Those locked into the stereotype that opera is elite entertainment put on by people in ivory towers may dump that notion when they hear about two guys trying to conjure magic in Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ “The Magic Flute.” It opens Saturday at the Loretto-Hilton Theatre.
The two magic makers are Isaac Mizrahi and Sean Panikkar.
Mizrahi is “Magic Flute’s” stage director, set and costume designer. He has been applauded for his chic designs at down-to-earth prices for Target stores as well as his super glamorous couture looks.
Sean Panikkar sings the "Magic Flute" hero Prince Tamino. He did a New Year’s Eve gig in Las Vegas last December and sang at the White House Tree Lighting Ceremony. But he may be best known for being part of the tenor trio Forte that placed fourth in NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” The trio gives pop music shimmering beauty by singing it in classical style.
Both Mizrahi and Panikkar hope their zillions of 21st century, pop culture fans will come and see, then love, opera.
Mizrahi said he first loved "Magic Flute," which he heard as a child, on his parents' records. Then, in his teens, he saw a New York Metropolitan Opera production designed by artist David Hockney. He recalls thinking: “I could do it better.”
Now, he has his chance. He follows an impressive line of 20th century artists who have helped stage "Magic Flute," including Marc Chagall, Ingmar Bergman and Franco Zeffirelli.
Mizrahi sets the opera on a 1930s Hollywood musical sound stage.
"It is fun," he said, almost twirling his arms like a dancer. And the music lends itself to dance, Mizrahi told “Spotlight on Opera” audiences two weeks ago. He is adding dancers who will shadow the major characters expressing added emotion. It's similar to the way choreographer Agnes de Mille layered dance into “Oklahoma.”
For more than a dozen years, Mizrahi has created opera sets and costume from London’s Covent Garden to the New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In 2010, at OTSL's invitation, he directed singers for the first time in Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” His production's beauty won rave reviews internationally.
Dance, Glitter and Glow
“Everything sparkles,” Panikkar said, about Mizrahi's "Magic Flute costumes and set. OTSL master scenic artist Stephan Pollihan and costume shop manager Pat Seyller ordered about 100 pounds of fairy dust — glitter — so for their staffs could make Mizrahi’s magic.
Panikkar, who has sung in many "Magic Flute" productions, said viewers need to “suspend belief.” If the opera is presented “completely literally” — with its three-tiered plot and 18th century symbols of the Masonic order — it can confuse modern audiences, he said. Mizrahi wants his audiences to be uplifted by the core story of a hero rescuing his princess, and a half-bird, half-man (Papageno) seeking a feathery lady love.
Mizrahi’s Queen of the Night is also the movie star who guides the audience backstage into the musical fairytale.
“By putting a play within a play the story really works,” Panikkar said.
Canadian coloratura Claire de Sévigné, who sings the Queen of the Night, is delighted that her role. Too often it is played as one-dimensional meanie (see below). De Sévigné vividly develops the character in this show. She has silent appearances throughout. Mizrahi told de Sévigné that her character is “like Greta Garbo.”
“I love it,” said de Sévigné, who sang the role in German last year.
It’s demanding. The queen’s two arias require a coloratura soprano who can securely deliver one high F among many high Ds in her first aria, then, come back for a second aria and knock out four high Fs.
In late winter, another singer dropped out of her long-standing OTSL contract for the role, and OTSL music director Stephen Lord hurried to audition de Sévigné, 26, in Montreal. A day later, OTSL had her under contract.
Singers can ruin their developing voices straining to sing too much too soon; and her teachers only gave their blessing for her to climb to high F about 18 months ago.
Mozart's music direction is in the good hands and head of Jane Glover, who conducts Mozart around the world. Last fall, she conducted “Flute” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, becoming the third woman to conduct opera there. This is Glover’s fourth stint conducting the St. Louis Symphony musicians here. Most recently she was on the OTSL podium for Mozart's "Don Giovanni” in 2011.
In early 1791, when he wrote the “Magic Flute,” Mozart was working with a Viennese music theater company he enjoyed, receiving popular success and was hopeful of financial success, Glover said.
“He was having a very good year,” she said, noting that the joy is reflected in ‘Flute.’ His happiness did not last. In November of that year, while composing his “Requiem,” he became ill. He died 16 days later at the age of 35.
Classical Singing Wins New Fans
“Magic Flute” is a perfect first opera for his TV fans, Panikkar said.
“People don’t realize that they like opera if they were never exposed to it when they were young, as many are in Europe,” Panikkar said. “I think people love good singing.”
He hopes his spin with Forte on "America's Got Talent" and resulting Forte album can help remove stereotypes.
Joining the tenor trio only came after a member had dropped out. He said he had “planned to spend last summer at home (in Saline, Mich.) with my young children and wife.” But he joined with a tenor working in a rock band and a church choir director, and kept moving on. Forte sang pop hits like “Somewhere,” “Unchained Melody” and “My Heart Will Go On” in a classical style.
“In some opera circles doing (TV contests) can be frowned upon, but opera singers can’t get that kind of exposure to 10 million,” Panikkar said. Happily, he found that many opera buffs in St. Louis and at the Met see him as an evangelist for opera.
"Magic Flute" is a fine opera for children especially with Mizrahi's costumes, Panikkar said. His daughter, Maria who is 5, is coming. Rosie O’Leary, who is close to her in age, is coming, too. Her dad has been reading "Magic Flute" to her at bedtime.
"Rosie keeps asking who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” said her dad, Opera Theatre General director Timothy O’Leary.
Like his daughter, his favorite character is the half bird man Papageno.
"Papageno was Mozart’s favorite character,” O’Leary said. He and his wife Kara Graziano O'Leary turned to Mozart for the recessional music for their Wedding Mass: Papageno’s and Papagena's duet. It's a blissful toast to the joys of family life.
Listen to Cityscape at noon on Friday to learn more about the season and "The Magic Flute."
THE SEASON BASICS
The Magic Flute
8 p.m.: May 24, 28 & 30. June 5, 11, 21 & 24
1 p.m. June 18 & 28
7 p.m. June 15
Elixer of Love
8 p.m. May 31, June 4, 6 & 12
1 p.m. June 21 & 25
7 p.m. June 8
8 p.m. June 14, 17, 19, 25 & 27
7 p.m. June 29
Dialogues of the Carmelites
8 p.m. June 18, 20, 26 & 28
7 p.m. June 22
Where: Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Rd.
How much: Tickets start at $25
Box office: 314-961-0644 www.opera-stl.org/season-tickets/