The Magic in That Flute

Ken Bullock on February 22, 2012

“What I’m doing,” said David Scott Marley of The Manga Flute, his interpretation of the beloved Mozart-Schikaneder Magic Flute that West Edge Opera will stage March 4–11, “isn’t the same as taking up an opera and changing the setting to a different location.”

Asked about other contemporary opera and stage productions (think “Shakespeare”) that jazz up what some would call a period piece with deliberate anachronisms, Marley demurred on the practice of resetting and spoke reflectively, sometimes with brio, about his new take on Mozart’s Masonic apotheosis.

“What got me interested [in the problem of adapting or resetting operas] was seeing a production in New York, when I was in my 20s, of [Offenbach’s] La Vie Parisienne in which a strange plot was superimposed, with a revolution going on in the background and other stories on the surface. However, they used a standard English translation! It was frustrating. Things didn’t match.

“On the other hand, there’s Carmen Jones [the Billy Rose–Oscar Hammerstein stage musical version of Bizet’s opera, with an African-American cast] ... which works on its own terms. The words say one thing, the setting something else, but you get caught up in the story. It’s not like a Wagner opera set in a different place!

“To tell you the truth,” Marley continued, “I didn’t want to do The Magic Flute. I didn’t like the racism in it, or the attitudes about women. And when I saw one production in an English language translation, what struck me were some absurdities in the plot. Like Papageno explaining to Tamina that he and Tamino will rescue her, even from Sarastro’s impregnable temple — when he’s already inside! In the production, they fixed that, but didn’t change anything about the Queen of the Night.”

Marley went on: “My attitude is that I don’t want to do things by half measures. The whole thing should be of a piece. Doing the original is OK, too, but not one foot in each world. Too much of it becomes an intellectual, not a theatrical, experience. Modern opera audiences don’t always get where commedia dell’arte–style farces are funny. And as [composer-conductor] Lehman Engel — a great teacher — always said, ‘Footnotes aren’t funny.’”

As Marley tells it, West Edge Opera Artistic Director Mark Streshinsky “wouldn’t take no for an answer. He listened to what I said — and would keep going back to Magic Flute. ‘I encourage you to be as wild and crazy as you want to be,’ he said. So I said, ‘What if I take the characters and settings as written, but change the story. How would that be?’ He thought awhile and said, ‘Yes!’”

What the story became is The Manga Flute.

“It’s my fantasia on a theme by Mozart,” Marley said. “In my adaptations, what I’m concerned with is to bring out the qualities in a work that’ve been neglected by translating them to modern-day equivalents.”

To that end, Marley turned to Manga, the Japanese comic book and animated film style.

“[Animated filmmaker] Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away [2001] — one of my favorites — or My Neighbor Totoro [1988] have the right feel: magic or fantasy with a serious sense of young people trying to find their way, their place in the world. The Magic Flute is a magic opera, one of dozens and dozens at the time. I thought manga would be a good counterpart.”

So the unexplained presence of a Japanese prince chased onstage by a dragon becomes explained, but as Tamino now a Tokyo businessman — a hedge fund manager! — out sailing, shipwrecked on a mysterious island, then to a bird refuge, where the migratory birds haven’t been visiting lately, with a lonely Papageno living there, “a bird charmer, not catcher; in essence a concierge for the birds. ... If the birds were harmed, I couldn’t write that and have him be happy at the end.”

From a book by comparative religions commentator Karen Armstrong, Marley came up with the clincher for his version: “an unmotivated act of compassion by someone unsympathetic to someone else who people wouldn’t ordinarily feel compassionate toward ... breaking the Cold War between the two sides that’ve been stagnating.”

Marley concluded: “It’s like trying to copy a painting square by square. To translate something like this, even if you’re deliberately trying to stick with what’s written, you have to re-create it in contemporary English, otherwise it’s going to be very choppy. A stage production’s the opposite of sitting home, listening to recorded music, reading the liner notes. There’re constant compromises. You have to be something of a dramatist, a poet, yourself. Even to convey the sense of the original, you have to reinvent. Reinventing — that’s what I’m really doing with The Manga Flute.