The Magic Flute

William Kentridge interviewed by Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson:
In your talk at the Guggenheim Museum last year you spoke of a dangerous idea that inheres in The Magic Flute, “the whole opera is full of the metaphor of moving out of darkness into the light” but, as you affirm, coercing people (and indeed nations) into the light, in the interests of “enlightenment” frequently leads to what you called “enlightened despotism.”  You want to stake a claim for the shadow world, and its right to an autonomous existence. How does that desire manifest itself in your production?


William Kentridge:
The heart of the production is a series of video projections – sometimes the projections are scenery, sometimes an attempt to find a visual equivalent to the music, sometimes they are comments on what is being sung. Projections of course are about the interplay of light and shadow. In cinematic terms, darkness is the time before the movie begins, and the blinding light of Sarastro (and Plato) means the film is finished running through the projector and the clear light has nothing to tell us; it is unenlightenment. If this mixture of shadow-world and light is our only hope for knowledge, we end up in Papageno and Pamina’s world rather than that of Sarastro. So the critique of Sarastro is in the form of the production, though I am not sure how obvious that is from watching the production. There are some more direct critiques along the way.


JW: Music has been very important to your film work, for example, the great Congolese guitarist Franco’s haunting soundtrack to Tide Table.   How different was the experience when the music chose you rather than the other way round? And how did the music shape your vision? Did you listen to the opera while you worked? And did you feel at any point that Mozart’s music for The Magic Flute was telling a different story from the plot about the ambiguities of light and darkness?


WK: The broad arc of the production, that is using singers and projection, was established early on. Then the question became, in each scene, trying to serve the music and libretto best. Often that meant using minimal or no projection. There is of course the question of the quiet reassurance of Sarastro’s music. But if we have learnt anything over the last two centuries, it must surely be to mistrust the quiet, sage words of philosopher-despots. For me the most moving music is Pamina’s, and not Sarastro’s.


JW: Other artists, among them Chagall and David Hockney, have taken on set design for opera (although, unlike yourself, they did not direct as well). In Chagall’s case he was frequently overcome by a desire to control every visual aspect of the performance.  Sometimes he daubed paint on the faces and the costumes of the performers moments before they went on stage. Did you experience a similar desire to command the stage in its entirety?


WK: I had no desire to control the stage to the extent of doing make-up on the performers, but I did spend many hours on ladders painting the flaps, and many hours painting calligraphic lines on the costumes. As with all collaborative work, there is a sometimes tricky area between giving an autonomy to the different participants and shaping that work into a single vision. The key for me is finding the right collaborators at the start of the process. There are large areas of the work of the opera in which I feel great incompetence, for example how to direct and control a chorus. In this and in many other areas I was very happy to hand control to collaborators.


JW: You have collaborated many times with the Handspring Puppet Company in Johannesburg. How do you negotiate the step up from the small to the large stage?  What different challenges do you face when working with either puppets or people?


WK: The previous work done with Handspring, including the chamber opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, was all of a chamber scale. Working with a full scale opera it was not so much a change in size of the stage but rather the size of the crew, the number of people in the rehearsal room: repetiteurs, language coaches, props, costumes, stage managers, and of course a conductor. Negotiating the different needs and demands that this expansion entails was the most difficult part of the change of scale.

The work with Handspring of course entailed working with both puppets, puppeteers and actors, usually all three together to make a character.


JW: Saul Bellow once described two of Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni  and Cosi Fan Tutte, as  “miracles…comprehensive revelations of what eros can be in two such different outpourings of sound.” Your production brilliantly and beautifully exposes a kind of photographic negative of Mozart’s bright surface world and offers a properly ambiguous corrective, both political and aesthetic, to what you have elsewhere called “the pleasure of self-deception” that illusions can provide. But is The Magic Flute in any way miraculous to you?


WK: It is miraculous in the perfection of its music, and in its structure, for which I think it has often been unfairly criticized. I think the very awkwardnesses and contradictions in the libretto are also strengths. Obviously it is unlikely that the libretto on its own would have survived for 200 years, but I do think that the libretto has posed riddles and made place for uncertainties that have sustained new ways of interpreting and thinking about the astonishing music. The very combination of different musical styles within it is part of its strength, and for me ultimately the strongest critique of the world which Sarastro and opera ostensibly espouse.

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