Isango Ensemble: The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute

by Eric Sweeney

It is not often that you find roughly 300 elementary school-aged children sitting attentively to an opera.  But that is exactly what happened at The New Victory Theater on Sunday as the sensational Isango Ensemble presented their Oliver award-winning adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

It was a surprising and exciting audience–grandparents with their grandchildren, parents with three or four kids, adults unaccompanied by youngsters, black, white, tan, and everything in between.  It was a very rare moment in the theater where the audience felt like a real reflection of the population of New York City.

This is very much an adaptation of The Magic Flute, occasionally true to the original while at other times much more liberal in its interpretation.  The differences are immediately apparent when you open the program and see that the entire cast is made up of a all black performers from South Africa.  A completely black cast is usually reserved for productions of Porgy and Bess or the original production of Virgil Thompson’s Four Saints in Three Acts.

The show begins in the way every production of The Magic Flute begins, Mozart’s overture. Except this time, the cast plays the overture on eight custom made marimbas. (Cast members take turns playing instruments traditionally found in South African townships: Marimbas, giant oil barrels, glass bottles that have been tuned by filling them with water, and Djembes.) The sound of the native instruments immediately transports the audience out of a theater into the heart of an African township.

Co-music directors Pauline Mefane, a co-founder of Isango, and Mandisi Dyantyis lead the cast in vibrant musical performances that are nothing less than virtuosic.  The singing consists of both operatic and traditional South African Choral music.  There are plenty of times the stage explodes with ululation, clapping, and impassioned dance, but the operatic singing is legit and includes a nuanced and cultivated performance of the infamous Queen of the Night’s Der Hölle Rache. 

It is hard to pick out individual singers as outstanding because this is a true ensemble production.  No one waits in their dressing room between scenes.  The ensemble is on stage the entire performance. The singers who play Papageno, Pamina, and The Queen of the Night play marimba in the overture, and quickly change back to their ensemble costume after their scenes to rejoin the action.

The power of Isango Ensemble’s adaptation lies in the profound connection the artists feel with the piece.  Their version of The Magic Flute has been infused with the spirit of the artists and moves to the rhythm of the drum in their hearts. They have approached this piece with their own experiences and transformed it to reflect their culture and heritage. Sarastro and his followers enact traditional African rituals, for example.  Furthermore, African languages are interspersed into the dialogue and singing.

Having seen such a successful and electrifying performance, I am left wondering if this radical, cultural-based adaptation is not the future that Opera should be taking. Looking around at 250 of my audience-mates smiling and enraptured in the music and story, I think there is something to it.

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