The Magic Flute – October 2008


By Mozart

Directed by Mark Dornford-May

Company: Impempe Yomlingo

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 14th October 2008

This was the first production we’d seen by this South African based company. Hopefully, it won’t be the last. It was also Steve’s first sight of The Magic Flute, and after the first half he took my advice and read the Synopsis for Act 2. It’s a weird plot at the best of times, and with no guarantee that we’d get much in English I felt it was wise to remind myself of the story beforehand, even though I had seen it on stage before.

I will just record here the singers who took the lead parts for this performance. Tamino – Sonwabo Ntshata; Papageno – Lizo Tshaka; Queen of the Night – Bongiwe Mapassa; Pamina – Zolina Ngejane; Sarastro – Sebastian Zokoza; Monostatos – Malungisa Balintulo; Papagena – Asanda Ndlwana.

This adaptation of The Magic Flute took us into a South African township setting to tell us the story from that perspective, using Mozart’s music in combination with African rhythms and harmonies, African dancing, and with the cast playing just about everything on adapted marimbas. It was an eclectic and exciting mix. The lyrics and dialogue (there was no recitative) was in a mixture of languages, including English, but slipping from one to the other easily. As a general point, I find that I prefer the operas I see not to be in English. Trained opera singers have to use Italian vowel sounds when singing, as these use an open throat to minimise the strain on the voice. English sung with these vowels is usually unintelligible, and so rather than straining to make out what they’re singing, I prefer to regard the voice as another instrument and just relax and let the beautiful sounds wash over and through me, taking me on the emotional journey of the piece. For this reason, I make sure I know what’s going on in each scene so I can follow the plot, but without having to hear any words. This has worked well for me in the past, and I see no reason to change things now. Although I did find I could make out some of the words during the sung bits, I found I could switch off that part of my brain for most of the performance, and just enjoy myself as usual. The dialogue was easier to get, and I quite liked the pithy comments they came out with at times.

The set was mainly a large wooden ramp in the middle of the stage, with spaces on either side for the marimbas. Behind these was scaffolding with another level or two, and they also used trapdoors in the ramp for the dragon and the trials of fire and water. There were stools for the gathering of tribal elders, a screen of cloth which dropped down from the scaffolding for projected stuff, and nothing much else except the performances and the costumes, which ranged from Supremes outfits for the three female spirits to African tribal costumes, and included a chorus of pink singing birds.

For the overture, the conductor stood on the stage, and the screen dropped down, so that we could see a projection of what he was doing, as he faced the back of the stage. I found the marimbas interesting, but I was aware that with only one instrument, we were missing a lot of the texture of the music that a regular orchestra can give. We were soon into the opera itself, though, and here the marimbas worked very well when accompanying the singing. (They did have some metal drums to use as well, but these weren’t used very often.) There were some problems with the lighting for one side of the marimbas, so it was all the more impressive that they kept it all together.

The standard of singing was pretty good. Pamina was superb; she had a rich strong voice and hit all the notes cleanly without straining. Some of the others were a little weak at the extremes of their range, but it all worked very well with the performances, and the dancing more than made up for it. They used all sorts of rhythms during the piece, with one number sounding more like a cabaret song, which was appropriate in context. The three Spirits were dressed as the Supremes, and for one of their songs, when they persuade Pamina not to kill herself (she thinks Pamino has gone off her), they’re done up in pink negligees and carrying pink teddy bears. When Pamina cheers up, she takes one of the teddies, so the Spirits have to jostle amongst themselves for the remaining two, until a helpful cast member throws another teddy bear on stage.

Given the unusual instrumentation, it was no surprise that the magic flute wasn’t a flute, and Papageno’s magic bells weren’t bells. It was a surprise that the flute was represented by a trumpet (played by the conductor, and very well too), while the bells were done using partly filled bottles. The whole performance was so lively that the evening flew past, and after rapturous applause, they treated us to an encore of African music with some great dancing to round off the evening. Great fun, and I do hope they come back again sometime soon.

For the post-show, we were joined by the conductor, Mandisi Dyantyis, and Pauline Malefane who is one of the earliest members of the group and sang Carmen in their first production. Mark Dornford-May joined us later. To begin with, Mandisi and Pauline told us how this piece had come about, with the group working through several ideas till it became clear that Flute was the one to do. They wanted to tell stories that people in the townships could relate to, and so they kept it simple. Everyone who came along was auditioned, so there are a number of singers in the group with no classical training, or any training for that matter. If they could sing, they were in. Everyone also had to learn the marimbas, and with little grasp of musical notation, that was a tough job for most of them. But Mandisi kept at it, and eventually things fell into place.

The marimbas themselves had to be modified, as traditional marimbas couldn’t manage all the notes they needed –  the black notes had to be added. (As I type this, I see the irony.) They have more projects planned. They workshop first and then decide what to develop. They’re looking at doing a history of apartheid in South Africa, but they’re not sure exactly which period to look at.

They’re enjoying Britain. It’s taking some time to establish their audience in South Africa, but over here the theatres have been full. We learned how Pauline had been picked from the chorus to sing Carmen. Basically, it’s such a demanding role, with a very wide range, that the director thought they’d have to get a classically trained singer for it, but she would have to be black. The only black opera singer they could find was Swedish, but after she’d been rehearsing with them for a few weeks, it was clear that her voice wasn’t up to the standard of most of the others, even though they were untrained. With only a few weeks to go, they had to make a tough choice, and when they tested the chorus members, they found Pauline was up to the job. She was suitably modest about the whole thing –  there’s a great feeling of ensemble with this company.

I was sorry to see that when Mark Dornford-May turned up, the other two became a lot quieter, as their enthusiasm and energy, even after a performance, were lovely to be around. Still, they’re getting the talent out there, where people can be opened up to new ideas and different ways of doing things, so congratulations to them all.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at