While Hollywood has frequently adapted musical theater productions in recent years—the upcoming West Side Story, the recent Dear Evan Hansen and the infamous Cats—opera hasn't found a place on the silver screen as of late. But cinephiles will appreciate Lyric Opera's latest production of The Magic Flute, which draws inspiration from the visual language of silent film in it's eye-popping interpretation of Mozart's final opera.
Performed on and in front of a gigantic screen that stretches across the stage at the Civic Opera House, The Magic Flute eschews scenery and props in favor of projected animations that depict fire-breathing serpents, stormy cliffs and abstract landscapes for the performers to interact with. A series of revolving doors outfitted with small platforms place characters amid the moving imagery, where they often interact with projected elements or are bathed in spotlights.
Originally developed by director Barrie Krosky at the Komische Oper Berlin in collaboration with animator Paul Barritt, this adaptation is a melange of visual and stylistic influences. Title cards displaying dialog that would typically be spoken and actors in white makeup and dark eyeliner evoke early silent films. One of the opera’s antagonists looks just like the titular character of the 1922 German Expressionist vampire film Nosferatu. And the imagery that surrounds the actors on stage often seems inspired by Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam’s photo collages.
Imaginative landscapes and characters that take the form of gigantic skeletal spiders might seem out of place in a more grounded opera, but the fantastical tone of The Magic Flute actually lends itself to a production filled with surreal visuals. Befitting of a narrative that involves enchanted musical instruments, this adaptation doesn’t shy away from abstract cartoonish imagery, like pink elephants lounging in martini glasses or towering humanoid robots.
The lush, kinetic visuals provide a nearly-constant stream of visual stimuli, but the performances of The Magic Flute don’t get lost among the eye candy. British singer Huw Montague Rendall is exaggerated-yet-engaging as the mischievous Papageno, providing some physical comedy through his carefully-timed interactions with the projections behind him. Last seen in the Lyric’s production of Don Giovanni, Chinese soprano Ying Fang sings the production’s most stunning aria during a climactic scene in the second act.
Opera purists may grumble about the limitations of the staging and the relentless visual assault that characterize this version of The Magic Flute, but there’s something refreshing about its unconventional approach to a more-than-200-year-old work. Filled with thoughtful homages to classic cinema, this adaptation finds the balance between the immediacy of a live performance and the possibilities of a multimedia stage production. It seems inevitable that Hollywood will someday adapt The Magic Flute, but no screening could be as thrilling as seeing this psychedelic reimagining of the opera come to life before your eyes.