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Writer & editor David Kettle about Komische Oper’s The Magic Flute

Giant bone spiders, Buster Keaton, lifts to the underworld, Nosferatu, flappers, wolves – if you have any preconceptions about opera, The Magic Flute from Berlin’s Komische Oper will almost certainly overturn them.

It’s a production like no other, faithful to Mozart’s wild fairytale creation, yet gleefully inventive in the way it presents it, using a striking mix of traditional opera singers and enormous animated projections. And that’s down to the involvement of UK-based theatre company 1927, who joined the Komische Oper’s artistic director Barrie Kosky in putting the show together. ‘What we do is mix animation and live performance,’ explains 1927’s co-artistic director Suzanne Andrade. ‘Barrie had seen one of our previous shows, particularly some scenes that are done in a kind of gothic fairytale style, and he thought it would be amazing to do The Magic Flute like that.’

‘I’d resisted directing The Magic Flute for many years,’ says Kosky, ‘because I actually hated it in the theatre. But after my first meeting with the 1927 guys, we realised we’d have a great time on it – and then began our three-year journey to getting the production to the stage.’

During that time, the gothic fairytale style – experienced to huge acclaim in 1927’s earlier Edinburgh Fringe hits Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and The Animals and Children Took to the Streets – broadened out to take in silent cinema, with opera librettist Schikaneder’s troublesome spoken dialogues cunningly replaced by silent-movie text plates, for example, and birdman Papageno rethought as a Buster Keaton-style figure. ‘I didn’t think I could empathise with a man in a bird suit,’ says Andrade, ‘and I immediately thought we needed to make him both funny and sad.’ Most striking, though, is her radical reimagining of the wicked Queen of the Night. ‘I remember sitting in my room at home and thinking: let’s turn her into a giant bone spider who can strike lightning at various points during her famous aria.’ Along with the sinister Monostatos as a Nosferatu-like monster and the eponymous flute transfigured into a Tinkerbell-style cherub, it’s one of the show’s most memorable transformations.

The production – originally unveiled in Berlin in 2012 – has enjoyed enormous success, touring to Minnesota and Los Angeles as well as within Germany and Austria, and there are tours to China, Finland and Spain in the pipeline. ‘Many Magic Flutes are either terribly banal children’s theatre, where they play things down and the adults get bored, or they’re high-concept productions that can be long and hard-going, where the children get bored,’ says Kosky. ‘This one is entirely different, and you get entire families coming, as well as opera aficionados who know they’ll be surprised at every aria because it’s using an entirely fresh visual and stage language.’

‘We wanted the audiences to really like it,’ continues Andrade. ‘We knew there might be people who didn’t, but if people want to go to a traditional version with Papageno in his bird suit, there are thousands of versions like that.’ There’s no denying that this reboot of Mozart’s most magical opera is innovative, provocative – and utterly unique.