I have received several inquiries into why we are performing our upcoming Magic Flute
in English. It’s a good question that deserves an explanation.
In Mozart’s time (late 1700’s), Italian was the language of opera. The genre of Italian “opera seria” crossed the Alps and settled in Austria, Germany and England in particular. Audiences in Austria attended “court operas,” supported by the nobility and presented in theaters that were near–or a part of–royal or lordly palaces. One can remember the image of Mozart’s operas being performed in Vienna’s Burgtheater in the film Amadeus. Lots of powdered faces, white wigs and bitchy courtiers. After Cosi fan tutte, Mozart fell out of favor with the Austrian court and lost his salaried position. He was also losing his health.
So when fellow Freemason Emanuel Schikaneder offered Mozart a commission to compose a “singspiel” for a suburban Viennese theater, he was compelled to accept. “Singspiel” can be best compared with our own musical comedy, songs separated by spoken dialogue, all performed in German, the vernacular of the Austrian public. The idea was to create a popular form of music theater in a language the audience could understand. Often there were comic lines – some improvised on the spot – that could only come across vividly in the native tongue of the public. Regional accents added color to the text and characters.
Between 1950-80, SF Opera performed Flute
in English five times, because my esteemed predecessors felt the piece could be more successful and better enjoyed in this way. (Conversely, American musicals have typically been performed in translation in Europe.) The sense at that time was that comic operas worked better in translation.
The practice of supertitles, which began in 1984, certainly got opera texts across to our public in a consistently successful way, and simultaneously gave the company an “out” of not having to come up with great translations and drill casts to get English text successfully understood in a huge opera house. Supertitles solidified the practice of using “the original language” as the lingua franca of the international opera company. The practice was welcomed by top-class singers who increasingly had refused to perform their roles in translation. [Above: The 1980 English language production of The Magic Flute including Sheri Greenawald (Pamina), Willard White (High Priest), Ulrik Cold (Sarastro), Stanley Wexler (Second Priest), Jonathan Green (First Priest) and Perry Price (Tamino)]
When SF Opera performed Flute the last time, I felt that something was missing hearing the work done in German. It was then I resolved our next Flute would be once again done in English (yes, with titles!) and that I would personally be involved in the translation. This will happen in June and July of 2012. Fortunately our mostly youthful–and mostly American–cast embraced this concept, as did the conductor Rory MacDonald. I want to especially thank our Sarastro (Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson) and Queen of the Night (the stunning Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova) for making the effort to learn a version of Flute they may never do again.
Somewhere Mozart and Schikeneder will be smiling.