The Magic Flute: Director’s Note

William Kentridge

Director’s note for The Magic Flute, first written in 2005 for the première at La Monnaie in Brussels, and updated for a revival of the opera at the New National Theatre in Tokyo in 2018.

The production of The Magic Flute was the first large-scale opera I directed.  I have since directed several other operas, but The Magic Flute remains key. It is the opera about opera, about the power of music in the service of love.

The opera is filled with questions of authority, tyranny, benevolence, with assumptions of knowledge  – in other words, questions that are still central to politics today. There is also a wonderful naïve innocence, not only in Papageno, but through the whole opera.

The magic of the opera is in how complex and deep questions can be played out with such a light hand, and in the music, which simply floats to our ears, but which has such a gravitas to it at the same time.

The notes below were written as I was preparing the first production in 2005.


Sarastro’s Blackboard: Learning the Flute

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. The blackboard demanded essentially white lines to show up on its surface.

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. I was exploring the world of Masonic images, of Egyptian gods and myths, looking also at baroque theatre machinery, trying to find a vocabulary for the production. These drawings and animated sequences I edited into a version of the overture to the opera and projected in the monk’s room on an old school blackboard. Some of the images, from this experiment, “learning the Flute” have stayed on in the production (Max Ernst’s Masonic metronome with an eye, for example). But the main discovery was the photographic ur-metaphor. The realization that the very way of working, of doing negative drawings, had a connection to the larger structure and themes of the opera. The specifics of the images shown were less significant than the associations thrown forward by their form, (the positive and negative).

This has come into the production in two significant ways. First was the broad metaphor of positive and negative, which in the opera maps onto the conflict between the Queen of the Night and the high priest of light, Sarastro. The references throughout the opera of turning darkness into light, of the light of the sun banishing the night, acted as confirmation of something discovered rather than an idea pursued.

Secondly, when I started following this discovery, a large part of the opera seemed to fit. Papageno and Tamino in the crypt of the Sarastro’s temple are literally in the dark room – the dark room both in the sense of the place of developing and testing light sensitive material; and the dark room as in ‘chambre noir’ – the body of the camera between the lens and the eyepiece.


Baroque Perspective

Much later, after much drawing had been done, I realised of course that this is one of the central Masonic images – the disembodied eye. An eye without a face, an eye behind the viewing lens.


The Multiplication of Implications

The stage production will use video projections. This was the given form at the start of the project. But the hope, engendered by the photographic metaphor is that the form itself, moving projections, will connect to the meaning of the opera. At the end of the opera we are in the temple of the sun, the theatre filled with a pure light. In projection terms, were are at the end of the film, when the last image has passed through the gate of the projector and all we have is the light of the projector lamp i.e. nothing. – our only hope in cinema is to make sense from the interplay between shadow and light – the platonic clarity and certainty of staring at the sun is the expiration of truth and meaning rather than its creation. – ( this is just a thought that passes through, not an interpretation of what we will see on stage but I am aware of connections between all the music about light and dark and the projectors at the back and front of the stage. But there is clue here as to our reaction to Sarastro’s teachings. The years since Mozart wrote the opera have made us more wary of philosopher autocrats. The enforced bringing of wisdom has had unintended but calamitous consequences all through the years, not just in the Robesperian terror of the years immediately after the writing of the opera, but throughout the colonial era, and throughout own century. Though we may believe in Sarastro’s benevolent guidance, in the end we believe in Mozart more, in his mix of the rational, the fantastic, the contradictory.)


The Chambre Noire

If we were in the belly of the camera, the empty stage is the working space for the optics of the camera. Where the three dimensional world is recreated on a smaller scale, in a flattened form. The tradition of baroque flat scenery, arranged in a perspective from the proscenium to the back of the stage put me in mind of the layers in a bellows of an old camera – also reminded me of the flattening of planes of distance one sees in binoculars – a sort of quantum perspective, depth given by a series of jumps of flat planes. So we now have a combination of elements –

the photographic, the camera, the positive and negative, a reference to film, and the structure of the baroque theatre, the type of theatre and scenery that would have been used in early productions of the opera. Following this, Schinkel and his famous paintings for the scenery became an element of the design. The different painted gauzes become different layers for projections. The design of the stage and sets for the production which I did with Sabine Theunissen have tried to make a space for these associations and impulses to be clear and to expand. A space clean enough for each scene to play itself out clearly but still allow the broader questions and associations of the opera to emerge.


What the Well-Dressed Photographer Wears

The metaphor and image of the camera itself points outward to decisions about staging and costume. We have to move to the 19th century from the 18th. (The 18th century of course, is one of the at least three times in the opera – The time the opera is written, (Vienna 1791) the time it is set – an unspecified Egyptian past – and the time of the specific production (Brussels in 2005) – not in any theoretical or abstract sense but in the way we experience it as audience – aware of Mozart and Shickaneder’s time of writing and allowing ourselves in and out of the world depicted in the production, and aware of ourselves in the theatre.

The 19th century (some costumes are from 1894, some from a few years earlier) was given by the photographic ur-metaphor. But again photography suggested further images and approaches that mapped onto parts of the opera.


Exclusive Clubs of Male Learning

The priests, for example, become neither abstract nor specific priests of an imagined ancient Egypt; not 18th century masons but members of an exclusive society of male learning, ‘a Royal Geographic Society’; and the Queen of the Night and the three ladies are not exactly suffragettes, but certainly they feel their exclusion from this society.

These discoveries, the stage as camera, the positive and negative photographic world, the provide a broad framework within which to find each character, each scene.

Notes after two weeks of rehearsals.


Drawing the Stage

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. Not possible on the model 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. There are some general principles that have emerged. 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. I realize now there are many sequences of drawing, Papageno catches his birds by drawing them into projections, the priests draw an idealized architecture. (The blackboard from the projection in the monk’s refectory was always in the production, mainly as a vehicle for the three genii, but also because I discovered that blackboards were an important part of the rituals around the initiation of apprentice masons.) What I had not realized until this weeks rehearsals how drawing as an image of agency or invocation of it was located in the production. A connection I hope will grow as it connects 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.


[Notes – two weeks before 1st performance]

The Weight of Sarastro’s Hand

            The shape of each scene is now set. But there are still questions of detail within each scene which can shift the sense of the whole piece.

            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 embrace of Tamino and Pamina – at which moment in the opera may they touch – what is the nature of the contact? The possible touching points:

  • The first meeting when Monostatos brings Tamino in to Sarastro and Pamina. The lovers’ movement towards each other is interrupted by Monostatos.
  • The terzetto after the chorus of the priests – there Sarastro steps between them. There is a whole world of desperation to be generated in this trio which precedes and has to retrospectively justify Pamina’s attempted suicide. And this is generated or lost by the precise timing of who looks at who in which section of the trio and who turns at which moment.
  • The meeting at the Gates of Hell – the drama is in the last 4 or 5 centimeters between them and the pressure generated by the gap.
  • The final chorus.

The larger question of the goal of Tamino’s and Pamina’s trials as a journey towards wisdom and joining the initiates of Sarastro, or a journey to generate and consolidate love is given not by grand staging but again by a matter of centimeters and seconds – how close are Tamino and Pamina, how close is Sarastro. And by the length of Pamina’s dress in the final allegro.