A little boy stands by his mother's side, rubs his eyes and yawns. His mother asks him if he's tired. "Yes," he admits. His father kindly asks him if he wants to go home. The little boy looks up at his father, tears fill his eyes: "Nooooooo!"

His protest stems from the least likely of sources: the thought of being dragged away from - wait for it - an opera. He and I are about to go in for the second half of Komische Oper Berlin's production of The Magic Flute and, to be perfectly honest, if someone threatened to take me away from it, I'd be reacting exactly the same way.

Since this production of Mozart's masterpiece premiered in 2012, it's become a global phenomenon seen across three continents by more than 400,000 people. Along the way, it's almost single-handedly hit the reset button on what we expect opera to be.

The Magic Flute now makes its way to New Zealand as part of 2019's Auckland Arts Festival, where it will be one of the centrepieces of the 17-day event. Artistic director Jonathan Bielski first saw the show in Edinburgh in 2015 and fell immediately in love.

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"It was a sensation from the opening bars," Bielski says. "Musically, it was outstanding… Visually, it was mind-blowing. The stunning animations were like I'd never seen before."

Animations, I hear you cry? Let me explain: ostensibly, the "set" is just one big white wall covering the width of the stage, set about 1.5m or so back from its edge, with a few doors scattered at various heights that swing around to provide platforms on the screen, just big enough for a person to stand on.

It's a blank canvas, upon which an extraordinary series of hand-crafted animations bring the story to life. So seamlessly do these merge with the activity on stage that it becomes hard to tell where the cartoon ends and the people begin.

It took three years to develop the animation used in The Magic Flute. Photo/Iko Fresse - Drama Berlin.
It took three years to develop the animation used in The Magic Flute. Photo/Iko Fresse - Drama Berlin.

The synchronisation of these two worlds was developed by Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, founders of English theatre company, 1927, who have collaborated with Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper, to bring this concept across to the operatic sphere.

The relationship began when Kosky happened on a performance of theirs while he was preparing to create a new production of The Magic Flute, a prospect he wasn't initially enthusiastic about, having previously labelled the piece a "graveyard for directors".
However, with 1927, he found his lightbulb moment.

"After only a few minutes I resolved that these people had to do The Magic Flute with me," he says.

Kosky describes The Magic Flute as a "peculiar, fairy-tale love story", the core of which is the story of Tamino and Pamina, destined to be together but with myriad obstacles to overcome before the "happily ever after". Meanwhile, Papageno the most loveably reluctant of sidekicks, searches for his own perfect love, largely without success. The production uses the visual language of silent films – Papageno is now Buster Keaton, for example – but also incorporates every imaginable influence, eventually becoming a Tim-Burton-Meets-Pantomime-Meets-Fritz-Lang-Meets-Comic-Strip-Meets-Dream-Meets-Vaudeville-Type-Thing.

It all feels born of a delightfully refreshing attitude of "well, why not"? Why not have the evil Queen of the Night as a giant spider? And why shouldn't there be a sequence involve flying elephants periodically splashing about in giant pink martini glasses? And why shouldn't, in this weird and wonderful world, people sing instead of speak?

The Magic Flute's villain, the Queen of the Night, becomes a giant spider in this contemporary reimagining. Photo/Iko Freese - drama-berlin
The Magic Flute's villain, the Queen of the Night, becomes a giant spider in this contemporary reimagining. Photo/Iko Freese - drama-berlin

All of sudden, opera doesn't feel awkward anymore, and we get what Kosky calls "The Simpsons Effect": where an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old can have an equally joyous, if fundamentally different, experience while watching the same thing.

Mesmerising as this whole theatrical experience is, it's also impossible not to take a moment to marvel at its technical virtuosity. It took three years to develop and the complexity of bringing it to stage each night is mind-boggling.

Firstly, there's the task of managing the animations. Anne Mengs, the nerves of steel responsible for co-ordinating them for the performance that I see, is at pains to point out that this is not just a case of press play.

"There are more than 400 cues in each act," she explains, each of which brings in a different loop of animation. "My job is to watch the score, the performers, the conductor and stay in touch with stage management in order to hit the button at exactly the right moment."

Digital technology meets the 300-year-old opera in a new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Digital technology meets the 300-year-old opera in a new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

On top of this comes the staggering responsibility held by the singers. Although animations act as set, props and several supporting characters, most of the time the performers can't actually see them.

Invisible to the audience, the floor directly in front of the wall looks more like a painting by Jackson Pollock than a comprehensible series of markings but it acts as their map for the evening. Singing must be combined with choreography that must be performed with absolute precision; even the slightest misplacement of an arm can throw out an entire scene.

One imagines this would be a restrictive way to perform, but Tom Erik Lie, who will sing Papageno in Auckland, thinks differently. "In the beginning [the movement] was unusual for me. I had to get to used to it … As soon as you have the feeling of it though, it's almost the same freedom [as a traditional production]."

In less capable hands, so much visual information would run the risk of overshadowing the performers and the music but here each serves to enhance the other. Throughout the opera, Mozart shifts with characteristic deftness from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the visuals follow suit.

Meanwhile, the contrast of the three-dimensionality of the performers with the cartoon running behind them makes their humanity all the more prominent. Some of the most beautiful moments come too, when Kosky deploys the secret-weapon of simplicity, on occasion leaving a singer alone in nothing but a circle of light, showcasing opera's greatest gift – the acoustic human voice expressing the emotions that lie beyond the words we're able to say.

 Tabatha McFadyen 2019