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INTERVIEW: Dale Johnson on Minnesota Opera’s Magic Flute Madness

Dale Johnson, Artistic Director of Minnesota Opera. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Minnesota Opera Artistic Director Dale Johnson. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Minnesota Opera’s innovative 2014 production of The Magic Flute was one of the surprise hits of the 2013-2014 season. This adaptation of the classic Mozart opera smashed the company’s box office records, selling 14,584 tickets and bringing in $951,000 in ticket revenue. A year and a half later, the production is back for a special Halloween performance in Duluth and a six-performance run at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. The Twin Cities Arts Reader sat down with MN Opera’s artistic director, Dale Johnson, to discuss this unusual twist on an opera stalwart.

How did you first encounter the Komische Oper Berlin/1927 production of The Magic Flute? What was the process and sequence of events that led to producing the opera in 2014?

Julien Behr as Tamino in the 2014 Minnesota Opera production of The Magic Flute.
Julien Behr as Tamino in the 2014 Minnesota Opera production of The Magic Flute.

Floyd Anderson (Minnesota Opera’s artistic relations and planning director) and I were in New York City for Resident Artist auditions in the fall of 2012, and we met with a British singer agent, Robert Guilder. During breakfast he told us that he had just seen the most amazing production of The Magic Flute and that he thought Minnesota Opera would be the perfect place for this production to premier in the U.S. Later on, as the auditions were taking place, during a particularly slow time, I clicked on the Komische Opera website and saw the video for Magic Flute. Well needless to say, I was astounded. Even with the sound turned off, the visual delight of the piece was overwhelming. During a break, I showed the video to Floyd with the sound up, and we vowed to bring this production to the U.S.

I first contacted the theater company 1927 to ask about rights, and they directed me toward Komische Opera. To make a long story short, we got the licensing agreement from Komische Opera and found out that Los Angeles Opera was also wanting to present it, so we then agreed to coproduce the set and costumes with them. Both companies have a three-year agreement to produce the opera.

The 2014 production of The Magic Flute was a record-breaking success for Minnesota Opera. What about this production makes it such a hit with audiences?

I think the reason the piece is so successful is the opera itself. It is a joyous piece of music with a fun story. It is also flexible enough to take most kinds of concepts. The artwork of 1927 is marvelous, and it made the piece come alive in a very distinctive way. The colors are vibrant, and the storytelling is very fast and very cheeky. The dialogue, which can often drag, is now projected to look like title cards from a silent movie, which cuts the length of the opera to about 2 hours and 30 minutes instead of the usual 3 hours and 15 minutes. The characters are very clearly defined, and they magically interact with the “movie.” All in all I think it’s a very new and different way of opera storytelling. It may not work with every opera, but this pairing was wonderful and the audience, both adults and children, were delighted.

Andrew Wilkowske as Papageno in Minnesota Opera's 2014 production of The Magic Flute. Photo by Michal Daniel.
Andrew Wilkowske as Papageno in Minnesota Opera’s 2014 production of The Magic Flute. Photo by Michal Daniel.

What was the decision-making process that led to reviving the opera just two seasons later?

The decision to remount the show was made, quite honestly, because the license was for a three-year period with a certain number of performances. But there was quite a bit of excitement about bringing it back. It was a real sensation the first time around, and those who saw it said they couldn’t wait to see it again. Those who missed it were thrilled to get another chance.

How do you respond to criticisms that the Komische Oper Berlin production design is disrespectful of the original singspiel? How do you conceive this in relation to more traditional stages of this classic opera?

The original form of singspiel was a departure from the formal theater of the time. Those pieces were generally comic and a little bawdy (Fidelio aside). If you look at the original presentation of Magic Flute, it took place away from the “serious” opera house in Vienna. What I am saying is that the piece contains extraordinary music but is packaged in a very loose and fun way. I think the music is enhanced by this production. I think Mozart would have loved it.

I also firmly believe that we have to constantly stretch how we do opera in order for it to remain fresh for today’s audience. That means we can’t just keep doing the same old and stale production that was presented so long ago. We have at our disposal such video techniques that Mozart would have loved to use. In many ways The Magic Flute was very experimental for its time, and I think this video technique works brilliantly.

This production design makes extensive use of projections, many of which are carefully timed to the action. What are some of the technical challenges that came up during rehearsal?

The projection technique starts with hand-drawn images that are then animated. It is a very long process, and 1927 is very skillful at it. The biggest challenge comes from the singer involvement with the projection. They have to become “two dimensional” [in terms of how they move and act]. In other words they are part of the “movie,” not just acting in front of it. That is very hard and very time consuming to learn. The singers are strapped to platforms that are turned around very quickly, putting the singer into the middle of the scene. They have to know where and when to put their hands, their eyes to make it seem like they are part of the animation.

I think the biggest challenge for the singer is that he or she cannot look directly at the conductor. We have monitors placed around so that they can catch the maestro’s baton. From a purely technical standpoint, one of the biggest challenges was the placement of the projectors. They were high in the back of the theater and set at a rather severe angle to the stage, so we had to work very hard to make sure that the throw of the images on the white screen kept them intact – it had to look like it was coming straight from the back.

Minnesota Opera’s The Magic Flute plays at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center’s Symphony Hall for one performance on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 2 pm. The Twin Cities run at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul opens on Saturday, November 14, 2015 at 7:30 pm, and continues through Sunday, November 22.

Basil Considine