Opera Shift: Isango Ensemble’s Magic Flute at Arts Emerson

Opera is not everyone’s cup of tea. When you make sweeping assumptions like that you are bound to miss out on something pretty special. I was invited to see South Africa’s Isango Ensemble’s Magic Flute at Arts Emerson
this week. The first time I saw the Magic Flute, I was a toddler and my dad took me to see the opera on screen. He thought I might only last a few minutes, but to his great surprise I watched hour after hour. It was only when the queen of the night appeared in the end and frightened me that I begged him to leave. I enjoy opera. The voice in opera, done well is super-human. I don’t expect everyone to fall in love with opera, but I do think everyone should experience it at least once. Watching South Africa’s Isango Ensemble’s Magic Flute, you are not just experiencing opera. There is the presence of genius in the room that cannot be denied. You feel lucky to bear witness to it.

THE MAGIC FLUTE Photo Courtesy of Isango Ensemble

If you like music and voice, opera or not, you will want to hear the sweet voice of Nombongo Fatyi, the velvet sound of Thobile Dyasi, and the rich earthy tones of Zamile Gantana. If you dance, you will want to see Isango Ensemble’s Magic Flute. If you represent a minority member in the arts, you have to see Isango Ensemble’s Magic Flute. If you are in the white majority in the arts, you have to see Isango Ensemble’s Magic Flute.

THE MAGIC FLUTE Photo: Keith Pattison

The Magic Flute is the story of love, danger, trials, and power. There are comedic characters, strong fierce women, and spirits that seem to channel the Dreamgirls. This version of The Magic Flute has Mozarts famous themes and variations but a new richness and this is where the creative genius of Mark Dornford-May and Mandisi Dyantyis is palpable.

The rakes stage is flanked on either side by marimbas. The artists are the orchestra not just with their voices as instruments but they play the marimbas, the drums, and all the other percussion in the show including hands and feet. They are the dancers, musicians, and props. In some situations this would be seen as a way to streamline and pare down the performance. In the case of Isango Ensemble’s Magic Flute it adds richness.

THE MAGIC FLUTE Photo: Keith Pattison

The singers are strong as a chorus and even more powerful when they are filling the Emerson Majestic with Mozarts arias. They sing in several languages primarily English and including; Xhosa, Zulu, and Tswana. They have us worried on the edge of our seat wondering if Pamina’s love has died (even if we all know how the story ends). They have us laughing at Papageno’s focus on things that give him pleasure: food, wealth, a partner in life.

This all black South African opera company gave me goosebumps. As a white audience member who grew up with the Western European arts as part of my culture I am used to understanding almost every cultural reference and inside joke. It was refreshing to have that pulled out from under me. Knowing that someone else who doesn’t look like me could smile and nod at a reference all their own is how the world needs to be.

THE MAGIC FLUTE Photo Credit: Angela Kase

I didn’t understand every word but you didn’t have to. What is more perplexing and exciting is not knowing and understanding how this group came to be. How does someone get the audacity to become an opera singer when the popularity of opera among rich white patrons of the arts is waning and is virtually non-existent beyond that? It has to come down to what the arts are about; It is about Passion, being moved by something both ethereal and primal, and creating something that connects humans to one another by a shared feeling, sentiment or experience.

This is the beginning of a very important shift in the Eurocentric “understanding” of the arts. ArtsEmerson is doing an excellent job being an agent of that change. Now play your part and go see it. It’s not just a responsibility but an honour. Isango Ensemble’s Magic Flute is that good.

The Magic Flute is playing at the Cutler Majestic in Boston today, Saturday, November 9th at 8 pm and tomorrow Sunday, November 10th at 2 pm. Tickets are available at www.ArtsEmerson.org, by phone at 617.824.8400 or at the box office.

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