Interview with Kenneth Branagh about The Magic Flute
From the Dossier de presse for La Flûte Enchantée, opening in France on 13 December 2006
**Thanks to Isabelle for the translation
Why did you chose to update the story to the First World War?
The theme of the conflict is in the heart of 'The Magic Flute'. You can feel it in the music, and the opera itself is about the resolution of a conflict between opposing parties, between light and darkness, hatred and love, and, as for the film, between war and peace. The most striking conflict is the one between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. I wanted to give breadth to their deeds, by putting each of the two at the head of an army, and by reconstructing the visual setting of the First World War. The 1914-1918 war is an historical and metaphorical context, as complex and full of emotion as the opera itself. Besides, you have to know that music, popular song, poetry and humour were a matter of self-preservation in this tragic time. So this context allowed us to balance emotion and humour, and to give an « opéra comique » aspect to the film. Finally, the rather disconcerting plot has the vastness of an epic, and follows a consistent trajectory that bounces back again and again.
How can young people nowadays identify with The Magic Flute?
The story is about an ancestral myth. Two young people become involved in a vast quest and launch themselves into a dangerous adventure that will allow them to gain maturity and a knowledge of the world. Their spiritual, psychological and emotional journey gives a complete meaning to this quest. Even if the plot is close to the Arthurian myth and to Star Wars, too, you can identify with the characters easily, because they seem firmly fixed in a present-day reality. The theme of the film is universal.
What would you like the audience to remember about the film?
Music spurs on imagination. People will remember whatever they want about this version of 'The Magic Flute'. You're compelled to react to such a work subjectively. With our interpretation, we tried to open up the opera, certainly not to give an ossified vision of it. We wished to suggest an interpretation with the décor, the cast’s acting and the treatment of the plot. We tried to take advantage of the creativity and possibilities of cinema, but above all we wanted the audience to be enthralled by Mozart’s music.
What have you tried to put in your Magic Flute, that, to your mind, was lacking in the previous versions?
We really stressed the plausibility and the realism of the cast’s acting. We had to see to it that the sung parts became integrated into our universe as naturally as possible. We wanted you to feel that the characters have the urge to communicate and to sing. We also wanted to make you feel the energy that is in the opera, and to put enough breathing-space and humour into the story, so that the audience is not disconcerted by the intrusion of the magic. We wished to show the whole diversity of the opera, by accepting the slightest variation in tone and in style, without tying to explain or to justify any so-called inconsistency. The work is halfway between fairytale, drama, comedy, adventure and philosophical treatise. It seems as if Mozart wanted to give all these aspects to 'The Magic Flute'.
How did you come to the project?
Stephen Wright, who works as an executive producer at the Peter Moores Foundation, got in touch with me. We met, and he explained to me that Sir Peter was dreaming of producing an opera film. Then I wrote 5 or 6 pages about my ideas for a film adaptation. I talked about it with Peter Moores, then I got down to write the scenario.
How did you come to work with Stephen Fry on The Magic Flute? How did you collaborate on the scenario and on the libretto?
I gave Stephen a 120-page scenario, doing my best to detail the décor of every scene, the characters’ descriptions as I saw them, and my approach to the different questions Mozart and Schikaneder bring up in the plot. Then Stephen used a literal translation of the original libretto, and we tried to put it into the language people spoke in 1916. We modernized some dialogues a little, and we deleted some scenes. We wanted both humour and emotion, which perfectly suits Stephen’s frame of mind. He wrote a terrific first outline of the libretto, then we met with Gareth Hancock, our music consultant, to sing the scenes. Next we improved some sentences and phrases to make them easier to sing, in particular for the registers of high-pitched voices. I loved our collaboration.
You often transferred Shakespeare to the screen ; what did you find appealing and interesting in the Magic Flute project? Did you anticipate problems, and did you encounter them in your adaptation work?
The problems I encountered were very like those I had with my adaptations of Shakespeare. It's a matter of transposing a major work in another artistic form, and you don't want to water down the genius of it, but to pay homage to it. But Mozart is tough, like Shakespeare! The productions of 'The Magic Flute' are as many as the productions of 'Hamlet' : the opera was set on the moon, in a circus, in Stonehenge, on a beach, and Mozart can fit each of those sets easily. To my mind, the most important thing is the plausibility of the acting, whatever the setting - no matter what the production or the technical requirements of the dramatic content are, for Shakespeare as for Mozart. The singers had to record the sung parts several months before the shooting. What turned out to be a real challenge was to make these recordings tally with the images we shot afterwards, while aiming for the greatest spontaneity possible on the set.
You worked with artists who had no experience of cinema. How did you coach them for their roles?
The auditions were long and tiring. When we started to rehearse, we spent a long time working on the libretto, the characters’ psychology and relationships before working on the music. Most of the performers had never made a film, and I myself had never worked on an opera. We were all foreigners in a foreign country. This kind of situation makes you both vulnerable and prone to listen to the others and to learn. That's what we all did.
In your opinion, who is your version of The Magic Flute intended for?
Seeing the reception the audience has been giving to the opera for the last 200 years, you can say 'The Magic Flute' affects both women and men, whatever their age or their social status. I took 45 years to appreciate opera, and I’d be very glad if other people, who maybe haven’t had a chance to discover opera, could do so thanks to the film. Mozart gives us his music as a wonderful present, and, in this anniversary year, I am very flattered to contribute to passing his art on to a new audience, thanks to cinema.
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