Writer’s notes

(The following notes appeared in the program for the 2012 production.)

The Mangled Flute?

I have a dear friend for whom Mozart’s The Magic Flute occupies a special, hallowed place in the repertory only a notch or two below Wagner’s Parsifal. It’s more than just an opera for him, it’s a sacred ritual, and he resents any tampering with the score or the story in the same way a devout Catholic would resent rearranging the parts of the Mass.

If you are a lot like my friend, then I hope you are reading this before the opera starts, while there’s still time to change your mind and go see a movie instead. Because what you are about to see if you stay is not the Magic Flute you know and revere.

But this isn’t a send-up or parody of The Magic Flute, either. In fact, it’s not really The Magic Flute at all. It’s The Manga Flute, a new interpretation of the story that takes the situations and characters in some very different directions, especially in the second act. You could think of it as a fantasia on themes by Mozart and Schikaneder.

We use most of Mozart’s music, but not always for the same purpose as he did — and occasionally not even for the same characters. The first act mostly follows Mozart’s order, but in the second act the musical numbers are in a very different order from Mozart’s. I apologize to those to whom that seems like mangling, or even like sacrilege. I think it was the right choice for this story. In any case, I promise that the next time you see Mozart and Schikaneder’s The Magic Flute, the numbers will all be where they were before.

How It Started

The first spark for this production came from Mark Streshinsky, artistic director of West Edge Opera. Mark wanted to do a production of The Magic Flute in English that families could come to and enjoy together. That meant the story should be clear and easy to follow, the mood should be more fun and lively than serious and reverential, and it shouldn’t run longer than about two hours of performance time, which is to say about two hours twenty minutes with an intermission.

I was doubtful at first that this project was a good fit for me. I love the music of Magic Flute, but there are a lot of things about the story I don’t like. There are the terrible attitudes expressed toward blacks and women, of course, but those actually weren’t the biggest obstacle for me, because they would be easy enough to get rid of in the writing. It was more difficult to see a way I could make my peace with the general philosophy of the opera, which is woven into the story and thus into the music in many ways.

I don’t see life as a struggle between the enlightened and the unenlightened, and even if it were, I don’t think crushing some portion of the unenlightened counts as a victory for the enlightened. The punishment of Papageno in the first scene, the humiliation of Monostatos at the end of act one, Tamino’s rigid refusal in act two to break his silence even when he sees that Pamina is in despair, the destruction of the Queen of the Night and her allies at the end of the opera — these and other incidents are celebrated in The Magic Flute as excellent things in themselves, as victories of right over wrong, but to me they seem like misguided idealism, even zealotry at times.

And, as is true of a dear friend, it’s one thing to forgive an opera we love for a few things that rub us the wrong way because we enjoy its company so much for other reasons, but quite another to agree to take it into your life and let it sleep on your living room sofa for the better part of a year, which is how long it generally takes me to write one of these adaptations.

But Mark really, really wanted to do Flute. And then he said the magic words to me: “I encourage you to be as wild and crazy as you want to get.” So I asked him, is it all right with you if I keep the characters and the music but change the story? He thought about it for a moment, and he said sure.

So I did. And as I wrote, the story took me in some directions I wasn’t expecting. I won’t say more than that, because I don’t want to give too much away ahead of time. But I hope you’re as surprised and delighted by the result as I was.

About Manga and Anime

Manga and anime are the Japanese words for comic books and animation, respectively. In Japan, the two art forms are closely related and have developed a distinctive flavor, mixing off-beat fantasy, magic, and whimsy with themes that are serious, complex, and sometimes very dark. They are hugely popular in Japan — with adults as well as children — and are quickly gaining fans around the world.

As I started thinking about what I wanted this story to be, I was quickly drawn to the world of manga and anime as its setting. The mix of light and dark, humor and seriousness, magic and reality, were all very right for the story I wanted to tell.

When I noticed that in the original libretto Tamino is in fact a Japanese prince, I knew I’d found the right place for me to start. In my version, then, Tamino is a young, successful stockbroker living in Tokyo — a modern-day Japanese prince, perhaps — who stumbles into a strange, magical world and finds himself changed by it in unexpected ways.

The anime films of Hayao Miyazaki — including Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and especially Spirited Away — are particular favorites of mine. I rewatched them all as I started to work on The Manga Flute, and they certainly influenced how the story developed.

— David Scott Marley