Yale School of Music opera students will perform Mozart’s famed 1791 opera “The Magic Flute” this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Shubert Theater. Set in a fantasy world, the opera tells the story of Tamino, a prince, sent to rescue the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, from her captor, the high priest Sarastro.
The production, directed by Dustin Wills DRA ’14, also features School of Drama alumni working as lighting, scenic, projection and costume designers, and Israel Gursky conducting the Yale Philharmonia.
“There’s something about opera that is so mathematical, yet set so purely raw and emotional,” Wills said. “Opera really combines these two things I am passionate about.”
Although Wills focuses on directing theater, he has also worked on operas since he learned about the form during a drama school course he took while enrolled at Yale.
Sylvia D’Eramo MUS ’18, who plays the role of Pamina in the production, said “The Magic Flute” remains a popular production choice for many opera companies. D’Eramo described Mozart’s music for the opera as “accessible and melodic,” and noted that with each rehearsal, she notices different intricacies in the score.
“The Magic Flute” is a “singspiel” opera — a form of opera that involves both sung portions and spoken dialogue.
Grasping the technique necessary for the spoken dialogue has required some extra practicing, D’Eramo said. Without the internal singing resonators on which they usually rely, D’Eramo and her colleagues must resort to other ways of projecting their voices in order to fill the performance space with sound.
Wills said that on the most basic level, the essential message of “The Magic Flute” is that music — or “human breath in an instrument” — holds power. The opera also reckons with the question of what it means to be human, he said. While working through this question in the context of “The Magic Flute,” Wills investigated Enlightenment thought contemporary to the opera’s composition and found that the Enlightenment ideals that influenced the opera involved conceptions of humanity that excluded all but wealthy white European men.
This led Wills to rethink several elements of the opera — aspects he described as rooted in a “problematic ideology.” By adding a few twists to the traditional production, Wills said he hopes to “undo” the misogynist and racist elements of a classic work.
Wills cited a recent Italian production of Bizet’s opera 1875 “Carmen” as an inspiration for his approach. In this interpretation of “Carmen,” the eponymous heroine kills Don José at the opera’s conclusion rather than dying at his hand.
“That director was saying that operas aren’t museum relics,” Wills explained. “We have to change with the times.”
In this production, Wills decided to share the crucial responsibility of playing the magic flute between Pamina and Tamino, rather than following operatic custom and leaving the responsibility entirely up to the male character.
“Instead of watching a man save the day, Pamina is able to take her fate into her own hands and be on an equal level as the man. They take the task head on, as a unit,” D’Eramo said.
D’Eramo also noted that while preserving operatic tradition is important, subtle changes in productions can serve as “empowering ways to keep the art form fresh and relevant.”
Despite his changes to the opera, Wills emphasized the importance of retaining the musical score as Mozart composed it. In this production, Wills will “leave the hands off the music,” but use his new context that encourages the audience to “rehear the music in a way that surprises [audience members] or suddenly makes them reinvest.”
Oboist Elliot Lichtenberg MUS ’19, a member of the Yale Philharmonia, said that playing in an opera orchestra offers a unique challenge of collaborating and coordinating with singers on stage.
Lichtenberg described the conductor in such a setting as the “link between the two worlds” of the on-stage singers and the orchestra in the pit.
The Shubert Theater opened in 1914.
Julia Carabatsos | firstname.lastname@example.org