute was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, the impresario of the Theater auf der Wieden, a theater in the suburbs of Vienna, for production there. Schikaneder was a quintessential man of the theater. He was fond of elaborate theatrical effects that he used liberally in his productions, had a magnetic stage persona as an actor, and possessed considerable skills as a writer. Mozart was attracted to Schikaneder for his unusual character, but also for his ability to make money with his productions. Mozart wrote the opera’s role of Papageno, the wandering bird-catcher, to feature Schikaneder’s performance abilities. In addition, Mozart and Schikaneder were both Freemasons and proceeded to fill the production with loads of veiled Freemason symbolism that is stilled discussed and debated today.
The University of Tennessee Opera Theatre returns to downtown and the Bijou Theatre this weekend with a production of The Magic Flute—one that seeks to fulfill the ideal of Singspiel for the audience by performing the spoken dialogue in English, and in a somewhat shortened form, but with the humor and essential exposition intact. Those familiar with the opera will undoubtedly consider this a real positive.
UTOT stage director James Marvel sees another positive. “We decided to produce The Magic Flute as an opportunity to showcase our undergraduate talent,” he says. “In addition to providing roles for all of the graduate students, all of the undergrads have roles as well. The chorus, for example, is made up entirely of people who are not playing their primary roles during that given performance.”
Traditionally, UTOT has used double-casting over multiple performances; this production will be no exception.
“The two casts are well balanced and quite different from one another,” explains Marvel. “As always, I attempt to give each individual the opportunity to explore their role in the way that inspires them most as an individual.”
UT voice professor Andrew Wentzel highlighted one particularly interesting opportunity in casting. “[Audiences] saw Mattia D’Affuso in two baritone roles last year, Figaro in Barber of Seville and Guglielmo in Cosi fan Tutte. This year, he is making the difficult switch to tenor—and Tamino will be his first fully exposed tenor role.”
While returning to the Bijou as a venue is a plus for UTOT’s audience as well as its performers, the move comes with its own set of issues.
“As always, producing in the Bijou puts a huge financial strain on our production resources,” Marvel admits. “As you will remember, Barber was quite minimal in terms of the set. Similarly, the set for The Magic Flute is the same as the set for Medea, only painted differently and with a backdrop I purchased from a show I recently did in New York. These concessions were necessary to afford being in the Bijou, but the students are united in their belief that performing in the Bijou is important for their artistic growth.”
The UT Symphony Orchestra will be in the Bijou pit under UTOT music director and conductor Kevin Class.
Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.
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