by Isaac Rathbone · November 5, 2014
Performances at the New Victory generally require getting to the theater a little early. The staff will often have activities set-up in the lobby, usually focusing on one element of the production that gives the audience an idea of what they will see on stage. In the case of their current production of Isango Ensemble’s The Magic Flute, a marimba and several small djembe drums were set up for the children to play. This gave them the perfect introduction of what was later to be presented on-stage. The famous Mozart opera has been transposed for an orchestra of marimbas and reinvented within a South African setting. It is a musical and visual treat for audiences both young and old.
The Magic Flute is a story of a hero’s journey in a mythological quest for true love. Variations on the characters and themes are found through out different cultures and stories, so the opera supplies the perfect foundation for this fusion of different musical styles and storytelling. The blending of these different forms and styles is just right and creates a fun night at the opera.
The stage is flanked by two rows of marimbas, which provide the orchestration through out. The percussion is provided by both the traditional djembes and hand clapping, as well as water-filled glass bottles and large metal oil barrels. The Ensemble, as well as some of the principals, play these instruments through out. They seamlessly weave on and off-stage, in and out of character, which is a great pleasure to watch. It was breathtaking to observe Pauline Malefane perform the demanding role of the Queen of the Night and then see her in the next musical sequence jamming on an upstage marimba. Also impressive were the Three Spirits played by Noluthando Boqwana, Zoleka Mpotsha and Bususiwe Ngejane. The musical adaptation of their roles sometimes required a bit more of a contemporary, almost pop-style tone, though they were still singing opera. These three women also could be seen playing both marimbas and percussion with the Ensemble. Their performances as musicians were just as electric as their performances as the Three Spirits.
Because there is not a traditional orchestra, don’t get the wrong idea. This is not a musical or a “play with African inspired music.” This is an opera. They are singing Mozart’s music, mostly in the traditional style. It’s an element of the show that is both powerful to be a part of, yet challenging in the manner of which watching opera can be. Because this is at the New Victory, this is a great show to introduce opera to younger audiences. Because of its fairy tale-like elements, The Magic Flute is frequently staged to make it more accessible for kids and this production is no different. However, if you plan on taking your children to see it, please take note that it does require a different type of focus than going to see a play or musical. The New Victory does provide a synopsis in the program, which is helpful to read before hand. There is also a nice visual character map in the program as well, which helped my son follow “who was who” while we watched.
One of the elements that I really treasured was the joy seen on-stage. Opera has a bit of a “stuffy” reputation, but this production invited the audience to share the positive power of music and character journeys. Watching the Ensemble members magically play the marimbas, conducted by Mandisi Dyantyis, it is not out of the ordinary to see members dancing along and with beaming grins. The audience is given permission to be part of the joy that these musicians and singers have brought to the New Victory. Honestly, it was refreshing to go to an opera and see everyone, audience and performers, smiling.
Isango Ensemble’s reimagining of The Magic Flute is a delight, which will have you in awe of their music and storytelling. The familiar arias, fused with the sounds of Africa will stay with you and your kids long after the show ends.