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L.A. Opera's unlikely — and unusual — 'The Magic Flute'

Los Angeles Opera's 'The Magic Flute,' with live performance and animation, is decidedly nontraditional. Barrie Kosky is its contrary creative force.

November 16, 2013|By Deborah Vankin

In a bare rehearsal space downtown at the Music Center, a dozen or so people work through a scene in the dark. The only light comes from projected black-and-white animation flickering on the back wall of the stage — a nude fairy fluttering her wings atop a tree, a black cat leaping over a glowing full moon.

Rodell Rosel, who plays the lovesick Monostatos in this Los Angeles Opera production of "The Magic Flute," gestures wildly from a vine-covered balcony; he is crooning his affection for Pamina (Janai Brugger), whose heart belongs to someone else. Rosel ominously wriggles a black-gloved hand in her direction on the other side of the balcony.

Suddenly, a swarm of animated, disembodied black gloves appears on the wall, wriggling their fingers too, inching closer to Pamina's neck. She retreats, her back against the wall. The live piano accompaniment races — rapid-fire Mozart — at first whimsical, then increasingly intense.

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Until: "Kill Sarastro!" appears scrawled across the wall, punctuated by the sound of a few deep, angry chords.

The scene is at once lighthearted and creepy — decidedly not the beloved and familiar Peter Hall-directed and Gerald Scarfe-designed production of "Magic Flute" that over the last 27 years graced L.A. Opera's stage on four occasions.

This "Flute" — which receives its U.S. premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Nov. 23 — is an interactive, nontraditional reinvention that combines live performance and hand-drawn animation; it weaves throughout visual references to silent films of the 1920s and 1930s, specifically the comedy of Buster Keaton and the kitschy horror of the 1922 German Expressionist film "Nosferatu." And its creative force is unlikely, a man who once blanched at the idea of this opera.

Mozart's two-act opera, written in 1791, is a mystical story about the power of love and Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee), a prince seeking spiritual enlightenment. The production, which also features Rodion Pogossov as the bird-catcher Papageno, is a collaboration between Australian opera director Barrie Kosky, the artistic head of the Komische Oper Berlin; and the British avant-garde theater company 1927 led by Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt.

This multimedia-infused "Magic Flute" debuted in 2012 to much fanfare at the Komische — an experimental house in opera-saturated Berlin. Andrade and Kosky co-directed the production in Berlin, as they will in L.A. — it is Kosky's U.S. directing debut — and Barritt drew the animation, which took about 18 months to sketch by hand. L.A. Opera music director James Conlon will conduct.

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"What the audience sees is a very large screen and sometimes the performers are stuck, like insects, to it or on the floor, and the world around them is animated," Kosky says on a June visit to Los Angeles for preproduction meetings. "The three-dimensional performer is sort of playing with the animation in this low tech but quite beautiful way."

Kosky, in his 1960s East German bowling shoes, chunky silver rings and designer eyeglasses, settles into a folding chair in the L.A. Opera's costume shop. The space is crammed with colorful outfits from operas past, here a gypsy armor from "Il Trovatore," there a Spanish bullfighter's uniform from "Carmen."

Kosky, who joined the Komishe for the 2012-13 season, is the youngest and first non-German to head it. Part of the appeal in reimagining "The Magic Flute," he says, was pushing, even further, the company's tradition of innovation. Berlin has three major opera houses, including the Komishe, and he wanted the 66-year-old company to stand out.

"There's so much opera going on in Germany, they've seen these operas so many times," Kosky says. "The audience demands something different, particularly in Berlin. 'Show us something new, we want to be delighted!' "

Interestingly, Kosky never had any desire to put on "The Magic Flute" — he even actively avoided the Mozart fairy tale, he says, turning down multiple offers to helm the production throughout more than 25 years directing opera.

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"I saw it first when I was 8 and hated it," Kosky says.

"Of course the music is stupendous, but I didn't know how to do it. The combination of the fantastical and psychological elements with this sort of pseudo religiosity — how do you make all that work in one piece?"

It wasn't until Kosky caught Andrade and Barritt's 1927 production of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" — a vignette-based piece with a slightly dark cabaret feel that incorporates bits of animation — in Hanover, Germany, in 2009, that his mind was opened.

"Their style was weird and wonderful, and I instantly thought maybe they'd be the right people to do 'Magic Flute' with," Kosky says. "Suddenly, I'd found a way to do it."

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