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Making Sense of 'The Magic Flute'

Opera Pacific's Dorothy Danner tackled several problems to stage it for a modern audience.


The audience has it easy. They can love Mozart's "The Magic Flute" without reservation. The stage director has a harder task: making sense of the discrepancies in the libretto.

Discrepancies, you ask?

Name one.

"The Queen of the Night sings like a force of good in Act One, then in Act Two, she's a force of evil.

"The Three Spirits are sent by the Queen, then in Act Two they're working for Sarastro.

"Why does Sarastro have slaves? And if he has so much benevolence, why does Monostatos get 100 lashes?"

So says Dorothy Danner, stage director for Opera Pacific's presentation of Mozart's fairy tale opera this week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Danner has some points.

But why these discrepancies?

"The theory I like the best is that when [Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder] started writing, another show based on the same fairy tale opened just before they finished the first act," she said.

"So they had to go a different way and threw in the Masonic elements. I think they were such busy men of the theater, they didn't have a chance to go back and fix it."

There's also the problem of the libretto's 18th century views on women and minorities.

"We've cheated on some of that," Danner said. " 'A woman chatters' has been changed to 'That woman chatters.' You just have to do that, otherwise you'll hear groans and laughter.

"We had to take care of some of that. The same thing with 'black Monostatos.'

"Another problem with this show, which is true of most 18th century operas, there's a kind of wit that needs to be there, which requires grace, certainly to fit the music and the story. A great deal is required of the singers . . .

"There are so many challenges to doing a wonderful production of this piece."

Such a wonderful production, for Donner and for many others, was Ingmar Bergman's imaginative film of the opera, originally made for Swedish TV in 1974 and later released as a feature film.

"I love Bergman's approach, the deeply human approach," Donner said. "Certainly, it fits with the spiritual concepts in this production. I'm such a fan of it. The first day, I told the cast, go see it and just refresh yourself. You will see the essence of each character right there."


Opera Pacific presents Mozart's "The Magic Flute," today and Thursday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $28 to $107. (714) 556-2787.


Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at

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