Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’: The South African version

Pauline Malefane's Queen of the Night.
Careful what you say! Pauline Malefane's Queen of the Night is listening. (Credit: Keith Pattison)

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2014 – In the South African tribal tradition of the Tsanga culture, lightning and thunder is caused by birds. The only way to ward off the dark clouds and thunder is to climb, like a bird, to the highest place in the forest and calm those turbulent spirits with the soothing sounds of a flute.

That tradition provided a key link to a famous European opera, one that inspired Isango—a troupe of over 30 musicians, drummers and dancers from Cape Town’s Isango Township—to create their own unique and extraordinary version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s comic opera, “The Magic Flute.”

This production is being performed in repertory with the company’s magical, musical realization of Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” at the Lansburgh under the auspices of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

“The Magic Flute” (aka “Die Zauberflöte”) is a popular opera that Mozart created before his tragic and premature death at the age of 35 in 1791. Presented as a German singspiel or musical play—something of a distant precursor to today’s Broadway musicals—Mozart’s opera was written not for royalty but for the common man.

Focused symbolically on the beliefs embodied by ancient Masonic rituals, it’s also a story—for those who haven’t experienced the opera before—of how music and love can exert their transformational powers on our own individual quests for love, order and understanding in the midst of conflict and chaos.

In our review of “Venus and Adonis,” we noted that audiences attending one of these two shows and expecting to hear them only in English will be surprised to hear the clicking sounds of Xhosa, Sotho, Setswana, and Zulu dialects as part of the narrative. That’s certainly true of Isango’s “Magic Flute,” and it certainly adds to the atmosphere and authenticity of this re-tooled opera classic.

The main love story in “Magic Flute” revolves around the quest by our hero, Prince Tamino, to rescue the Princess Pamina who’s been captured by the evil sorcerer Sarastro. He’s been sent on his quest by Pamina’s mother, the dark and foreboding Queen of the Night, one of Mozart’s most memorable soprano roles.

But when Tamino, and his comical sidekick Papageno, the Bird Man, run into the real Sarastro, the story takes an unexpected turn.

Out the chute and cascading down the stage come waves of joyful dancers, as this energetic production burst forth. In addition, what this reviewer experienced as an HBCU pep rally featuring six vibraphone players and a half dozen drummers raised the spirits of every audience member.

Local line dance enthusiast will also appreciate the group choreography of the Isango ensemble and will be moved to dance in their seats and share the joy of movement on the stage.

Our hero Tamino, played with wide eyed wonder by Mhlekazi “WHA WHA” Mosiea, appears amidst all this action, commencing to lead the audience on a perilous journey to transform evil into good and find love along the way.

Pauline Malefane plays the role of Tamino’s supposed patron, the Queen of the Night, with such an overwhelming force of personality that she ultimately helped propel the Isango version of “Magic Flute” to the Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre as well as and Hackney Empire Theater in London for a series of two world tours in 2012 and 2013. Now, Washingtonians have the opportunity to see this marvelous production.

As with “Venus and Adonis,” the only thing that could have improved the audience experience with “Magic Flute” would be providing English subtitles projected on the back wall of the twenty-foot tall by 36-foot wide stage. That would help navigate through the African language portions of the show which, fortunately, are generally self evident for the most part.

Arriving a bit earlier than usual and closely reading the theater guide and program notes will also help considerably in understanding the language and cultural context of this production.

Both Isango productions (including “Magic Flute”) only run through September 21. So if you’re interested in attending, head for the box office quick, fast and in a hurry via on the web or 202-547-1122 by phone, or you will regret having missed this extraordinary cultural performance.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)


Gaynelle Henderson-Bailey and family members.
Gaynelle Henderson-Bailey and family members. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Afterwards: As was the case with Isango’s “Venus and Adonis,” this reviewer’s positive impressions were confirmed by many weekend patrons, including two interesting family groups from the local DMV.

The Fagan family also attended "Magic Flute."
The Fagan family also attended “Magic Flute.” (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)

Gaynelle Henderson-Bailey, a travel executive and entrepreneur from Silver Spring and former classmate of mine at Howard University, was accompanied by her daughter, son-in-law and their children.

Also enjoying the show were David Fagan and his wife Phyllis and daughter Keilah who delighted in sharing an evening of classic theater with an Afro-centric twist.

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