A Little 'Magic' for the Masses

Los Angeles Times CalendarLive, 11 June 2006
By Kristin Hohenadel, Special to The Times
**Thanks, Susan, Leanna

Kenneth Branagh stood in the middle of a burned-out battlefield, wrestling with a giant. This time, it wasn't Shakespeare — whom the actor and director has maneuvered in front of the camera for successful stage-to-screen adaptations of "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet" — but Mozart.

Enclosed in a chilly soundstage at Shepperton Studios outside London, the battlefield was the set of Branagh's latest effort to bring High Culture to the masses: an English-language film version of Mozart's fairy-tale opera, "The Magic Flute," first performed in Vienna in 1791 and relocated here to a World War I-like setting.

Written and directed by Branagh with a libretto adapted by Stephen Fry, and featuring James Conlon conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the production stars 28-year-old Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser as the opera's princely hero, Tamino, along with 30-year-old American baritone Ben Davis as his sidekick, the merry bird catcher Papageno, and a 21-year-old British newcomer, soprano Amy Carson, as Pamina, the kidnapped damsel the two are bent on rescuing.

The supporting cast includes such established voices as bass René Pape and coloratura Lyubov Petrova as Pamina's estranged parents, the dark priest Sarastro and the fearsome Queen of the Night. Shot this spring on five soundstages at Shepperton, the film is currently being edited and shopped around to international distributors.

Branagh's reimagining of the story begins on the eve of the first global war, with Tamino poised for battle, catapulted into chaos and rescued by a trio of field nurses (the opera's Three Ladies). When the bumbling everyman Papageno (here a bird keeper checking for gas in the trenches) takes credit for saving him, the ladies dispatch the two soldiers on their risky mission to save Pamina, who has been abducted by Sarastro and whose photo causes Tamino to fall instantly in love. What ensues is a story of romance and betrayal in which not just a handful of destinies are at stake but millions of lives around the world.

The story of how this ambitious $27-million film got made begins in 1964, when a wealthy Englishman named Sir Peter Moores found a cause: to promote opera around the world by translating it into English. In the four decades since, his Peter Moores Foundation has commissioned the recording of dozens of operas in translation. And as the world prepared to celebrate this year's 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, he decided to target moviegoers.

Despite his proven talent for transferring Shakespeare to the screen, Branagh didn't know a thing about opera. Which is exactly why Pierre-Olivier Bardet, the film's French producer, thought he was perfect for the job.

"The idea was to bring fresh air to a world that is sometimes a bit turned in on itself," says Bardet, a classical music documentary producer whose experience in the rarefied genre of cinematic opera includes a 1995 film version of "Madame Butterfly" directed by Frédéric Mitterand. "Also, the big difficulty in making an opera film is the performances, because opera singers are not necessarily the best actors in the world. And Ken works wonderfully with actors, as an actor himself."

Branagh's talent for working with actors could be observed only from a distance by visitors to the set, where they were welcome but kept out of earshot on the giant soundstage while the director, small in stature but unmissable in a neon orange jacket, clutched a Styrofoam cup, rubbed his nose with a handkerchief and seemed to mime instructions. Then prerecorded Mozart began playing over loudspeakers, and lip-syncing soldiers in red met soldiers in blue in the middle of the battlefield in a moment of grace that recalled the Christmas Truce of World War I.

'A rare opportunity'

After shooting was over, Branagh said in an interview that at first he half-dismissed the fax that came to his office asking if he was interested in the unlikely proposition of directing an opera film financed by a private charity organization.

"I was pretty sure it would be some cranky project" with "a number of insane people who would torture me," he said by phone from the Cannes Film Festival, where he had gone to promote the movie to distributors. Still, if he had never been interested in directing opera onstage, he was intrigued enough to listen to the music.

"I thought, 'What a fascinating thing for someone like me, who's not familiar at all with opera, to spend some more time with this Mozart,' " he said. "Plus, it was a rare opportunity to do something unusual in the cinema — to provide a cinema audience a new experience of that music but with a story they can identify with, in a language they are more familiar with and in a medium that doesn't alienate."

Branagh said he updated the story to lend "immediacy" and "make the stakes higher" for a modern audience. "Two hundred years of criticism includes many volumes on the plot of 'The Magic Flute' and why it doesn't make any sense," he said. "I wanted to find a way to offer up a clear narrative." He said the movie would be full of humor and darkness, like Mozart's music — to be true to the spirit of the original, which was written in German as a popular entertainment — as well as a spectacle of lush sets and special effects.

Opera performed in translation remains controversial. But speaking by phone from Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, where he was passing through from Moscow on his way to a concert in Italy, conductor Conlon said that "as somebody who lives my life as a classical musician and wants to see classical music reaching many, many more people than it does, I absolutely believe that cinema is the greatest potential way to do that." Conlon has been conducting for 30 years and worked on the "Madame Butterfly" film during his years as conductor of the Paris National Opera. Starting July 1, he will be the new music director of Los Angeles Opera.

"There is a great 'Magic Flute' movie by one of the greatest movie directors ever," Conlon said, referring to Ingmar Bergman's 1975 version. "I wanted to give Ken what he needed to challenge that. Because I have conducted 'Magic Flute' in theaters, and I will conduct many more. But this is his big chance."

The casting process was complicated by twin demands for high musicianship and screen viability.

"The laws of nature are such that that which makes a great operatic voice has nothing to do with how somebody looks," Conlon said. "There might be values that you're willing to modify or surrender to some degree to have somebody who looks great on the screen, whereas you would not make those compromises in the theater."

"It would be dishonest to say that looks didn't have an impact," Branagh said, "but I'd say it was more about disposition to the camera, ease with the camera. And there's something about what happens in the story of 'The Magic Flute' which I think is made much more believable when you see it embodied by the impetuosity and passion of youth."

The biggest musical risk was soprano Carson, a talented but inexperienced singer who auditioned for the role of Pamina while still a student at Cambridge University. "There were a lot of very, very good singers who showed up to audition," Conlon said, "and any number I would hire onstage. But Ken said 'too old, too old, too old' — and these are young, attractive women."

The cast spent a few weeks in London working out the relationships of the characters and the staging before recording the music at Abbey Road Studios. Conlon insisted that not one note of Mozart be cut. But where the opera can run 2 1/2 hours, the film will be about 15 minutes shorter, Branagh said, with the dialogue tightened and brisk tempos.

Coaching the performers

Branagh was present during the recording, "to remind people of what we would be doing in the movie and to talk about the characters," he said, "to leave room so that they wouldn't just be miming back to the music." Having the soundtrack out of the way, Conlon said, allowed the singers to focus on their acting once the cameras were rolling, "free of the preoccupation to make the sound right at the moment."

Branagh said he had to coach the performers to reveal vital information about their characters when they were not singing. "People who can sing in front of two and a half thousand people are suddenly in a close-up, not required to sing or speak but simply react, and it becomes terrifying," he said. "It sounds daft, but it makes the performer very vulnerable. And it's that very vulnerability that you want to be present, in order to bring our cinema audience in. It's been exciting to see how the camera allows us into characters from opera that we might not see in the same way in the theater."

During a shooting break, tenor Kaiser said that although "The Magic Flute" was the first opera he saw, at age 3, it wasn't until he worked with Branagh that Tamino became a "dimensional character" for him. "It's not to cheapen opera in any way, because opera's a phenomenal art form and it's what I do for a living," he said. "But you just can't get away with the same things in film that you can in opera. You are not always under that same sort of microscope, simply because people are farther away, there are other things going on. When the camera's on you, there has to be a specific reason behind every action, emotion and word."

Branagh said he hoped his "Magic Flute" would appeal both to opera virgins and to opera lovers curious to see the work in a new way.

"I'd like to think the audience is made up of anybody who wants to take a risk," he said, "and have a rich musical adventure at the cinema. The opera has been recognized as a masterpiece for the last 200 years, but I've been involved with a great deal of Shakespeare, where 400 years of that certainty still isn't enough to relax some people who are put off by what they feel may be elitist or exclusive or go over their heads.

"I sort of believe if you build it, they will come. The film has to be good — and not just record the greatness that is 'The Magic Flute.' "

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