Opera Australia’s The Magic Flute embraces a nostalgic vision of white Australia that undermines Mozart’s cutting social commentary. By Chantal Nguyen.

Opera Australia’s new production of The Magic Flute

Ben Mingay as Papageno and Michael Smallwood as Taminoin in OA’s The Magic Flute.
Ben Mingay as Papageno and Michael Smallwood as Taminoin in OA’s The Magic Flute.
Credit: Keith Saunders

Mozart’s sister Nannerl once remarked about her famous brother: “Apart from his music, he was almost always a child.” As famously portrayed in Peter Shaffer’s play and the Academy Award-winning film adaptation Amadeus, Mozart – the quintessential child prodigy – never quite grew up, retaining an irrepressible childlike streak even as he composed his final opera, The Magic Flute, three months before his death aged 35.

Opera Australia’s new production of The Magic Flute kicks off with a homage to Mozart the eternal child, beginning as a childhood game of make-believe acted out in a blanket fort. The set resembles a shabbily painted urban lounge room that looms larger than life, with ordinary adult-sized objects towering above the audience. Here, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. Doorways lead not to a backyard but to a foreign magic realm, tinsel streamers become sacred fires and floods, and shadow animals made by pointing torches at a bedsheet morph into real-life monsters.

On theme for a premiere occurring within a week of Australia Day, director Kate Gaul describes the production as “done with a real Australian spirit”, allowing the cast to find their “Australian roots”. But with its broad-accented canteen ladies, barefoot children in overalls and nods to Kylie Minogue, it’s a specific kind of Australian. One that takes its cues from a quintessentially white Australian childhood, looking back through sepia-tinted glasses at summers lived in grassy backyards running under the sprinklers or in fish-finger-scented kitchens, to the strains of Daryl Somers in Hey Hey It’s Saturday blaring from the telly.

Conveniently for OA’s post-pandemic budget cuts, Gaul’s nostalgic paper-crown kingdom is cost-effective. The set is upcycled from Michael Yeargan’s 1989 design for Werther and Anna Cordingley’s costumes are a bargain bin of bright, eclectic outfits. For example, the high priest Sarastro (David Parkin) dresses like an Age of Aquarius cult leader. But half his minions look like Edwardian chimneysweeps – think peaked caps and grubby neckerchiefs; you almost expect them to call him “Guv’nor” – while the other half inexplicably sport muted business shirts like Malcolm Turnbull-era public servants.

The overall aesthetic is cheap and cheerful, but cleverly so – like a nifty patchwork quilt. It’s a contrast to many productions of The Magic Flute, such as Julie Taymor’s 2014 puppet extravaganza, where Mozart’s other-worldly plot becomes a vehicle for big-budget theatrical magic.

Gaul says this production is accessible because it is sung in English, in a new translation by herself and Michael Gow. It’s true the audience is happily responsive, the arias are sung clearly and the spoken dialogue is delivered in Australian accents. But Gaul and Gow’s translation, while serviceable, is a bit colourless compared with existing versions – for instance, it rhymes “permission” with “mission”.

Its main problem, though, is its sloppy approach to vernacular, with the same characters using “educated” Australian English for sung parts, then switching to colloquialisms for spoken dialogue. The character most afflicted by these tonal shifts is Papageno (Ben Mingay) – a larrikin tradie trope of a bloke clutching an esky, dressed in paint-splattered overalls and a wife-beater singlet. His life goals are cheerfully uncomplicated: obtaining a beer then a girlfriend, in that order.

The libretto gives him fast-paced spoken colloquial quips (“yeah but nah”) but then has him singing in a plummy baritone using out-of-character wording (whether he is “generally appealing” or merely “hard of hearing”).

The tonal inconsistency is striking because The Magic Flute – like all of Mozart’s operas – features “upstairs” and “downstairs” characters of different social classes. Mozart’s pointed, egalitarian commentary on social stratification was groundbreaking for its time, and he illustrated class differences and their injustices through his music. One of the most famous examples comes from The Marriage of Figaro, where the maid Susanna seduces a nobleman by impersonating a countess. As part of the ruse, she sings the aria “Deh vieni, non tardar” (“Oh come, don’t tarry”) using the kind of musical phrasing Mozart reserved for aristocratic characters, but in keys (C and F major) favoured by “downstairs” soubrette characters, hinting at her true identity.

Mozart embedded similar musical characterisation into The Magic Flute, with everyday people roles such as Papageno and Papagena singing in approachably upbeat meters (their “Pa…pa…pa…” duet) and the nobility serenading each other with stately arias (Sarastro’s lofty “Within these sacred halls” and Pamina’s lyrical lament “Oh, I feel it, it is gone”). Gaul and Gow’s translation undermines this musical characterisation, leaving characters to speak like Steve Irwin one second then sing in the King’s English the next.

If this is Gaul’s “Australian spirit”, it buys into the questionable but convenient sentiment that Australia – the land of the “fair go” – is an egalitarian society with no need for Mozartian social commentary, and where there is little relationship between privilege, education and how people dress or speak. To be fair to Gaul and Gow, the Australian accent is uniquely at odds with the mouth shape required for operatic sound. But this is all the more reason to ensure that language choice supports characterisation.

Nonetheless, the cast give a solid performance – to cheering ovations – led by Teresa Riveiro Böhm conducting at an unrushed pace. Stacey Alleaume as Pamina is the undoubted star, singing with beautifully shaped heartfelt phrases in a shimmering golden tone. Michael Smallwood’s tenor as her love interest, Tamino, is charming and well-crafted, if slightly less powerful.

Giuseppina Grech is every bit the Queen of the Night in a glamorous fur coat and silver evening dress. Her Act II aria – the virtuosic whirlwind showstopper “Hell’s vengeance” – is steel-edged and well-pitched, even though I would have liked a little more tonal stability. Her Three Ladies – Jane Ede, Indyana Schneider and Ruth Strutt – are theatrically and vocally impressive: as if Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters had attended an elite classical music conservatoire.

Parkin tosses his flowing golden locks with dictatorial benevolence as Sarastro. Despite some gravelly tonal straining in his bottom register, Parkin sings with an otherwise smooth stateliness.

Mingay sidesteps from a career in musical theatre to make his OA debut as Papageno. He’s not an experienced Mozart singer but more than compensates for it with warm naturalistic acting and slapstick comic chops – a welcome change from the standard operatic “park and bark” delivery. Jennifer Black as Papagena and Kanen Breen as a predatorial Monostatos round out the supporting cast with high-spirited antics.

Final mention goes to the outstanding child performers Abbey Hammond, Zev Mann and James Valanidas, who are scene-stealers as the Three Spirits. Their sincere singing and natural stage presence embody the childlike energy and musical beauty that make any Mozart opera such a gift. 

The Magic Flute is playing at the Sydney Opera House until March 16.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Ordinary magic".

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