Branagh's Flute Has Military Magic

Toronto Star, 19 March 2009
By John Terauds
**Thanks Jane

The world has probably never seen the Queen of the Night arrive astride an army tank before. And it came as a surprise to the monarch herself.

Irish-born actor and film director Kenneth Branagh took on the task of adapting Mozart's ever-popular opera, 'The Magic Flute', opening tomorrow, for the big screen. He set it in the trenches of the First World War and, to free up the singers for the live-action plot, recorded the music beforehand. All the storyboards were ready when the sound recording started, so that the director could tell the singers what would be going on around them.

"My job was to say, `Remember, you're standing on a tank at this point,'" says Branagh of his instructions to Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova. "She said that these had been the most unusual notes she'd ever been given."

From trench warfare to CG-enhanced action-hero stunts on the ramparts of Sarastro's ruined castle, this is not your run-of-the-mill opera movie. But the disorientation is only temporary.

With the help of old friend (and British comic) Stephen Fry, who translated and rewrote Emanuel Schickaneder's libretto into English, Branagh has moved Mozart's Masonic clash of superstition and reason into a setting any modern viewer can grasp. The aim was not to film an opera, but to make a film in which the elements of opera were present.

In a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles, where Branagh is now hard at work on adapting comic-book hero Thor, Branagh quotes poet W.H. Auden, who once said, "No opera requires a directorial philosophy or idea more than 'The Magic Flute'."

Not that a First World War setting came immediately to mind.

"I wasn't exposed to opera much and I was not much of an opera enthusiast," the director admits. He had rebuffed several previous offers to work with this art form. But when English philanthropist Peter Moores came calling with $25 million in funding, "I took it as a provocation," says Branagh. "And I discovered that I enjoyed it."

He listened to as many different versions of 'The Magic Flute' as he could find, and was struck by the "tremendous flexibility and elasticity of how opera is treated." The director loved the epic themes of love, anger, light and darkness at the centre of the story, overlaid "with a catch-all theme of magic." Branagh says he was soon feeling liberated enough to place the story "in a world where these elemental themes can be presented visually on a monumental scale."

The casting, which includes movie idol-handsome Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser in the central role of Tamino, was a collaborative effort with conductor James Conlon. They wanted young singers who would also be able to act, so that the voices we hear belong to the faces on screen. Another casting coup was getting German bass superstar René Pape to sing the role of Sarastro, the sage who shelters wounded soldiers and tries to foresee a day when the power of light will triumph over darkness.

Given how popular opera has become at cineplexes in the last two years, it's strange that 'The Magic Flute' has failed to get wide release in North America since its Toronto International Film Festival debut in 2006. (It opened in Europe in 2007, and has been available there on DVD for some time.)

Branagh says that it's hard to find distributors and exhibitors willing to wait for word of mouth to build on non-mainstream releases. His 'Magic Flute' "is well worth that patience," says the director.

After all, it won over an opera skeptic.

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