Conductor Andy Anderson turns a bright shade of crimson as he struggles to hold back his laughter: Marrying a rich baritone to a comic presence worthy of Nathan Lane, Levi Hernandez's Papageno gingerly takes the forearm attached to the hand proffered by Kristina Bachrach's Papagena, who has yet to morph from a crone into a comely maiden. Minutes later, the guests assembled in Noah Liff Opera Center's rehearsal studio are near tears as Jennifer Zetlan's Pamina contemplates suicide; she's so good, it doesn't matter that none of us has a libretto in hand. Soon, Vale Rideout's Tamino links arms with Pamina as they face the Temple of Examination, at which point director John Hoomes turns to us and whispers, "The light show that goes with this part is fantastic! Right now, it's a little like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs."
This study in balance is the Nashville Opera Association's production of Mozart's final dramatic work, The Magic Flute. First performed shortly before the composer's death in 1791 at age 35, the piece was conceived as family entertainment. Today, Flute's dazzling score, masterful expression of the full spectrum of human emotion, and exciting fantasy story on par with Star Wars have made it one of the most frequently performed operas in the world.
"It is perfection," Hoomes says, undaunted by the work's large cast and substantial dialogue, which can threaten to make performance of the opera unwieldy. "Parts of the piece are very funny and silly, other parts are serious and solemn, other parts are very emotional and real. And it all has to fit together."
In fact, the biggest challenge is giving equal weight to all that The Magic Flute has to offer: "[It is dangerous to put] this piece on this too highly revered pedestal, where it can't be funny anymore, and it's got to be deadly, deadly serious. There's got to be a balance."
Because The Magic Flute is so popular, the roles are well-defined, and Hoomes has cast the opera to suit his performers' strengths. Bass-baritone Keith Miller, for instance, is the perfect harmony of emotional nuance and raw power as Sarastro, keeper of the temple and guardian of order and reason. Once a star college fullback with a serious shot at NFL stardom, Miller has devoted himself to his voice, leading to more than 200 appearances with New York's illustrious Metropolitan Opera since his 2006 professional debut.
The songs are presented in their original German with projected English supertitles. This method lets audiences experience Mozart's incredible writing for voice, where the relationship of each note to each syllable has an explicit purpose that rarely carries in translation. The non-singing portions are delivered in elegantly abridged English, eliminating several barriers simultaneously, as archaic jokes are updated, and neither audience nor performers has to endure lengthy segments of German dialogue. After all, the cast may be some of the best on earth at singing in German, but none is a native speaker.
To ice an already tempting cake, the company will perform live with the Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony Orchestra. "I think everyone ... should [get one chance] to stand in the center of a symphony orchestra at full blast. There are very few things that are more exhilarating," says Zetlan. "It's so clearly living when you're making music with this big orchestra, and everyone is working toward the same idea at the same time." Since neither singers nor orchestra will be amplified, voices and instruments blend into one breathing, pulsing instrument, filling the 2,000-seat Jackson Hall with music. "There's no barrier between you and the audience," Zetlan says. "For me, that's the holiest of experiences, every time."
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