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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Magic Flute: a Singspiel (038)


As you may know, I am currently in a production of The Magic Flute with Seattle Opera. There's still several performances to go, so I'd encourage you to try and get some tickets. It's been a very popular production and seats are limited, but it's well worth it!



I thought we might take a quick break from the Seven Tips for Singer Taxes series, and do some music from the opera! There's a fabulous bass in Magic Flute by the name of Sarastro, who sings two arias.

Before I do that, however, I wanted to talk a little bit about the opera itself and a few of its peculiarities. First off, Magic Flute was composed by Mozart at the end of his life, in 1791, and it premiered in Vienna. It's German title is Die Zauberflöte.

By this point in his life, Mozart was an accomplished and established opera composer. But Magic Flute isn't your conventional opera. It requires operatic singers, for sure, and is done by opera houses all over the world. But it's in a slightly different category.

Magic Flute is considered a Singspiel. That's a compound word that roughly translates to Sing-Speak. It was a style of theater that was popular in its day, a kind of pop-opera. The nobility would get their more formal operas in Italian (even in Austria), but the Singspiels were for the people. It was done in the locals' own language of German, so everyone could follow along.

Some might say that the relationship between Singspiels and conventional opera in the 1700s is sort of like American Music Theater and our modern incarnation of opera here in the 20th and 21st centuries. That music theater is for the common man and that opera doesn't make sense unless you're sufficiently sophisticated and cultured.

Well, that's not a fair comparison. BOTH opera and music theater are for everyone.

Opera nowadays, almost without exception, is performed with supertitles or subtitles, so everyone can follow what's going on. It's like a foreign film, but even better because you have more time to read the words. That's a big thing that most people are surprised by when they go to their first opera.

Furthermore, most people who say they aren't interested in opera have never been to an opera.

Even Mozart seemed as if he begrudged the distinction between "high" art and "low" art. Magic Flute isn't "opera-lite."

Instead, he used all his creative juices composing it. He brought his "A-game." He pushed the envelope on established conventions, he composed gorgeous music, and his music requires top notch, operatic singers.

One of the most distinctive feature of Singspiels, however, is that they have spoken dialogue between musical numbers, instead of using the sung "recitative" that was in conventional opera back then. And yet, even though some of it is spoken, Magic Flute is still considered a kind of opera.

This, too, might be surprising to some of you who thought that all opera was sung from beginning to end, and that all musicals have dialogue. That's a common misconception, and I hear it all the time.

So what is an opera? The best definition that I can come up with is that an opera uses opera singers and is written in an operatic style, and musical theater uses musical theater singers and is in a musical theater style. That's really all there is to it. Profound, isn't it?

Here in the United States, it's also very common to do some or all of the Magic Flute translated into English, so that there are as few barriers as possible. The Seattle Opera production is being performed fully in German, of course, but the translation of what we are singing and saying is directly above our heads the whole time.

So if you have never seen an opera, this is a great first one to see! I hope to see you there.

In the next couple posts I'll talk a little more about Magic Flute, itself, about the production Seattle Opera is doing, and get to singing some Mozart on camera for you all! So make sure to come back for the next one!


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