West Coast Magic: Vancouver Opera Looked to B.C.'S First Nations Heritage to Conjure Classic Mozart

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LONG BEFORE THE CURTAIN ROSE IN THE QUEEN ELIZABETH Theatre Jan. 27, it was evident that Vancouver Opera's new production would be no run-of-the-mill version of The Magic Flute. At $1.4-million, the staging was the biggest-budget production in the company's history. An informative community events series. When Cultures Meet, had been running since the previous November and the local media had been abuzz for weeks. The public was primed, so the electricity running through the lobby on performance nights was several volts above normal. There were pre-show drums, chanting and dancing and a blessing by a First Nations chief on stage before the curtain rose.

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It all began three years ago, when VO General Director James Wright started thinking about "a new production of The Magic Flute that reflected our lives here in British Columbia." Wright envisioned a production that went beyond references to sky-high real-estate prices, ski weekends and the Vancouver Canucks. He wanted something unique to the Pacific Northwest Coast that would also capture the opera's original Masonic and "hero's journey." The production would have to honor the spirit of Mozart's music (which was to remain inviolate) as well as the First Nations' art incorporated into it. A tall order indeed, and a few feathers and totem poles here and there just wouldn't do. The problem was that most British Columbians are probably hardly better versed in First Nations mythology than they are in the esoteric Masonic symbolism in Mozart's original.

Other operas are more popular than The Magic Flute (it ranks 10th on Opera America's Top 20 list of the most frequently performed operas in North America), but Mozart's penultimate opera is an icon in itself and sacrosanct in the Western operatic canon. Modelled on the Viennese Singspiel, the work juxtaposes lofty philosophical reflection and noble ideals with raunchy, lowbrow comedy, a combination that has proved irresistible for well over two centuries. Furthermore, as Jacques Chailley argues in his book, The Magic Flute Unveiled, its components--libretto, music, scenery and costumes--are ingeniously linked in a unified whole of which the Masonic symbolism is an integral part.

Because First Nations' ideas had to be incorporated in a meaningful, respectful and ethical way, VO contacted the First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council in Victoria. Initially, the council was skeptical, but the potential value of true collaboration gradually became apparent to all sides. Many discussions ensued. In the end, there were 23 names in the First Nations Advisory Council listed in the printed program for The Magic Flute. There were also words from the Council itself: "The project has exceeded our expectations. The opera company is benefiting from a direct collaboration with professional aboriginal artists and those artists are being introduced to a western art form and organization that is embracing and valuing their knowledge of our cultures."

The opera's original setting in ancient Egypt (where Masonic ritual has its roots) was jettisoned for the rugged coast of British Columbia, with First Nations mythology and symbolism used throughout. The most visually striking aspect of the production were the costumes co-designed by John Powell, a Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) from Comox on Vancouver Island, and non-Native VO costume designer Christine Reimer. The duo spent months poring over nearly six dozen books on the anthropology, ethnography and iconography of almost the entire western third of British Columbia, from Washington State to Alaska. That's a lot of territory, but the end result was 70 costumes that were as visually stunning as they were culturally authentic.

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Powell was responsible for Sarastro, Papageno and Papagena, as well as the priests, speaker, 10 elders and three spirits; Reimer took on Tamino, Pamina, the Queen--and Ladies--of the Night, Monostatos and followers, and the dancers. …