‘The Magic Flute’ at Washington National Opera

Brightness and color abounded in the Kennedy Center Opera Hall on Saturday night as the Washington National Opera debuted its second-to-last show of the season: Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in a truly awe-inspiring coming-together of musical, stage, and visual art.

From left, John Easterlin (Monostatos), Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night), Deborah Nansteel (Third Lady), Sarah Mesko (Second Lady), and Jacqueline Echols (First Lady). Photo by Scott Suchman.
From left: John Easterlin (Monostatos), Kathryn Lewek (The Queen of the Night), Deborah Nansteel (Third Lady), Sarah Mesko (Second Lady), and Jacqueline Echols (First Lady). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Firstly, it is critical to distinguish that this performance was not so much a concert, but rather a full-blown sensory experience that transcends beyond merely the performance. Co-produced as a joint production by the WNO and four other opera companies from across the nation, The Magic Flute features the eye-popping set and costume design of Japanese-American artist Jun Kaneko, which in and of themselves dazzle the visual senses. But Mr. Kaneko’s influence is further extended as audience members walk into The Kennedy Center Halls between columns of his famous statues, quite as colorful as his opera set.

Unique to this production is not solely Mr. Kaneko’s art, but also the fact that the libretto is in New English, translated from the original German by WNO’s own Kelley Rourke. The change that the new language has on the production is enormous, in not just comprehensibility, but style and meaning as well.  The key aspect of the change being “New” English, as phrases including “I shall not tweet #untruth” and “He’s a stud” had audiences chuckling in their seats.


The Magic Flute tells a fantastical fairy tale that follows the brave and dashing young prince Tamino on his quest to rescue his true love the princess Pamina from the clutches of her kidnapper, the evil Sarastro. Accompanying Tamino is his bumbling sidekick Papageno, who is on his own mission to find love. They are sent on the journey by Pamina’s mother, The Queen of the Night, and her three Ladies who gives them a magical flute for protection. On their quest, Tamino and Papageno face trouble, danger, lofty tasks, and magic, but all is not as it seems when they arrive at Sarastro’s temple. Aided by the New English translation,the story of The Magic Flute is heartwarming and exciting for audience members of nearly all ages.

Maureen McKay debuted as the lovely young Pamina, while Joseph Kaiser sang opposite as the wise and heroic Tamino. Joshua Hopkins presented an excellent Papageno, flitting about the stage comically in many a scene, while Jordan Bisch sang a somber and deep Sarastro and John Easterlin acted as the detestable villainous henchman, Monostatos. A special recognition must be made to Kathryn Lewek for her portrayal of the devious Queen of the Night, most especially for the flawless rendition of the ‘Queen of the Night Aria’, that infamously difficult solo. In support, the WNO Orchestra’s musical performance is led masterfully by Music Director Philippe Auguin, while the visual performance is similarly tactfully prepared by Director Harry Silverstein.

The highest praise, however, must be had for the master behind the visual art of it all, Mr. Kaneko. His vision for this production has taken a firmly entrenched piece of opera literature and turned it quite on its head, and for the better. Fresh does not nearly begin to describe the stunning technicolor mirages and the melding of bold color, pattern, and shapes with traditional Japanese symbolism and imagery. Even the opening notes of the orchestra, accompanied by in the entrance of interweaving bold colored lines on a screen replacing the traditional curtain, is wonder inducing.

(Katheryn Lewek (The Queen of the  Night). Photo by Scott Suchman)
Katheryn Lewek (The Queen of the Night). Photo by Scott Suchman)

The set is simple – few props, but again, dynamic screens that continuously have shapeshifting colors interpreting the mood of the scene. The costumes and the set share similarities in their brightness, drama, and angular lines, but that is where the similarities end, as each individual character wears a distinct costume that appeals to their personality. Everything visual, coupled with the vocal talent presented by all the cast, makes The Magic Flute surely a production without compare in ingenuity and charm.

This reviewer’s humble two cents of advice: If you are an opera fan, The Magic Flute is the Must See show of the season. If you are not an opera fan, see the Washington National Opera’s The Magic Flute and you soon will be. This show has the truly spectacular ability to change the way one views and thinks about opera as an art form.

Running Time: Three Hours, with one 15-minute intermission.


The Magic Flute plays through May 18, 2014 at Washington National Opera performing at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, contact the Kennedy Center Box Office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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Emily Cao
Emily hails from Anchorage, AK and is an avid theater-lover, filmgoer, musician, history buff, and general extoller of the arts. A graduate of Duke University (BS Economics, BA Psychology), Emily has enjoyed over a decade of stage and musical productions foremost as an appreciative audience member, but also as a member of pit and opera orchestras as a musician. Emily's love of the theater arts encompasses all variety of modern and classic Broadway musicals, notable Shakespearean plays, and the great Romantic operas, to name a few, though her long-time secret obsession has been Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. Emily is currently working in government consulting in Arlington, and is a photography enthusiast and self-proclaimed Anglophile in her spare time. As a newcomer to the area, Emily is thrilled to have the opportunity to explore DC's vibrant performing arts scene with DCMetroTheaterArts.


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