Review: Opera workshop suits up for The Magic Flute

The latest from the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop

- August 25, 2011

Byung Yoon (centre) plays the magic flute during a performance by the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop (Lukus D. Uhlman photo)
Byung Yoon (centre) plays the magic flute during a performance by the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop (Lukus D. Uhlman photo)

If I was the kind of person who had a favorite opera, The Magic Flute would be my favorite opera.

It has the drama factor, since it was Mozart's last finished project before his death (of trichinosis, rheumatic fever or Salieri, take your pick). The plot is a three-ring circus of melodramatic tropes: it starts as a detective story (Prince Tamino is approached by a no-good dame looking for her kidnapped daughter), turns into a fairy tale (Tamino receives a magic flute to aid him in his quest) and wraps up with a splash of spiritualism (Tamino is initiated into the secrets of a Masonic(ish) temple).

The Halifax Summer Opera Workshop's (HSOW) August 13 performance of The Magic Flute was my third viewing of the opera – I'd seen the UBC Opera Ensemble's 2010 staging, as well as Julie Taymor's version at the Met. No Magic Flute I’d seen before, though, conjured up The Queen of the Night's minions as career women in power suits, Sarastro’s temple as a Powerpoint-friendly corporation called "Isis and Osiris," or a Papageno prone to greeting threats with a glower and a rifle (he’s usually a goofy bird-catcher).

Perhaps directors David Mosey and Garry Williams felt that HSOW had garnered enough of a pedigree to experiment a little. The Halifax Summer Opera Workshop has been staging arias in the August swelter since 2004, starting with Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. The company appears to favor Mozart’s works – Don Giovanni was produced in 2006, Il nozze di Figaro in 2008, and an earlier staging of The Magic Flute was put together in 2007. And, while not officially affiliated with Dalhousie, the program’s Maritime locale means that it frequently draws upon the talents of Dal grads and students.

Managing the stage

One such student is Kayleigh Sheehan, who is going into her fourth year in Dalhousie’s technical scenography program (which, for the uninitiated, she explains as “combining essentially everything that’s backstage”). Her “unofficial specialty” is stage management: “it just sort of picked me, in a way. I’m very well suited to it.”

On HSOW’s Magic Flute, Ms. Sheehan’s duties included looking for props, coordinating fittings, recording blocking, and calling the show (among sundry other tasks). This is Ms. Sheehan’s third show with HSOW (after 2010’s Susannah and 2009’s Little Women), but she’s far from bored. “Every production is different, even within the same company.”

You wouldn’t guess from the final product, but HSOW participants don’t exactly have a wealth of time to prepare their performances: two operas have been produced simultaneously in recent seasons (this year’s Magic Flute went up with Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffman), and the workshop itself is only a month long. However, Ms. Sheehan said that the unusual staging of the show harmonized serendipitously with their tight schedule.

“One of the good things about it is we don’t have to rely on historically accurate costuming,” she explains. “A lot of the workshop participants were actually in their own clothes.” She also speaks approvingly of the double-cast performances: “I love seeing the dynamics of two casts working through the same show.”

Though still a student, Ms. Sheehan’s on-the-job experience, both through Dalhousie (she worked on recent shows such as Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle) and community endeavors like HSOW and the Atlantic Fringe Festival, is considerable. “I work more often than I do school at the moment,” she says. “I’ve been really lucky, I’ve been given a lot of opportunities.”

Creative choreography

Andrew Pelrine, who graduated from Dalhousie in 2010 with combined honors in music and theatre, choreographed this production of The Magic Flute (and played Monostatos in HSOW’s 2007 production).

“I started dancing when I was five… ballroom, actually,” says Mr. Pelrine of his background; perhaps more pertinently, he previously choreographed Dalhousie productions such as Die Fledermaus and Orpheus in the Underworld.

While also singing in this season’s Les contes d’Hoffman, Mr. Pelrine worked hard to capture the whimsical, yet modern, flavor of HSOW’s new Magic Flute in its dances.

“There definitely are changes and interpretations, because each director has their own vision… they wanted a lot of it to be very playful and very childish,” he explains.

Mr. Pelrine, who says he “loves the concept of play” was happy to oblige. And, while a current resident of Toronto, Mr. Pelrine was “born and raised in Halifax” and would love to come back and work on another show with HSOW.

After all, it’s not often one has the opportunity to spice up classical repertoire with the chicken dance.


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