In a cavernous space in the backstage recesses of the Straz Center, two singers, a stage director, a conductor and a rehearsal pianist go over a scene again and again. • How should the singers move? (For opera singers must be actors, too.) How does one of them telegraph his transformation from confidence to fearful acquiescence? How does she, singing the first of her two incredibly difficult arias, maintain her poise, her dominance, while carefully regulating her breath? How much sexual tension should there be? How should their steps flow with the music?
Such was the scene last week when artists were preparing for Opera Tampa's Friday premiere of The Magic Flute.
To many listeners, scholars and critics, Mozart's next-to-last opera is his most sublime theatrical achievement — a perfect marriage of musical form and human character. Throw in an aspiring lover, a devious queen, a mysterious priest, a bumbling bird catcher, a princess, and a musical instrument that can guide a person through danger, and you've got a show.
While the music has not changed in more than 200 years, each successful staging of it must be fresh. Eating a prerehearsal sandwich last week, the opera's artistic director, Daniel Lipton, discussed his approach.
The music of The Magic Flute is florid sometimes, as in the Queen of the Night's first aria mentioned above. Other times it has a stately elegance, a distilled purity, that fits the composer's use of Masonic ritual to bring order out of confusion, truth to light.
The juxtaposition of these opposites is so rich and nuanced that it may strike a listener differently each time he hears it. The same goes for performers.
"It should be different every time," Lipton said. "Not unrecognizably different — I mean the valleys are the valleys and the mountains are the mountains. But I tell my singers, try and watch me, and let's invent together. Let's improvise. Not completely, of course. ...
"I try to get the feeling that we're composing it on the moment, so that (the expression) is fresh."
To further enliven the production, Lipton has brought in a longtime colleague, choreographer Arila Siegert, to be the stage director. The two worked together on many productions when Lipton was conducting opera, orchestral music and ballet in Germany.
"There is nothing in it that I've ever seen before," Lipton said of Siegert's most recent conception.
Siegert, who has directed more than 40 operas over the past 15 years, proposed that the stage action begin in the hero-prince Tamino's bedroom. "So you have his bed, you have his night table, you have a wardrobe. Pamina (the princess) comes out of the cupboard with a suitcase. She's furious with Tamino; he's a prince, a snob and he's arrogant. So she can't stay with him. She leaves. And so everything after that (including the conventional start of the opera) is Tamino's dream."
All the costumes except for the high priest Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are contemporary. Papageno the bird catcher, for example, will wear a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts.
"It's not the usual by any means," Lipton said. "But I think because of the freshness of the approach, it becomes magical."