I went to the opera this past weekend, trying to absorb a bit of “kulcha.” It was the perfect production for movie-mad me, one that wed the magic of Mozart’s music to some fancy-pants cinematography, in which live performers constantly interacted with animated images of which Salvador Dalí might have been proud. Dalí, the Spanish surrealist with the weirdly upturned mustache, of course tried his own hand at moviemaking. Back in 1929, he and countryman Luis Buñuel collaborated on a short, silent film, Un Chien Andalou, that featured bizarre images like the slicing open of a woman’s eye with a razor blade. Much later, Dalí actually worked with the artists at Walt Disney Animation on a short project, Destino, that was finally finished and released (and Oscar nominated) in 2003, fifteen years after his death.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute is an opera full of mystery and magic: it boasts such neverlandish elements as a giant serpent, a wizard, an antic bird-catcher, and a dangerous Queen of the Night. It’s chockful of symbolism reminiscent of Masonic ritual, and the basic plotline doesn’t make any sort of real sense. In 1975, the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman directed a full-length TV version of the opera that was more or less traditional in its staging. More than thirty years later, Kenneth Branagh attempted to give the filmed opera a more 20th century context. But the current production I saw at LA Opera is distinctive in taking its cues from the silent movie era, thanks to the work of a British team (Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt) who call themselves 1927, in reference to the year when talking pictures first made their Hollywood debut. Their mandate is to enhance stage productions by way of film.
In their version of The Magic Flute, characters seem spawned by silent movies. The heroine, Pamina, has the dark bob of Louise Brooks. The comic bird-catcher Papageno looks and moves a lot like that sad-faced clown, Buster Keaton. The slave Monostatos, with his creepy bald head and elongated fingers, seems borrowed from the classic German horror film, Nosferatu. And the live singers make their entrances and exits through doors in a huge screen on which are projected images both happy (butterflies, fairies, rosy-red hearts) and disturbing (spiders, skulls, flying monkeys, staring eyes, giant hands). There are ominous-looking clocks and giant gears too, for a trendy steampunk effect. The challenge for the performers is to coordinate their movement with the screen images: shooting at the hearts to make them disappear, being chased by huge animated hounds, riding on the back of a very strange pink elephant with human-style legs.
Those elephants, in particular, made me think of the freakiest scene in any Disney movie, the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number from Dumbo (1941), which simulates the effects of alcohol on a small, confused circus animal. (Those Disney animators, no strangers to drink themselves, must have had a ball with that one!) The visual oddities in the stage presentation also are certainly reminiscent of what the Disney folks did with offbeat visuals in the still-remarkable Fantasia (1940).
This Magic Flute also has an undersea segment featuring an Esther Williams parade of giant squids and other strange, watery critters. It brings to mind an animated feature that dates back to the heady (oh so heady!) Sixties. Yellow Submarine , with its parade of weird and wonderful fishies, is still one of my favorite animated films. Whenever I watch it, it makes me feel young again, as did my most recent night at the opera.