Arts and entertainment

Kentridge back with 'Magic Flute'

5 September 2007 When asked whether, as a young man, he knew what he wanted to be, acclaimed artist William Kentridge said that when he was 15 he thought he would be a conductor. "I conducted gramophone records at home with chopsticks; it worked beautifully." But then he discovered the catch - he would have to learn to read music. He tried the clarinet for a year, but gave it up. But perhaps his dream has come true, after all. Kentridge's internationally acclaimed production of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute is playing in Cape Town and Johannesburg in September and October, with his animated images projected on to the backdrop. Kentridge, always very controlled and unemotional in public, says that "it feels home" to have The Magic Flute play in the country. "It gives a lump in your throat. It's very exciting." Kentridge, producer Ross Douglas and conductor Piers Maxim, spoke about the opera at a press conference in Johannesburg last month. "In this production (as in all), we ask you to listen to the orchestra, the singers, the spoken text, to watch the singers, to read the surtitles above the stage, and also to watch the projections behind and around all of this," Kentridge said. "It is clear that this is too much. The best advice I can give is to let your eyes and ears follow as they will, and accept that a part of the production will be missed. This acceptance is better than an anxiety about not taking everything in." The great thing about The Magic Flute coming to South Africa is that, besides Joburgers and Capetonians being exposed to the work of an artist of world-class calibre, there will be eight performances of the famous opera for children. To be conducted by the very user-friendly Richard Cock, an adapted version of the original will have 8 000 lesser-privileged children coming to the theatre to watch opera. Otherwise, the big people can revel in what promises to be a superb combination of Mozart's classic 1791 two-act opera and Kentridge's evocative charcoal drawings projected on to the stage, to animate the story of Pamino and Tamino, two young people who undergo trials by fire and water before they find happiness together. But if you haven't bought your tickets yet, you're out of luck - tickets were sold out within weeks of the box office opening in May, a full two months before the production starts in September. Not too different from how things were when it opened in 1791 - it drew huge crowds - to Mozart's delight. He wrote: "I have this moment returned from the opera, which was as full as ever," records Wikipedia. "But what always gives me the most pleasure is the silent approval! You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed." He went to hear and see the opera "almost every night". Rehearsals have already begun. All the singers are South African, although some are based overseas. The production was originally put together in Brussels. It has taken two years to bring it to South Africa, with sponsorship provided by Rand Merchant Bank. The production has been possible too because the royalty fee has been reduced from 200 000 euros (about R2-million) to 20 000 euros (about R200 000). Local singing talent Kentridge has been knocked out by the local singing talent. "There is an extraordinary renaissance of singing here – very good singers are coming through. We are finding the best voices and the best mix of voices. The best moments in rehearsals are when you see a mousy and ordinary person open their mouth and sing …" And this is exciting for the South African production. "It is difficult to find new interpretations with old players. There is a definite freshness to the production." Maxim, who has conducted orchestras in opera houses and theatres throughout Europe, is equally bowled over by the local talent. "The wealth of talent is extraordinary. They just open their mouths and sing." Maxim says the tempo will be a little faster than usual. "We work to find a tempo which suits the singer." There'll also be extra instruments in the orchestra – an extra percussionist and small ball trombones - to add to the sounds produced. "It's not Mozart, but it enhances the theatricality of the performance." The Magic Flute has special significance for Maxim. "To be the conductor of any opera is a great privilege, but especially so when it is Die Zauberflöte. It was the first opera I conducted while still a student at university, and since that time I have immersed myself in the text and music, discovering new nuances not only musical but also verbal." Kentridge's images include dancing rhinoceroses and cardboard lions. The lions were original to the first production in 1791, but will now be MGM lions. Another scene will portray a silent movie scene with voiceless figures, replacing a long dialogue. Kentridge says he was pleased with how his black and white charcoal images have been adapted and picked up on the costumes, giving them colour, something he doesn't normally give to his art. "The images are monochrome but there is a lot of colour in the production." Maxim is clearly pleased to be working with Kentridge. "In William Kentridge's production, I find that it is the humanity and integrity of the characters that shine through, with Pamina and Papageno being the focal point of the drama. In each performance, I try to enhance this view with a reading that tries to be true to the spirit of those first collaborators, Mozart and Schikaneder." The opera is on at the Artscape Centre in Cape Town from 8 to 18 September, and at Johannesburg's Nelson Mandela Theatre from 29 September to 21 October. Source: City of Johannesburg

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