The symbolic struggle between light and darkness is employed by numerous world religions, as well as in Freemasonry – a society to which the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) belonged. So it’s fitting that in his last opera, “The Magic Flute,” he brings this struggle to life in a fantastical story that has charmed audiences for centuries.
This week, the Imperial Symphony Orchestra’s annual production of a Night at the Opera, a fundraising gala, will feature “The Magic Flute.” Polk County audiences may see and hear for themselves how the hero Tamino overcomes the temptations of the evil Queen of the Night and emerges on the side of right.
The one-night-only performance takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday in Branscomb Auditorium on the campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland. Ticket information can be found here. Although the original libretto was in German, this production will be sung in English.
The story follows the travails of Prince Tamino and his companion, the birdcatcher Papageno. Tamino is rescued from a dragon by the Queen of the Night and persuaded to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the priest Sarastro, who has abducted her. The plot twists and turns, as Tamino learns that all is not as it seems, and he must decide where light and truth lie. Papageno, who provides some comic relief, is mainly interested in finding a wife.
The home of the priests of Isis and Osiris, led by Sarastro, is traditionally given an Egyptian setting, but stage director Mark Thomsen has decided to render it as a Mayan temple.
“It’s sort of a Brigadoonish universe – the forest and the temple,” Thomsen says. “I’ve always been interested in the parallel between the temples of Egypt and the Mayans.”
Thomsen has pulled out a lot of stops in the production. The dragon is portrayed in Chinese New Year fashion, and dancers dressed as jaguars appear. Guiding spirits fly around on scooters. Smoke and lighting effects are employed to accentuate the themes of light and darkness, fire and water.
“It’s more elaborate than usual. I’m excited, but it’s a lot to coordinate. Everybody is enjoying it,” Thomsen says.
The principal roles include four artists returning to Lakeland from previous engagements with the orchestra. Soprano Maria Kanyova, a fan favorite who is making her fifth appearance with the Imperial Symphony, sings the role of Pamina. Tenor Wesley Morgan, a graduate of Florida Southern College, had a supporting role in the 2017 production of “I Pagliacci” and returns to sing the part of Tamino. Soprano Teresa Castillo (the Queen of the Night) and baritone Eric Lindsey (Sarastro) sang in the Imperial Symphony’s Christmas concert in December 2017.
It is Kanyova’s first time performing the role of Pamina, although she has sung in concert Pamina’s featured aria, in which she believes Tamino has abandoned her.
“I die at the end of most operas,” Kanyova quipped. “It’s fun to do an opera that’s comic for a change.”
Although Pamina appears to be a helpless damsel who needs rescuing, Kanyova takes a more modern approach with the role.
“I think she’s smart. I kind of play her as knowing her mother is stark raving crazy, and she just wants to get out from under her and live a good life,” she says.
Morgan, who has previously sung the role of Tamino, says it has moments that demand heroic singing.
“It’s a role I love. I see it as a coming-of-age story. Tamino is a seeker of righteousness,” he says.
“The Magic Flute” is not a true opera in which all lines are sung but rather a “singspiel,” or operetta, that includes spoken dialogue. The singers agree that alternating between Mozart’s demanding music and projecting spoken words can wear on the voice.
“It’s a very different use of the voice,” Morgan says. “The style of acting is so different in opera, where a phrase can last for a minute or more.”
(Hear the Queen of the Night’s famous aria, “Der Hölle Rache,” or “The Revenge of Hell,” here.)
The dialogue and libretto of “The Magic Flute” can present some problems for modern productions, with stereotyped roles that today could be considered sexist or racist. Accordingly, Thomsen has made some cuts to the original text, in collaboration with veteran conductor James Caraher, former director of the Indianapolis Opera, who is continuing a run of appearances in charge of the Imperial Symphony’s pit orchestra.
Thomsen, a tenor in his own right who continues to perform occasionally while holding the position of professor of music at Florida Southern College and director of the school’s Opera Theatre, says he has known Caraher for more than 35 years.
“It’s good we know one another really well. It’s easy to call him up and say, ‘What do you think of making these cuts?’” he says.
Some of Thomsen’s students and former students are appearing in the production, in supporting roles or as members of the chorus.
“The relationship between the Imperial Symphony and the college is a friendly one,” he says. “This production couldn’t happen without that.”
(Top rehearsal photo by Tom Hagerty)