The Hon Sings

'The Magic Flute' is far from over — Opera Vivente gives it a Baltimore accent

  • John Dooley (Papageno) and Marcy Richardson (Papagena), rehearse with Baltimore accents for Opera Vivente's of "The Magic Flute."
John Dooley (Papageno) and Marcy Richardson (Papagena), rehearse… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
May 09, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Typically, when the character of Papageno the bird-catcher makes his entrance in Mozart's beloved opera "The Magic Flute," he's carrying a cage and, often, sporting a few feathers himself. When he appears in Opera Vivente's new production of the work, Papageno's most avian feature will be the word on his shirt — "Orioles." And don't be surprised if he's hoisting a Natty Boh.

This isn't your father's "Magic Flute," hon.

During the company's 12 seasons, John Bowen, founding general director of Opera Vivente, has frequently spiced and updated familiar works, which are always performed in English. It was probably just a matter of time before he would find a way to reimagine this particular piece in a Baltimore — make that Bawlmer — context.

Bowen's "Flute" comes complete with an authentic accent, at least for Papageno and Papagena, the folksy pair who add color and charm to the opera plot.

"I've sung in French, Italian, Russian, Latin and Spanish, and this is the hardest yet," says the Papageno in the cast, baritone John Dooley. "One of the most terrifying things to do is to sing in the native language of the audience. They're either going to give me their blessing here or throw fruit at me."

Judging by how easily Dooley slips into the local dialect during an interview — nicely tweaked O's, a smattering of "deeze" and "doze" — the Northern Virginia-born, Pittsburgh-based singer is going to be quite convincing. Same for Marcy Richardson, the New York-based soprano originally from Grosse Pointe, Mich., who will sing the role of Papagena. Of course, they have an excellent teacher.

Bowen, a native Baltimorean, can switch into a perfect Hampden or Dundalk voice at the drop of a consonant, mangling grammar deliciously, too, as he goes, with "seen" for "saw," "right" for "very," and all the rest.

"I tell John, 'You're my Rosetta stone for Bawlmer-ese,'" Dooley says. Replies Bowes: "It's hard to I.P.A. this."

What does our local dialect have to do with the opera that Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder created in 1791? Would the composer recognize his masterpiece?

"The Magic Flute" is an entertaining, often comic fairy tale propelled by some of Mozart's most sublime music. The story begins with would-be hero Tamino being enlisted to rescue a fair maiden, Pamina, from a supposed sorcerer, Sarastro, sworn enemy of the powerful Queen of the Night. The colorful Papageno and the woman of his dreams, Papagena, add charm.

The piece operates on several levels at once. Behind the children's story facade are deeply meaningful and symbolic pieces with lessons about life for all of us. We are presented with clearly defined good and evil characters at the start, only to have our perspective reversed halfway through. Sarastro praises virtue and brotherhood, but also keeps slaves. There are puffy sermons on the superiority of men over women, but the strongest acts in the story are performed by women.

Beneath all these intriguing contradictions and twists lie any number of symbols related to Freemasonry (Mozart was a Mason), starting with a number itself — three. The three knocks Masons used are echoed in the overture; Three Ladies and Three Spirits are among the characters; there are three temples, "Wisdom," "Reason" and "Nature," where Sarastro presides over his priestly brethren; etc.

Some commentators obsess over the Masonic touches in the opera. Others gloss over the off-putting ideas that crop up in the libretto, especially the racial insensitivity involving Sarastro's black slave, Monostatos. Bowen's Bawlmer angle does not aim to jettison material so much as re-examine it.

"If I have to change too much of a libretto, the concept isn't right," the director says. "I cut maybe five lines of dialogue. I tried to find modern equivalents of the original German words." (Opera Vivente supporter Ellen von Seggern Richter provided Bowen with a fresh, literal translation of the libretto as a starting point for his final text.)

The Bawlmer "Flute" retains the basic thrust of the plot and the social class distinctions of the characters. Sarastro, for example, is identified as living in Hunt Valley, far from the urban world of Papageno.

"Any metropolitan area has these differences," Bowen, 46, says. "Mozart is trying to represent a very broad spectrum of humanity, and all the subsets."

Fantasy elements in the original have been played down. Instead of a giant serpent chasing Tamino in the first scene, for example, the threat will come from paparazzi. And they will be quelled by the Queen of the Night's Three Ladies, "who are media-savvy and speak with no-accent-news-anchorwomen voices," Bowen says.

Sarastro's business, rather than officiating over a noble ancient priesthood with Egyptian resonances, is "Isis and Osiris Inc." The Queen of the Night "has a very different corporate model," says Bowen. "She has a cosmetics company."

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