Curtain Call: A Dozen Marimbas Give Mozart’s The Magic Flute a South African Spin

All the way from Capetown, Isango Ensemble director Mark Dornford-May combines history and humor

Last year director Barrie Kosky’s use of animation for L.A. Opera’s production of The Magic Flute was a sensation. Imagine how people will respond to Isango Ensemble’s South African-themed production of The Magic Flute, which opens for a limited run at the Broad Stage tonight.

“We play every note Mozart wrote,” says director Mark Dornford-May by phone from Capetown. “But sometimes we use a South Africa rhythm to play what he wrote for violins. The marimbas are primitive pianos. They are extraordinary versatile instruments and a very South African instrument. They manage to capture the joy of the Mozart piece.

In The Magic Flute, Prince Tamino is saved by the Queen of the Night from a serpent. In return she asks Tamino to save her enslaved daughter Pamina. Tamino falls in love with her picture and aims to rescue the girl with the aid of a birdcatcher named Papageno, who claims he actually slew the beast. Tamino has to complete three tests before he and Pamina can be together.

The troupe began its life in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the name Isango Ensemble was chosen. A non-profit organization, its mission is to bring together a range of individuals with varying levels of experience. Seasoned artists guide younger artists, and a broad mix of cultures and opinions are used to create new interpretations of Western theater classics. The productions are South African-centric.

Dornford-May says it wasn’t just the music that inspired him. “We felt that the story had significant reverberations within the South African context. The people are trying to achieve something after a struggle. It’s about truth and struggles, about being treated as equals. We never make our work overtly political, but it has to resonate within the history of the country. This makes it sound quite heavy. Most of our work has powerful elements of humor. To make people laugh is a fantastic way of making points.”

As South Africa isn’t one of the world’s opera capitals, how did Dornford-May put his company together? “In terms of opera in this country there is little. There is nothing. If you think about African music you think about a percussive tradition; that is true of 90% of the continent. Strangely South Africa does not have a percussive tradition; it has a vocal tradition. What you have in South Africa is a phenomenal tradition of choral singing, both formal choir music in churches and also singing at funerals, weddings, and christenings. They have song cycles to go with [each occasion.] Opera is not such a jump for most South Africans. Pauline Malefane who sings Queen of the Night, she’s sung at Berlin Philharmonic and she’s just one of several in the troupe of that standard.”

When The Magic Flute opens in Santa Monica it will mark the 400th performance of the opera by Isago Ensemble, but the show continues to evolve. “The more we work on it, the more we realize we’re only at the tip of what is an enormous iceberg of creativity,” he says. “We rehearse all the time. The depths of our understanding constantly change. With this piece the way to approach it is to be as simple as possible. The more you can strip away the ‘fireworks,’ the more extraordinary the piece becomes; the deeper, the stronger, the funnier. You can sort of over-decorate the tree.”

At the time of our conversation, Dornford-May had just completed shooting a film version of La Boheme set in modern South Africa. He is also looking at bringing the troupe’s production of Carmen to America. It’s what he has up his sleeve that may surprise some. “We’re working with an organization in New York on a version of The Ring Cycle,” he reveals. That would be Richard Wagner’s marathon series of four operas lasting nearly 14 hours. “That’s in the pot as it were. It could be fantastic seen through a South Africa prism.”