As opera comes into fashion, is it still possible to be surprised by The Magic Flute?

What lacks in this latest incarnation is, bizarrely, humanity.

New Statesman
The London Coliseum as seen from the stage. Image: Getty

Complicite’s The Magic Flute
London Coliseum, WC2

Everyone’s at it. Michael Grandage, Carrie Cracknell, Fiona Shaw, Robert Lepage – even the NT’s director-in-waiting, Rufus Norris, has had a go. Opera, for so long theatre’s unpopular cousin, has reinvented itself as the dramatic genre of the moment. When Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis were spotted at a recent London premiere, it suggested a trend had turned into a full-on fashion. But why?

“Opera is a potential car crash coming at you from every side,” says John Berry, English National Opera’s artistic director. Along with the Met’s Peter Gelb, Berry is one of the pioneers bringing theatre-makers into the opera house and he is familiar with the genre’s challenges for newcomers. But even the rigid schedules, lack of previews, singers who might or might not be able to act and creaking plots haven’t deterred theatre’s finest. This month, while Fiona Shaw’s The Rape of Lucretia tours England for Glyndebourne, Complicite’s Simon McBurney will be back at the Coliseum with a new Magic Flute, his second collaboration with ENO.

McBurney is used to enjoying the paradox of complete control and artistic freedom with his company, creating extraordinary multimedia theatre pieces that defeat genre, logic and expectation. Why would he want to submit to the notorious restrictions of opera? “It’s the music – the way it can touch you, shift your inner life,” he says. “You can achieve moments of theatricality that are beyond anything you can create in other forms of theatre.” For McBurney, opera is a victim of its own history and success: the repertoire is comparatively small but immensely popular – and so familiar are classics such as The Magic Flute that we now risk losing their original energy under the layers of conventions and traditions that have calcified on their surface.

“I want to know whether it is still possible to be surprised by The Magic Flute,” he tells me. “In its performance history certain theatrical ticks and habits are repeated over and over again so people think they are part of Mozart’s original conception – but which aren’t at all. I keep returning to the idea of what it must have been like to see the work at its premiere.”

This is the sentiment driving Berry and Gelb, who see directors with no background in opera as fresh pairs of eyes untainted by its traditions. Fiona Shaw’s Figaro at ENO was a delight from the moment she released its buzzing overture from the lid of a harpsichord, along with an enraged wasp. Michael Grandage’s Billy Budd for Glyndebourne was brutal, cutting deeper than any productions in recent memory. But the failures have been equally great: Rufus Norris’s confused Don Giovanni for ENO in 2010, Robert Lepage’s baffling Ring Cycle for the Met.

What it usually comes down to is the music itself. Directors don’t necessarily have to understand or even read music, but there has to be an instinct for that peculiar relationship at opera’s core – the “extraordinary double helix of music and drama,” as McBurney puts it. Thanks to practitioners who consider themselves “theatre makers”, crucially, rather than directors, opera’s inner tensions and rival agendas are increasingly coalescing. New productions are conceived as a whole, a single unified gesture of sound and movement; theatre has pushed opera to extend its dramatic range, striving both for new naturalism (Carrie Cracknell’s Wozzeck for ENO) and more extreme artifice (La Fura dels Baus’s Le Grand Macabre).

Is it still possible to be surprised by The Magic Flute? In the case of McBurney’s production, there’s such a weight of invention, such a conscious attempt not to succumb to convention or cliché, that the director risks losing the emotion of Mozart’s opera in the babel of special effects. A Foley artist generates sound effects in an onstage box; paper birds miraculously swoop and dive, manipulated by suited chorus members; the trials of fire and water terrify and amaze in equal measure.

This is truly a magic flute; what it lacks, bizarrely, in its latest theatrical incarnation is humanity – the real emotion that is concealed behind these storybook characters. It’s something Mozart’s music never forgets, even at its most fanciful. Opera is learning so much from theatre. But there are still, it seems, just a few things that opera can teach it in return.

Complicite’s “Magic Flute” runs at the London Colisseum until 9 December