Director and adapter Mark Dornford-May (former mainstay, with Charles Hazlewood, of the much missed Broomfield Opera at Wilton’s Music Hall) has worked in South Africa for the past seven years, staging celebrated productions of Bizet’s “Carmen” (also filmed) and “The Mysteries” which came to Wilton’s and subsequently Shaftesbury Avenue. In 2006 with producer Eric Abraham he founded the Isango/Portobello company using singers from the township of Khayelitsha outside of Cape Town. The company is deeply rooted in the local community, involving performers whose singing talents were developed through church-choir groups. They mainly come from poor families, living in extreme conditions of near starvation and coping with the ravages of the AIDS pandemic. However, from this unlikely background have come some brilliant amateur singers – well, with their extraordinary talents they are professional now, performing eight shows a week – who absolutely glow with the positive power of singing. Music has been a means not only of enjoying the act of singing itself, but also of escaping from a life that was really no life at all.
The company began by trying out various productions including “West Side Story” and “The Threepenny Opera”, but settled on a version of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” to play first in Cape Town and then to bring to the Young Vic. “A Christmas Carol” was particularly apt as it dealt with the problems of the poor seen through a South African perspective. It was a success in Cape Town and London. In tandem with it was “The Magic Flute”.
This is no ordinary ‘Flute’, which is why it has proved to be so popular. To begin with there is no conventional orchestra, but instead banks of eight sets of marimbas plus steel and oil drums. A trumpet dubs Tamino’s flute and Papageno’s music-box is the tinkling of water-filled glasses plus twinkling lights. The plot is simplified, which is no great loss, but there is still the mixture of ritual initiation of Tamino by fire, water and silence, set beside the comic antics of Papageno the bird-catcher and his search for a mate. And both parts meld very well, often better than some grander, opera-house productions that can go more than is desirable. The Isango/Portobello production is all over in two hours fifteen.
It is hard to imagine even opera purists finding fault with this ‘Flute’. It is so joyful. The singers may not be of the standard of a major opera house, although their choral-singing is glorious. This is no run-of-the-mill performance but a staging full of genuine enthusiasm and the joy of involvement and communication – singing, dancing and acting with colour, vibrancy and sheer fun. This is a celebration of life by people who formerly might never have had any future. What is so remarkable is that it is still firmly based in a South African tradition. It is virtually a non-stop trip through aspects of Mozart and the music of South Africa so that the equation reads ‘Mozart plus marimbas equals magic’. The ‘orchestra’ of marimba-players carries on dancing while performing; oil and steel drums are even louder and more startling than in “Stomp”.
It looks terrific too: Papageno has a chorus of pink birds, the Queen of the Night wears a feathered skirt and has hair higher than Amy Winehouse’s. The three boys are girls in pink night-dresses clutching teddy-bears, and there are flames leaping out of the stage so that it truly looks like an ordeal by fire. All these effects pull you in and add a new layer to what is basically Mozart to a jamming, jazzy beat.
Performances are consistently outstanding. Apart from the exceptional choral singing, the soloists impress too. Mhlekazi Andy Mosiea as Tamino is perfect as an innocent abroad having to undergo his rites of passage. His Pamina, Zolina Ngejane, provides a good foil. The Papageno of Khanyiso Gwenxane is a sad loser who finally gets his reward in the shape of Thomazo Mdliva as Papagena. Pauline Malefane, who has also provided the production with some of the words and music, is a terrifying, in-your-face Queen of the Night. Her famous aria is delivered with enormous power, nothing subtle, but it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand higher than even hers. Conductor (actor, wordsmith and composer) Mandisi Dyantyis keeps the whole thing on the boil without needing to hide in the pit. As Kenneth Tynan similarly once said about a landmark John Osborne play: “I don’t think I could love anybody who didn’t like the Isango/Portobello ‘Magic Flute’.”
- The Magic Flute is at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2 until 12 April 2008
- Tickets on 0870 060 6623