Mozart gets a Makeover
Magic, Masonry, Mods and Mozart: Elsa Kenningham chats to BOpS about their new production
“I know opera has been - and still is - elitist,” Caia prefaces our conversation. “But we just want to do what we can to get more people involved.”
It is hard to see how BOpS (Bristol Operatic Society) could do much to make this year’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute any more accessible... Having been forced to cancel the 2020 production at short notice, this year’s committee hesitated over whether to put on a show at all. In the end they landed on the safe (though by no means simple) solution of releasing their 2021 production as a series of videos. Narrated à la Peter and the Wolf / Children’s Guide to the Orchestra, they have split the two acts into four videos which are being released successively on their YouTube channel. The first is now available and the second will be released soon. Access is free and open to the public, but they are asking for a voluntary donation to Nightline, a free telephone line that supports students in distress, who they have been working with throughout the year on a mental wellbeing campaign.
Bringing The Magic Flute into the Modern World
Speaking over Zoom to the society’s Vice President Caia Buckeridge and Secretary Aaron Prewer-Jenkinson (violinist in and director of the production respectively), I felt swept up in their enthusiasm for the genre, touched by their gratitude towards others involved in the show, and extremely impressed by just how much time and dedication this whole project must require. Aaron spent over two months of his summer translating the 1791 German original to help the anglophone audience follow the plot. “The other thing about The Magic Flute is that some of
the language and some of the themes are fairly antiquated, so there was an opportunity to use doing our own translation to address some of the more pressing issues that exist within the show - basically translate them out.” I think he’s alluding to the racist stereotyping, and thank God. I (by no means an opera buff) happen to have seen a production of The ‘Flute in France last year, a country notorious for its apprehension towards ‘political correctness’, which made for uneasy watching. “It was a slow process, but definitely worthwhile in the long run for all of the benefits... It also saved a lot on copyright,” he adds jokingly.
The words are not the only thing updated in this 230th anniversary performance - the show is set in the 1960s. “There are princes, giant serpents, secret underground sects… and a huge dose of magic thrown into the loop. We were looking for a time period that would be able to integrate all that,” explains Aaron. The 60s, with its clashes between Mods and Rockers - “the opera almost has an element of gang warfare” - and psychedelia hit the nail on the head. The giant serpent? Just your run-of-the-mill 60s thug. However, other fantastical elements have been retained in the form of Masonic cults and Romani sorcery, which “places the magical elements somewhere within reality”. Altogether it sounds pretty complicated, but it'll all be in English, and the entire plot narrated by Aaron himself. He's also tweaked the plot to
make the characters’ relationships more straightforward (for those familiar with the plot, the Queen of the Night and Sarastro are the separated parents of Pamina, rather than randomers with a grudge). “It took a bit of manipulation, let’s say, but I was doing the translation, so I was in a position where I could do that."
Putting on a Production in a Pandemic
Plot aside, The Magic Flute is of course acclaimed for its music. Anyone who’s been subjected to Classic FM for over 20 minutes will know the Queen of the Night aria with its borderline ear-splitting high F. Following a number of in-person auditions and a period of making adjustments for a Corona-regulated theatre set-up, reintroduced lockdown measures dashed any hopes of playing in the same space, and have forced orchestra members to play their parts at home alone. “It suddenly went from ‘we need a lot of people’s time in a social
environment’ to ‘we need a lot of people’s time in an anti-social environment’,” explains Caia. And the musicians do not have an easy job. Unlike the singers, none of whom sing in every piece, instruments are needed throughout the show, virtually non-stop. The eventual soundtrack for the production will be mixed from the single recordings of each instrument. “It sounds horrible listening to yourself back. You know when you hear your voice back and it sounds horrible? When you hear yourself playing an instrument it
sounds 100 times worse. You want to bury it and cry. So that’s been the hardest thing,” she summarises cheerfully. Caia learnt the violin using the Suzuki method inspired by language acquisition in children. It places more emphasis on playing by ear than reading music - inconvenient if you’re playing in a room on your own. But she is unselfconsciously positive about the whole experience, praising the other instrumentalists for their dedication, the videographer/mixer, and enthusing about how beautiful the music is. When I ask her her favourite part, she whips out her violin to consult Aaron about the name of a specific aria. It transpires this is the final piece of the first video, so if that isn’t persuasion enough to give the first part a go I don’t know what is.
As putting it all together is such a hefty chunk of work, they’ve roped in recent Bristol music graduate Brittany Collie, who will both mix the 18-piece orchestra and edit the video. No mean feat. “We’ve been really really blessed to get someone who knows music to a very high standard and at the same time has all these other skill sets.” In fact, the video format has brought with it some positives. Additions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible add a new dimension - fire, water or
"It's more than a multitrack, this is an audio-visual experience."
thunder effects, appropriate lighting for different characters. Singing heads will be phased in and out, cast members have erected set design in front of their webcams, they have each sourced costumes... The result is a vivid audio-visual experience: “it’s more than just yet another multitrack, which is what I really wanted to avoid,” Aaron emphasises.