Chicago Opera Theater presents The Magic Flute at Harris Theater
The local troupe presents the first new production of Mozart’s final opera in 17 years.
“The challenge of The Magic Flute is that we all think we know it,” says Michael Gieleta with a wry smile. “So many people have seen it and know half the tunes by heart. I can’t even imagine a definitive production of such a complex work. It’s an imperfect piece, so you can never get a complete hold on it—that’s what I find so exciting.”
With an impressive roster of directorial credits in both theater and opera, Gieleta is a key player in both worlds. Kitted out in a slate-colored shirt and immaculate seersucker blazer, the Rome-born director exudes an air of crisp elegance and passion while discussing his latest venture—the first new Chicago production of Mozart’s final opera in 17 years—when we meet for tea at the Artist’s Café on Michigan Avenue.
“My approach tries to be as focused as possible on what initially inspired Mozart, which was spiritual transformation and the Enlightenment,” says Gieleta, 38, his accent a distinctive mix of Italian and British (he moved to England permanently in 1994 to study at Oxford, and currently lives in the Bayswater area of London). “For example, Papageno is a lovable character and has wonderful tunes, but sometimes you can make love to the audience too much. Papageno just wants a glass of wine and a girl, whereas the other characters are striving for something more elevated. I want to explore that aspect.”
Mozart collaborated on his fantastical 1791 masterpiece with fellow Mason Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto and played the role of Papageno at the premiere in Vienna. The mood of the opera reflects the aesthetic differences between the two frenemies: Schikaneder leaned toward slapstick-esque comedy infused with heavy Masonic references, while Mozart’s vision centered on spiritual awakening and self-fulfillment. Gieleta takes Mozart’s side. By trimming down the Masonic aspects and staging the opera in designer James Macnamara’s minimalist set (inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince), he hopes to illuminate the composer’s true philosophical intention.
“I don’t want to shove Masonic imagery in people’s faces and expect them to understand!” says Gieleta, grinning as he pours steaming green tea into a white china cup. “I myself, as an audience member, find it alienating. Mozart wanted to send a message about rejecting revenge and violence and finding spiritual calm. I’d like to show that journey using a less conventional approach.”
In a rare clash of programming, a whimsical, German-language production was staged at Lyric Opera at the end of last year and ran through January. “I’m not trying to enter into any sort of competition or dialogue with that production,” says Gieleta, who caught a December performance while in town on business. “This is just a different approach, and a different group of artists under different conditions. Because it’s a magic story you can kind of reinvent it, which is great.”
Gieleta’s version will be sung in English and staged at Chicago Opera Theater’s trendy digs: Harris Theater. “There’s something to be said for companies that don’t come with enormous funding or limitless production budgets, because it makes us have to work harder,” notes Gieleta.“The cast has to bring new impetus and energy into the story. There’s a freshness to this production and real enthusiasm for creating something new.”
COT’s The Magic Flute runs Sat 15, Wed 19, Sept 21 and 23 at Harris Theater.