"Die Zauberflote," or "The Magic Flute," Mozart's last piece for the theater, raises the possibility that maybe plots don't matter. Its story line has baffled people for a couple of centuries, but it sells out just about every time it gets produced -- and it gets produced 100 times or more every year at venues around the world, including a three-day run in Anchorage from Friday, April 10 through Sunday, April 12.
Why? Perhaps because theater is not linear. The moments we remember best, as in life itself, are those of surprise and inexplicable coincidence that seem to convey more than we can say about them.
The surprises are often crude and yet they command attention. Movies with special effects, usually things blowing up, sell more tickets than thoughtful, profoundly moving arthouse films. Television series get remembered for the star's cute smile or glowering glance or amusing catchphrase (e.g. "Dy-no-mite") more than for what happened on them. And few operas, stripped of their music, make much sense.
That's particularly the case for "Zauberflote," variously described as a grand opera, a "singspiel" ("sung play") and a vaudeville.
Mozart's other operas, even those with a supernatural element, are among the most dramatically logical and stylistically consistent ever written. The locales are real, the characters are normal people clearly defined from start to finish. Any intercession by divine or demonic powers tends to be limited, a consequence of human action, not the driving force of the drama.
"Zauberflote," on the other hand, brims with magic. Enchanted bells, a device that locks lips and the flute of the title. Mysterious devices pop up for a scene and are then forgotten -- an operatic version of things blowing up. The score also leaps around, mixing stirring arias of love and vengeance with Punch and Judy-style slapstick with somber anthems. There's also a whole lot of talk and plenty of ominous thunder.
The story involves a Japanese prince and his ostensibly non-Japanese beloved, who undergo mysterious trials in a place like ancient Egypt. It's possible to imagine that the idea was conjured from the availability of miscellaneous costumes backstage, including a parrot get-up, a couple of suits of armor and a bunch of druid-like gowns.
Characters introduced as good or bad suddenly change positions. People leave one scene together and pop up in the following scene inexplicably separated, or vice versa. There seems to be a moral -- or maybe many morals -- but exactly what has been the subject of debate: Is it a children's fairy tale or a profound allegory?
Scholarly opinion, and there's much out there, has ranged from that of Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who found it silly, to egomaniacal composer Richard Wagner, who considered it to be the "peak of German opera," superior even to his own works.
Public opinion, on the other hand, has been solid over the past 224 years. It was a hit when it opened and has been one ever since.
The success of the show is surely due to Mozart's music. But the music isn't the only thing. Aside from the infectious overture, said to have been written hours before opening night, "Zauberflote" excerpts are not common concert fodder. Much of the music, like the George Lucas-like trials by fire and water, are dull when unaccompanied by the action. Concert versions that are sung without staging or costumes have generally flopped, even when headlined by the likes of Jenny Lind. Trying to update the setting and characters to something more contemporary -- director Kenneth Branagh made a movie of the opera set in World War I -- generally disappoint.
Whatever magical formula Mozart used to make his "Flute," directors mess around with it at their own peril.
Bill Fabris, a director with an international resume who has previously headed up several shows in Anchorage, is taking the risk in this current production. Admittedly it's a calculated risk, not a radical revision.
The scene moves to a single, recognizable locale: Mount Olympus. The impressive set, by Cleo Pettitt, whose previous Anchorage work includes Anchorage Opera's colorful and cartoonish "Pirates of Penzance" in 2013, is a glorious Grecian temple court lined with Doric columns that convert to walls for interior scenes.
Similarly, Fabris has transported the hodge-podge of characters into the consistent mythology of the Greco-Roman gods and demigods. In this version, subtitled "The Gods at Play," the Olympic pantheon performs the "Zauberflote" story. Hence Sarastro is presented "as played by Zeus," king of the gods. His nemesis, the Queen of the Night, is played by Hera, the much-abused and vindictive wife of Zeus. The Prince is played by Paris and his love interest is played by Helen of Troy. The comic bird-catcher Papageno and his girlfriend are played by Fauna, in a ram's horn headdress, and Flora, minor deities of woods and meadows.
Seen in rehearsal on April 5, the concept appeared to work well on several levels. In Greek mythology Helen is a daughter of Zeus; in the original opera, Sarastro has a unspecified fatherly relationship with Pamina. Papageno plays Pan pipes, and Fauna is another name for the pipe-playing, horn-headed spirit Pan.
"I wanted to find a way to tell the story that's not confusing," Fabris said. "The original has too many secrets."
"Zauberflote" is often cited for containing Masonic symbolism shared only among initiates sworn to secrecy. No one's sure how much of that would have been familiar to rank-and-file audiences in 1791, but it's lost on the audiences of 2015, Fabris thinks.
"I wanted to get past the Masonic imagery," he said. "People don't understand it now. But they do know about Greek mythology."
Curiously, movies and television have kept that ancient mythology culturally current. Mozart's "Three Ladies," usually seen as gowned servants of the Queen, here become the Furies, Hera's agents of rage and retaliation, and appropriately look like extras from "Xena: Warrior Princess."
Fabris also suggested that in populating the cast with gods, who exist in a kind of equality that transcends ethnicity or gender, he "got away from the misogyny and racism of the original."
It would probably be politically incorrect to stage "Zauberflote" in America faithful to the original words and stage directions. The most prominent villain is a Moor, Monostatos, who is foolish, cruel and savagely punished by the presumably enlightened Masonic high priest, Sarastro. The original characterization, which was standard well into the last century, would strike modern viewers as having stepped out of a minstrel show.
Fabris' solution is to have Monostatos "played by" Dionysus/Bacchus, the god of wine and chaotic revels. It may not square as neatly as the connection between Sarastro and Zeus, but it doesn't violate the character and is racially neutral.
"Zauberflote" was written in German, intended for a mass popular audience who didn't understand the Italian spoken by worldly Viennese nobles and used for Mozart's other important operas. It is often performed in translation, including popular productions at the Met. The thinking is that hearing the words in the local language helps the audience get the plot. Yet the songs and choruses are almost exclusively known by their German titles and purists rail that the lyrics don't scan effectively in English.
Fabris has opted for an approach that splits the difference. The dialogue is spoken in English and the songs are sung in the original German with English translations projected above the stage.
A veteran of many musicals, the director is paying close attention to the choreography. The tight ensemble movement in "Pirates" helped make the show. But "Zauberflote" offers fewer opportunities for the mugging of Gilbert and Sullivan. Several choruses have a liturgical formality. Yet on Sunday night, Fabris was busy fine-tuning the dance and motion.
"Step, tap. Step, tap," he shouted to rows of Sarastro's priests making an entry in lockstep rhythm. "Give those robes a spin," he instructed bass Branch Fields, encumbered by more glimmering linen than most people have on their beds. "Don't let the costume win; it's a rule of theater."
He smoothed out the steps of the Three Fates, who have to glide smoothly despite being strung together by the Cord of Destiny. He urged the Furies to bring more "physical energy" to their scenes. Element by element he ratcheted details into place. The plot of "Zauberflote" may be fragmented, but the link between visual effects, whether in Egypt or Olympus, project their own tale and require their own logic.
"We're still telling the same story," Fabris said. "The story of love, of good versus evil, light versus dark. I just want to tell it in a fun way."
DIE ZAUBERFLOTE ("The Magic Flute" or "The Gods at Play") will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 10-11, and 4 p.m. Sunday, April 12, in the Discovery Theatre. Tickets are available at centertix.net.