“The Magic Flute,” one of the most popular operas of all time, wasn’t actually written for the opera house. In fact, Mozart created his 1791 masterpiece for a public theater, or vaudeville house.
“‘Magic Flute’ is one of the most accessible operas for people of any age and of any experience with opera — Mozart would approve of my analysis,” explains Joshua Collier, artistic director of Barn Opera.
“That’s one of the reasons for the concept. ‘The Magic Flute’ is a bedtime story — it’s a fairy tale.”
Barn Opera will present Collier’s family-friendly adaptation of “The Magic Flute,” in English and staged with piano, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 13 and 14, at Brandon Town Hall Theatre, 1 Conant Square in Brandon. (Because the Barn Opera House isn’t ready for occupancy, “The Magic Flute” will be performed in Brandon Town Hall Theatre.)
The Barn Opera House, Barn Opera’s new home, is appropriately a barn — a 73-foot by 35-foot 19th-century post-and-beam dairy barn on Pearl Street adjacent to the Sanderson Covered Bridge. Still under construction, the new auditorium will seat 120 people and utilize Compass Music and Arts’ Steinway B piano.
“The Magic Flute,” K. 620, is an opera in two acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), with a German libretto by Emanuel Schikenader (the original Papageno). It premiered two months before Mozart’s death and was an immediate popular and critical success, remaining so to this day.
In this fantasy, the Queen of the Night convinces the ever-so-earnest Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter from the “evil” high priest Sirastro, but things are not as they seem. Accompanying Tamino and befriending Pamina is the earthy bird-catcher Papageno, much more concerned with food and drink, and finding a wife, than in the highfalutin ideals of Sirastro and Tamino.
The Queen of the Night and Tamino end up doing battle over Pamina, with all sorts of messy details, but it’s Papageno that the audience roots for. (There is also a lot of symbolism: Sirastro and the temple represent the fraternal order of Freemasonry, of which Mozart and fellow composer Joseph Haydn were members.)
“Tamino is the ‘heroic’ and Papageno is the everyman. He’s the one that actually gets it,” Collier recently explained over coffee at Capitol Grounds in Montpelier.
A successful opera tenor and frequent star of Opera Company of Middlebury productions, Collier created Barn Opera in 2018 to produce intimate opera. After its initial production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” Collier created his own adaptations, sensitive to today’s sensibilities, of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Bizet’s “Carmen,” all at the 50-seat Brandon Music Café. Available to larger audiences, Collier’s approach to “The Magic Flute” continues the theme.
“I knew I wanted to do it in English, so I was looking for an English translation,” Collier said. “I knew about Andrew Porter and his reputation as a solid scholar, so I decided to use his translation before reviewing it.”
After reading it, though, Collier decided it was totally inappropriate for today’s audiences. (It is important to note that translations vary a great deal.)
“It was written in 1984, which is a completely different paradigm,” he said. “There are major, major racist overtones, major sexist overtones. Pamina needs a man to help her through, and in the temple, only men are allowed to be enlightened. Women have no business in the temple. In fact, in one line is ‘the feet of women have defiled the temple.’
“I just found that so offensive,” Collier said.
Collier’s concept, which “adjusts” some of the original’s “sins,” adds two new characters: a little boy and his grandfather.
“The little boy is anti-opera. He has no interest in it, but he wants a bedtime story that he hasn’t heard before,” Collier said. “So his grandpa starts telling him about Tamino being chased by a dragon. And that’s enough to get him in, so the little boy gets into it and begins to like the opera.”
Throughout, these characters comment, taking the place of a lot of the dialogue, so that the story moves a little more quickly and the language feels more natural. Collier purposely has left one of what he calls the “offensive moments,” one with the Three Ladies, the Queen of the Night’s cohorts.
“The stage, where the boy’s imagination of the story is taking place, will go black and the boy will say, ‘Wait a minute! Why are they being so mean to these women?’ and the grandpa will say, ‘You have to remember that this was written a very long time ago, and things were a little different then.’”
But that’s the only “teaching” moment.
“As far as the completion of the concept, I don’t want to tell you until you see it,” Collier said with a laugh. But, he insists, the production will deliver Mozart’s intentions faithfully.
“The production has all the music of ‘The Magic Flute,’ all the fun, but the story is about operatic conversion for a little boy,” Collier said. “That’s my story.”
With music direction by Nicolas Giusti and accompanied by Claire Black on piano, Barn Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute” features baritone Scott Ballantine as Papageno, soprano Jessica Jane Jacobs as Pamina, tenor Spencer Viator as Tamino, soprano Heather Bobeck as Queen of the Night, and bass Luke Scott is Sirastro. The Three Spirits are participants in the Youth Opera Workshop of Vermont, a satellite program of the Middlebury Community Music Center.