Michael Gow has always had a bit of a thing for the Queen of the Night. Whether it’s her sky-scraping top Fs or her dastardly end, the villainous Queen in Mozart’s The Magic Flute holds something of a fascination for the respected Australian playwright and director.
So when Opera Australia asked him to create a production of The Magic Flute for Australia’s first Opera on the Beach, Gow leapt at the chance to restore the fortunes of Mozart’s Queen.
Taking a very well-known opera out of the opera house and onto a beach offered the chance to break with some of the traditions of the Opera House. The Magic Flute is traditionally a tale of good vs. evil, where good prevails and the evil Queen of the Night is cast into eternal darkness.
“The Magic Flute is this very strange enchanting tale that you can either present as a fairytale or some kind of tale of enlightenment,” Gow explains. “Neither really appealed.”
So Gow has naturally sought the heart of the drama in a scenario we all recognise: a dysfunctional family. The priest Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are divorcees, and Pamina, their daughter, is the collateral.
We won’t give the ending away, but in this version, no one is cast into darkness. “Forgiveness is the order of the day,” Gow says.
Mozart’s famous opera is a very odd story, full of references to freemasonry and Egyptology – Egyptmania was sweeping the Western world at the time he wrote his opera. Gow and designer Robert Kemp looked for a more recent cultural phenomenon that stayed true to the spirit of the opera.
“We thought about the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 and the flood of movies that followed.”
Gow & Kemp have set their production in the 1930s, where Sarastro is a mad British archaeologist and the Queen of the Night his bored, society-hostess ex-wife. Tamino is a young explorer and everyone else “is really a complete fantasy,” laughs Kemp.
Kemp has designed costumes that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a The Mummy or Indiana Jones movie.
“Sarastro is one of those British archaeologists who has gone a bit mad in the desert and become sidetracked by Isis and Osiris (the Egyptian gods),” Kemp explains. “He wears the pith helmet and knickerbockers and lots and lots of tweed.”
Mozart’s colourful, bird-obsessed Papageno is a mythological figure, but Kemp has managed to incorporate him into the look. “He looks a little bit like a lost French foreign legion soldier, wearing Bombay Bloomers and definitely gone AWOL!”
All these characters come together at an Egyptian temple, half-buried in the sand of Greenmount Beach. “We wanted to make it look like one morning everyone on the gold coast woke up to find there has been a big squall and the sand has washed away to reveal an Egyptian pylon, the gateway to a temple,” Kemp explains. “It’s all in the process of being excavated by archaeologists, so that’s how we get Sarastro and his friends.”
The strange tale of fantasy was the last opera Mozart ever wrote and every note sung displays his musical genius. But it’s the story that has stuck with audiences over generations.
“It’s a sort of classic quest, really,” says Gow. “We have a young man who want to find enlightenment and true love. But he’s got it all the wrong way around, and has to deal with his own ego. So much of this opera is about letting go of what you want, and finding a way to meet people halfway.”
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