Manga Flute at West Edge Opera

Charming and original…

One of the great operas of all time, The Magic Flute was one of the last works that Mozart completed before his untimely death at the age of 35. Politically savvy, thoroughly modern and beguiling in 1791, the music remains as timeless as the human emotions it evokes. But the social milieu, despite being cloaked in myth, included assumptions that are now wincingly dated.

Eugene BrancoveanuIn a game attempt to modernize Mozart’s gem, the ever-adventurous West Edge Opera commissioned a complete and artistic reworking of this staple of the stage, re-titled The Manga Flute, with a poetic and fanciful English libretto by David Scott Marley. The opening, Sunday March 4 at El Cerrito’s nearly new Performing Arts Theater, was not only a success, but surprising in the scope of its originality.

In conversation with bass Cliff Romig after the show, he commented on this update. “It takes out all of the racism and sexism of the original, as well as the Masonic Order.” Both Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were devotees of a Masonic sect, and their original Sarastro was a forbidding icon to those mysteries, veiled as the Sun God. West Edge’s version may have lacked Mozart’s mystery or depth, but also lacked their underlying ascendancy over the “Order of the Moon,” the sphere of feminine influence.

Director Caroline Altman and long-time musical director Jonathan Khuner implemented Marley’s vision based on manga, the Japanese comic-book art, fetchingly illustrated in backdrops by Megan Willis. They applied a mostly-winds reduction of Mozart’s score by Christopher Fecteau, the composer who successfully reduced Strauss’ Ariadne for their last production. The magic of the comic book format was as unlikely as it was an effective vehicle for our time, while the wind score accommodated the vocal range without sacrificing the meaty overtures.

But the real success of this venture was at least partly due to the talented cast, led by Eugene Brancoveanu as Papageno. I have no idea why that huge-voiced and velvet-tongued baritone is still in the Bay Area, instead of piling up fame and fortune at the Met or La Scala, but I suspect he chooses creativity over earthly desires—as viewers of his Don Giovanni would attest.

The other members of the cast were up for the challenge. The Three Ladies, sung by soprano Melody King and mezzo-sopranos Kathleen Moss and Rebecca Krouner, were not only compelling performers, but offered a luscious blend in their trios. Cliff Romig sang the bass part of Sarastro with all the vocal heft that he brought to North Bay’s Lucia di Lamermoor, and excellent acting that balanced Mozart’s monastic vision with this single-parent update.

The princess Pamina was played to the hilt as a blue-haired manga vision, by Heidi Moss Sali (a.k.a. Heidi Moss for aficionados of her career), with the charm and purity that also makes her a darling of concert repertoire. Opposite her, Tamino bumbled about as a briefcase-toting Tokyo businessman who painfully transforms into her hero, sung with warmth and a sense of natural ease by tenor Darron James Flagg. And Elyse Nakajima popped out amazing high notes with crystal clarity in that most difficult of all coloratura soprano parts, the vengeful Queen of the Night.

The rest of the cast included soprano Lori Schulman as a charming Papagena and talented tenor Keith Perry as the orphan Moss. Actor George Killingsworth added a narrator’s dimension with Foxclaw, and three young “raccoons” delightfully sang and managed the stage business, sopranos Charlotte Khuner, Catherine Scanlon and Sophia Chandler-Freed.

At first it was surprising how many young children attended, but it was a great fit for young audiences, with its contrast of magical nature to the demands of the business world, its clear moral guidance (raccoons urging us to follow the small voice of our hearts) and with its emphasis on our day’s pressing environmental issues… not to mention a child’s view of bitter parental separations!

—Adam Broner

Photo top of Eugene Brancoveanu; bottom of projected set by Megan Willis; both photos by Jamie Buschbaum.

There are only two more performances of this intriguing and audience-friendly work, Friday, March 9 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday March 11 at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information call 510-841-190 or visit westedgeopera.org.

Sarastro's Study