The Magic Flute


The Weight of Sarastro’s Hand 

Sarastro puts his hand on Pamina’s shoulder. To reassure her, to restrain her, to move her away from Tamino. How long and how firmly should this hand be on her shoulder. The shift from the hand being reassuring to it being predatory is a matter of a second, or the slightest resistence from Pamina’s shoulder. The task in the final days of rehearsals is to judge what duration, what pressure best brings out all the ambiguities of the relationship in the opera – control, generosity, unsensitivity, benevolence and authority.

The Magic Flute

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Emanuel Schikaneder

William Kentridge

Luc De Wit

William Kentridge

Set designer
Sabine Theunissen

Costume designer
Greta Goiris

Lighting designer
Jennifer Tipton

Video editor
Catherine Meyburgh

Video orchestrator
Kim Gunning Meyburgh

Approx. 2 hours 50 minutes

World premiere
Theater auf der Wieden, Vienna, 30 September 1791.  

This production
Le Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, 26 April 2005, a co-production with L’Opéra de Lille, le Théâtre de Caen, and la Fondazione Teatro di San Carlo (Naples)

Learning the Flute


35mm animated film, video transfer

Projected onto framed blackboard, supported by a wooden easel

Running time 8 min 2 sec

Excerpts from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte

Catherine Meyburgh

Preparing the Flute


Miniature theatre with drawings (charcoal, pastel and coloured pencil on paper), front and back projections (35 mm film transferred to video)

21 minutes 6 seconds

Extracts from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte

Catherine Meyburgh

Richard Forbes


The preliminary work on the drawings and animations for Zauberflöte were done in my studio in Johannesburg and tested on a model of the stage with wooden cut out figures. A good way of working with the video. One of the main unanswered questions was how to find a good relationship between the live singers and the projected drawings.  So that the projections are not just backdrops, that they do not make the singers invisible, and that the live performer and the projection are not at odds. Not possible on the model but to be resolved on stage, in rehearsal. 


There are some general principles that emerged in rehearsal. Singers do not look at the screen, the image on the screen is what we imagine the character seeing or thinking. A movement of the singer which tries to be accurately at the same speed as the movement of the projections disconnects from it. What comes alive is if the singer leads the image, as if they are making it, as if the stars of the Queen of the night are called into being by her. (On stage this means she needs to draw lines, not at the speed they appear on screen, but faster, ahead of the image, more decisively.) When this happens successfully there is a sense of agency, of power, of making. I think this is a clue for other sequences too.

Learning the Flute

Projection onto blackboard 

Some eight months ago, after I had undertaken to do this production of the Magic Flute, I was invited to exhibit in a museum in a small town. The museum was in an old half-timbered house and one of the rooms – a monks’ refectory – was filled with wood paneling and murals; not to be touched by the artist. I decided to do a projection in this room using a blackboard as a screen – apart from anything else, to see if one could use a black surface rather than the usual white as projection screen. I had needed to start thinking about the Magic Flute and decided to use the blackboard as a kind of sketch book for the production, seeing if a visual language would emerge.    

Preparing the Flute

Miniature theatre with drawings, front and back projections


There are two ways of doing drawing white lines. One is to, use chalk on black paper. The other is to use a black line on white paper and then to invert the image on film, using the negative of the drawing, making the black lines white and the white of the paper black. This was the way I chose, largely for the wider range of marks it was possible to make and the ease of drawing, rather than for any ideas of the meaning of negative drawing. But what emerged during the editing process and was expanded in subsequent drawing was the play between the positive and negative version of the same image – like a photographic positive and negative. 

What I had not realised until the initial rehearsals was how drawing as an image of agency or invocation of it was located in the production. A connection which grew as it connected to the other large theme of the opera – the creation or at least growth of the characters through experience and time their making of themselves. – The rituals of Tamino are a diagrammatic depiction of this, but Pamina’s trials are the real heart of the opera. Her trials, – abduction, near rape, a lover who is silent, a mother who tries to turn her into an assassin are the ones we feel rather than admire. There is a parallel between the central enlightenment teaching – that we are not essentially fixed, that we make ourselves through experience, and the construction of sense in the process of drawing.




More projects