By Jess C
I don’t pretend to be an opera buff, but I have seen enough productions to know what to expect. However, watching the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre’s latest music production, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (subtitled ‘Selected Excerpts in Concert’) was a totally new experience for me.
According to its press release, Mozart’s The Magic Flute ‘aims to reach a wider audience by presenting opera in a more accessible and innovative form with the aid of visual projections and narration.’ So it can reach out to a wider audience: one that would normally consider opera as too high-brow — or, worse, boring.
On the Sunday matinee that I attended, a child started crying amid the audience. Joe Hasham, with a microphone and a music stand in front of him, took it in stride, and incorporated it into the story he was telling. Spontaneous and candid, he enfolded the story with much flavour and life. The audience laughed. Behind him, ingenious animated portrayals (by Studio Voxel) depicted characters, animals and props: the Three Small Boys, the serpent, the magic flute.
Die Zauberflote was Mozart’s last opera, first performed in Vienna, in 1791, just two months before the genius composer died. A two-act Singspiel — a form of opera that includes both singing and spoken dialogue — The Magic Flute tells a fairytale story, filled with good triumphing over evil and romance: the wicked Queen of the Night convinces Prince Tamino to save her beautiful daughter Pamina from the priest Sarastro, who has kidnapped her. In return, the Queen promises Pamina’s hand to the prince. Sarastro puts Tamino through a series of trials, to prove him worthy of the maiden; with the power of the magic flute, our couple is unharmed and — like all fairytales — live happily ever after.
This plot, however, is more complex than it sounds: it usually takes several viewings for most opera buffs to sort out the characters and follow the ins and outs of Tamino’s multilevel adventure. At the same time, The Magic Flute, with its colourful tunes and elements of free-flying imagination, appears charming and accessible. It is often the first opera to which children are taken.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute was definitely a scaled down version of the opera, running at about one-and-a-half-hours, with a limited cast. The narrator became its central figure, telling the colourful story with an accompaniment of eight soloist singers and a 50-piece orchestra.
Miscasts and Room for Improvement
This was second production of KLPac’s six-month-old in-house ensemble, the Sinfonietta; led by conductor Brian Tan, the age of its musicians ranged between 10 to 40 years old. Music director Chong Kok Ting thought it was a very brave attempt. It is not easy to play Mozart. It is good to see young faces learn and enjoy themselves so much,” he said. Unfortunately, the young orchestra definitely had much room for improvement; the quality of their playing was only borderline fairish.
The same could be said of Mozart’s The Magic Flute‘s vocal quality. The pareddown opera consisted of selected excerpts, with all the main arias and most of the main characters thrown in — Tamino (Peter Ong), his cohort in misadventure, the flamboyant birdcatcher Papageno (James Long); the vicious Queen (Tan Sin Sim), Pamina (Irma Lailatul Munira), and the Queen’s Three Ladies in Waiting (Kho Mei Ling, Janet Lee and Wang DiXia); the delightful Papagna (also played by Janet), and the solemn-looking priest Sarastro (John Tan).
To novice ears, the eight soloists might have appeared to perform their difficult repertoire with aplomb. It is an understatement to say that the songs in Die Zauberflote are challenging to interpret. ‘The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart’, often referred to as the ‘Queen of the Night Aria’, has an extremely high coloratura sequence, and is one of the very few pieces in classical opera to have sopranos reaching the ‘high F’ (three octaves above middle C; in fact, it is common amongst musicians to refer to this note as the ‘Queen of the Night F’).
It was a mammoth task for Tan Sin Sim to tackle one of the toughest pieces of the operatic repertoire. She did it — but it wasn’t a comfortable and confident effort: the young soprano’s voice appeared thin and stiff.
To me, the most natural and well-cast voice was that of Irma’s, whose sweet and docile soprano seem made for Pamina. In contrast, John Tan as Sarastro was a misfit of sorts. John (normally a baritone; he joined the production at the last minute, when two bass singers were unable to make the production) had to strain his voice to very low bass notes, and was barely heard, at times. The miscast didn’t do justice to the singer — or the audience.
Worth mentioning were the Three Ladies in Waiting. Mei Ling, Janet and DiXia delivered fantastic performances, both in terms of their voices — and their acting as the three loud, vicious ladies of the Queen. The show came to life every time the threesome took the stage, tempting and seducing the poor Tamino in various ways, so he would fail the test.
I particularly liked the lively Papageno / Papagena duet — flirtatious and cheerful ‘love song’ with a “pa-pa-pa” refrain that was fun to listen to and to watch. It also featured Janet, whose flirtatious and vivacious touch to her character connected to the audience — this song earned the loudest applause!
It is a shame that the acoustics of Pentas 1 could not accommodate the voices. There was no synergy between the soloists and their accompanying orchestra. In an ideal situation, the ensemble is always placed in a pit in front of a stage’s proscenium; singers hear themselves better when there isn’t an orchestra drowning their voices from behind. Here, due to space constraints, the ensemble did exactly that. Most of the soloists were soft and quite muffled: it was almost impossible to make out what they were singing. I suppose the audience could have referred to the lyrics printed in the souvenir programme — but they shouldn’t have to.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute was a production that offered young musicians and singers a platform for exposure. But, noble intentions aside, how did KLPac’s attempt at making opera more accessible fare? Ticket prices were relatively affordable, starting from RM30 — and there is no denying that it is an amiable effort, and the production was rather entertaining. But did it do justice to the source material — an opera by Mozart, no less — and to the form?
The concept may have been innovative and the performers ‘young’, but even with the effort shown by the singers and musicians, novelty can’t hold water if the overall quality of the music and singing were not up to par.
At least, that was my opinion. Judging from the matinee show I attended — a full house, with many young audiences who appeared to enjoy themselves — perhaps this isn’t so important. I talked to Faridah Merican, executive producer and director, after the show, and she said that KLPac was not worried how hardcore opera and classical fans would react.
“We are not hitting out at anyone,” she said. “I think we got to the right nerves. People want to come to enjoy and be entertained and we gave them that.”
First Published: 30.03.2007 on Kakiseni