BWW Review: Isango Ensemble's THE MAGIC FLUTE, Presented by ArtsEmerson
ArtsEmerson continues its tradition of hosting world-class theatre pieces in Boston by presenting Isango Ensemble's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. The troupe, comprised of 21 black South African musicians, alternates nebulously between delivering recitative, dancing ebulliently, and playing marimbas, rawhide drums, and an eclectic mix of instruments in the on-stage orchestra. Upon entering the Cutler Majestic, the fusion of cultures is jarring-- an exposed stage behind an opulent proscenium arch is interrupted by simple structures of distressed wood and corrugated steel panels. The (predominantly white) audience is immediately won over by the novelty of hearing Mozart's iconic overture played entirely on wooden marimbas. The expertise of the musicians in question-- as percussionists, vocalists, actors, dancers, et. al-- is reason enough to reserve tickets, and as the novelty of hearing western music arranged on djembes and glass bottles wears off, the precision of the performances continues to impress.
The simplicity and inventiveness of Mark Dornford-May's staging (which prioritizes narrative and an aesthetic symmetry over all) delivers a Magic Flute that maintains its parabolic structure while feeling warm and fun. Julie Taymor's famous staging for the Metropolitan Opera is lauded for its universal appeal and evangelized as a fitting introduction to opera for young people. Arguably, Isango's revival feels equally charming and equally captivating (two hours passed without my seeming to notice) without any of the extra trappings of Taymor's work that seem to give it a cultural expiration date. When the Queen of the Night is conquered, the actors stomp and sing with such exultation and transport that a lighting cue is not even required to signify the arrival of the sun (let alone the use of a large fabric circle like in Taymor's Lion King). The entire theatre is filled with a glow as bare feet slap against wooden planks and a euphoric sound resonates from the ensemble. Lungelo Ngamlana's choreography is stimulating as it pulsates through the stage and rumbles about the theatre.
Just as the troupe's costumes fuse traditional South African pieces with later colonial fashions and witty cultural references (a sea of camouflage fatigues, dashikis, and geles is imposed upon by the entry of pink CareBears), the libretto fuses English, Xhosa, Zulu, and Tswana translations in a way that feels jocular and contemporary. The adaptation is fresh and appropriately comedic while it honors the clean, romantic storyline with simplistic themes of day versus night and recurring groupings of threes. Papageno the bird-catcher is delightfully jovial, the Queen of the Night delivers an accelerated "Der Hölle Rache" (an infamously difficult aria) with clarity and resonance, and the Queen's three serving ladies are an enchanting trio who evoke energies of Little Mix despite their classical leanings.
Although a joyous evening of entertainment and a treat to have in Boston, the framing of the style as a subversive, decolonized piece feels stretched. Under the direction of white, English creator Mark Dornford-May, Isango Ensemble boasts a repertoire of Cape Town-ized versions of major western works (Carmen, A Midsummer Night's Dream, A Christmas Carol, La Boheme, etc.) While co-founder and co-music director Paulina Malefane is a black professor at Cape Town's College of Music (and originated the role of The Queen of the Night in this production), there is still an emphasis on colonized measures of excellence all over the evening's program. A profile of the company lists performances at revered venues in England, America, Australia, Germany, Norway, and most of the western world. Exciting as it is that the ensemble has been thus embraced by the colonized world of commercial theatre, it feels imperative that we engage with this piece deeper than relegating it to "exotic", "unique", and "exciting". The American music education system has too often incorporated African music as a counterpart to more serious European selections and this is an insult to a multi-faceted array of cultures. Outside of a glowing review from Desmond Tutu on their website, I have not been able to pinpoint the major ways in which this ensemble engages with audiences of South Africa. In fact, news articles from 2010 explain that the troupe was evicted from the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town's ward 6 because of despicably low audience attendance. While crowd size is no determination of artistic soundness, what does it mean that this ensemble commercially represents the art of a nation that has no interest in engaging with it?
As a white theatre-goer, I grappled last night with the idea of sitting and benefiting from the joy of this show, a fantasy realizing what it would look like if colonization really was the give-and-take of cultures our history books proclaim. Opening remarks by ArtsEmerson's artistic director, David Dower, reminded the audience that we sat on stolen land of the Massachusett tribe. The statement, while a commendable gesture, was followed by a quick anecdote of first seeing this ensemble in Germany and an invitation to a celebration after the performance. Framing the rest of the evening in an unsteady way, I sat as a white member of a mostly white crowd precariously pondering the implications of a brutally colonized group reclaiming a beloved story from their colonizers. What does it mean that a colonizer directed this piece? And a colonized institution brought it to Boston? And another colonizer sat and wrote this review? I do not have concrete answers but have many thoughts and an open link to my email.
Shortly after this review was posted, ArtsEmerson's artistic director, David Dower, reached out to respond to some of my queries about the colonial politic of the piece. While he was clear that he spoke for himself and his own beliefs, he did not mind if I shared some of his reactions to this review. After a brief overview of ArtsEmerson's priorities, Dower explained more about their relationship with Isango Ensemble. He says, "all of your questions are our questions-- starting from what does it mean to be presenting 'the world on stage' (ArtsEmerson's original charter) at this time in this city in these venues? And how do we operate in a way that openly engages that meaning-making? These are things we grapple with, sometimes in ways that are fumbling at first but gain clarity and confidence as we go. The city has no cultural majority, but it has a dominant culture-- and that dominant culture largely owns the major arts and cultural institutions in the city. Audience, donors, boards, and programming."
He later expounded, stating, "as to the larger questions of de-centering whiteness through exposure to other cultures, there is a growing group of people -- from a wide variety of (backgrounds) now -- who have taken up this set of questions with us and are quite valuable in our ongoing effort to make a difference."