Israeli Opera takes Mozart's ‘Magic Flute’ to new level

The usual performing suspects are on the roster for the November 4-15 nine-performance run.

A SCENE FROM the Israeli Opera’s production of ‘The Magic Flute.’ (photo credit: Magda Hueckel)
A SCENE FROM the Israeli Opera’s production of ‘The Magic Flute.’
(photo credit: Magda Hueckel)

As any arts events organizer will tell you, it’s good to offer something the public at large digs.

The proof of that pudding is out there, constantly. While, say, the Rolling Stones – even without the late, very much lamented Charlie Watts behind the skins – still draw adoring and loyal fans in their thousands, purveyors of avant-garde jazz count themselves lucky to “pack in” double-figure crowds.

Thus, it makes perfect sense to reboot the Israeli Opera House as an ongoing entertaining concern, after the protracted pandemic-induced hiatus, with a work that has been a firm favorite since it was first unveiled, in a suburban theater in Vienna, a full 230 years ago.

But this is not going to be a stock presentation of The Magic Flute, not by any stretch of the imagination – with the accent very much on the latter facility.

The evergreen, crowd-pleasing season opener was written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when he was 35, not long before his untimely death. But he left the world with what has proven to be one of the most popular operatic works of all time, which never fails to entice culture consumers of various ilks.

A SCENE FROM the Israeli Opera’s production of ‘The Magic Flute.’ (credit: Magda Hueckel)A SCENE FROM the Israeli Opera’s production of ‘The Magic Flute.’ (credit: Magda Hueckel)

The usual performing suspects are on the roster for the November 4-15 nine-performance run, with the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion and the Israeli Opera Chorus providing the instrumental and vocal foundation for the soloists.

The latter feature an international array of stellar singers, including Australian tenor Alisdair Kent sharing the role of Tamino with American counterpart Aaron Blake. American singer Theo Hoffman will split the character of Papageno with Israeli baritone Oded Reich, while sopranos Alla Vasilevitsky and Yael Levita will portray the leading female role of Pamina.

NIMROD DAVID PFEFFER will preside over the onstage proceedings in what, for him, is a joyful and healing homecoming.

“It is wonderful to be back,” says the 36-year-old Israeli conductor, who now resides in Paris after a lengthy sojourn in New York. “My last working trip here was to conduct at the Opera. That was for [Tchaikovsky opera] Eugene Onedin, which in the end didn’t happen because of the pandemic. We had everything ready for the production and then everything shut down. Coming back now is sort of closure for me.”

Pfeffer has been gracing some of the world’s most glittering stages for some time now. And he has a debut date with the Metropolitan Opera in New York lined up, which, like the forthcoming Tel Aviv series, features a well-loved work that premiered in Vienna. The Big Apple bow was also put on ice for a while.

“It should have happened last season, with [Puccini’s] La bohème, but, like everything else at the time, it was canceled. Now I have been invited to conduct a production of The Marriage of Figaro.”

He seems to be making a habit of taking on works that have been firmly established in most opera fans’ must-see list for some time.

I wondered whether taking on scores that patrons can easily hum without the help of an orchestra and singers, in fact, presents him with a sticky conundrum. Does he feel any pressure to deliver the expected goods?

“I am very happy that, in the last few years, I have had the opportunity to conduct all the famous operas. I really enjoy that,” he replies.

Pfeffer feels – to borrow a distinctly non-PC adage – there is more than one way to skin a mainstream cat. “There is a wide spectrum of interpretations [of The Magic Flute] out there. I have my own approach.”

It also helps that Pfeffer is intimate with various areas of the composer’s oeuvre. “I have conducted quite a few of his symphonies and operas, and also chamber works and concertos, and I played piano sonatas by Mozart. Anyway, I have been listening to his music since childhood. So it is really a part of me.”

All of which will, no doubt, flow smoothly through Pfeffer’s baton next week in Tel Aviv.

AS NOTED earlier, this is not any old operatic presentation. Increasingly, over the past decade or two, performances of musical works have married several artistic disciplines to provide the viewer-listening public with a richer sensorial return, and a more engaging spectacle.

That is certainly the case with this showing, which includes some left-field animation courtesy of the British theater company 1927. The person behind that artistic leap of faith is Barrie Kosky, the Australian-born artistic director of Berlin’s celebrated Komische Oper.

Kosky, who fills the directorial role in the Israeli Opera production, was fully aware of the possible pitfalls of putting on such a hit opera, and was keen to use the familiarity factor to his advantage while offering ticket buyers a fresh spectator experience.

“The Magic Flute is the most frequently performed German-language opera, one of the top 10 operas in the world,” he notes. “Everyone knows the story; everybody knows the music; everyone knows the characters. So you start out with some pressure when you undertake a staging of this opera.”

But the director believes there are plenty of hooks that can be used to the current venture’s advantage, and to deliver a show that is anything but humdrum.

“I think the challenge is to embrace the heterogeneous nature of this opera,” he continues. “Any attempt to interpret the piece in only one way is bound to fail. You almost have to celebrate the contradictions and inconsistencies of the plot and the characters, as well as the mix of fantasy, surrealism, magic, and deeply touching human emotions.”

Kosky came across 1927’s line of creative thought a number of years ago when he saw a performance of theatrical cabaret “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” back in 2007.

“From the moment the show started, there was this fascinating mix of live performance with animation, creating its own aesthetic world,” he recalls. “Within minutes, this strange mixture of silent film and music hall had convinced me that these people had to do The Magic Flute with me in Berlin.”

Next week’s production will offer local audiences a unique operatic experience with the animation, which contains a generous dosage of British humor, appreciably upgrading the onstage dynamics.

“There are no breaks in the musical elements,” Pfeffer explains, “and the animation enriches that.”

It is a special offering on several levels, and involves challenging logistics for the vocalists, too.

“The singers mostly face the audience, so they don’t have many opportunities to make eye contact with each other,” says the conductor. “In addition to releasing the fantasy of this opera by Mozart, the animation can do things you can’t do with actor-singers; and there is no dialogue in this, so that allows the audience to focus on the music.”

Presumably, the 1927 contribution also draws the eye.

“Yes, of course,” Pfeffer replies, “but the visual elements complement the music. There is very little movement by the singers on stage, so the music really comes to the fore.”

If you ever heard a bar or two of The Magic Flute, you will know that isn’t too bad a prospect. And, with the envelope-pushing, definitively entertaining animated backdrop, the Israeli Opera audience may never again hear the popular work in quite the same way.

For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il