On February 26, 2022, IN Series will offer a free digital release of Black Flute. I got to see the filmed opera in advance. This is what I experienced watching it.
It is the year 2020. A group of young Black performers has been engaged to perform Mozart’s Magic Flute. (Is this a gesture at inclusivity? Is it nontraditional casting?) There have been several fatal interactions between Black Americans with the police. Then George Floyd, a Black man, is killed, and streets in America and abroad erupt in ongoing protest. The performers arrive at their rehearsal after walking through these roiling streets and begin to argue the wisdom, usefulness, and integrity of mounting a particularly frivolous piece of the western opera canon, while their own citizenship, humanity, and lives are under attack outside the theater door. At a critical point, one of the group cites the composer of the piece himself, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “All I ask, and nothing else, is that you should show the whole world that you are not afraid. Be silent if you choose. But when it’s necessary, speak. And speak in such a way that people will remember.” The performers decide to go on with their performance of the opera.
Their production of The Magic Flute begins in the middle of the night with Prince Tamino being attacked by a violent and unseen force. Three women save him from his attacker and give him a picture of Pamina, who is the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Tamino falls in love with Pamino upon seeing her picture, and the women tell him that she has been captured by Sarastro. They then enlist Tamino to rescue her. They supply him with a magic flute, some magic bells, and a reluctant companion and helper named Papageno. The two embark on their adventure.
That The Magic Flute is, as one of the performers says during their debate, a “fantastical unbelievable tale” is not a secret. But I, like many, have been afraid to name it as I experienced it: a frivolous piece that doesn’t make sense and is not worth my time. I was afraid to be pegged as somebody who just wasn’t smart enough to understand it. This production doesn’t deny the shallowness and silliness of the piece. Instead, it gave me permission to see what I see in front of me in this play and trust my own mind in evaluating it. This show is not intended to make sense. In the words of the company of actors convened to perform it, The Magic Flute is “ridiculous, sexist, racist…light, funny, fluffy, silly, and dark, threatening violence with tragic undertones.”
Black Flute welcomes the presence of Blackness and African Heritage into the narrative of a European diasporic canon that has often worked hard to keep any African presence invisible.
(When I speak of invisibility of African presence, I think here of European countries taking the cultural artifacts from non-European countries and housing them in European museums.) One effect of the welcoming Black Flute proffers is that, instead of being invisible, when we see Prince Tamino, a Black man, being attacked by an invisible force, we are able to allow ourselves to think about the same George Floyd that the performers have been meditating on: the black floor of the black box theater seeming to become the same paved city street the performers have just entered from.
Watching the young artists in this production who are in the process of mastering their craft while at the beginning of their careers, trying out things that would never be allowed on the major opera houses, is always a thrill on its own. The voices here are all exciting and pleasing to hear.
But there are some things in Black Flute that were for me unmitigated delights. At the top of that list is how the overture to this version to the piece is handled. Once the performers decide to go through with performing The Magic Flute, they begin with the overture that is here converted to an a capella, vocalise arrangement. This version (which is, for me, reminiscent of the work of the Howard University–based, and nationally renowned, Afro Blue vocal ensemble or The Swingle Singers) is sung while the performers set up their stage. It was super fun.
Any theater space operates as a transport device to another world that both audiences and performers experience. We see one way that this functions at the beginning of this piece as the actors arrive and enter the space from the streets where reaction to police violence is occurring. That metaphor is extended and the black box of the theater becomes a portal between two realities within the play. Characters would walk toward the blackness of the theater walls and find themselves in the greenery of Sarastro’s world. Or they would stumble on a root and find themselves tumbling into the black box theater. It was clever and appropriately artificial/magical.
Imagine Viola Davis, Alfre Woodard, Taraji Henson, Angela Basset, Naomi Harris, or any number of Black actresses, dressed to walk the red carpet at the Academy Awards while singing the aria “You, You, You will save my daughter and bring her home.” Such a strong not-to-be crossed mother: this was the image Kristin Reness Young gave us for The Queen of the Night’s entry as she used the steel clothes rack as yet another portal to another world: sexy, sensual, and stylish. It was priceless.
I also loved how the Three Women were dressed as travelers who were not bound by time and who at the same time carried suitcases and hatboxes that Aframerican women could have been seen carrying while traveling from liminal space to liminal space on the trains back and forth from the American South. These images stimulated my memory of traveling on trains as a young child in the 1950s.
I recognized Papageno as an eccentric uncle (the word my folks would have more likely used is “fool”) who doesn’t know how to dress and is proud of it. Kudos to the costume director and kudos to Carl DuPont as a bona fide “fool.” In fact, throughout the piece, Dupont’s comic presence was helpful in drawing our attention back to joy.
I enjoyed the blocking that occurred during the initiation of Tamino and Papageno as searchers for Pamina and confronters of Sarastro, when the group made two complete circuits around the black box room as a ritual for accepting and admiring the bells (xylophone) and the flute while the camera held the entire group in a tight focus.
The Drummer (Jabari Exum) served as a stabilizing presence in this story as characters and psyches moved from one understanding of their situation. The drumming served to liquify the doors between realities, to spark the characters’ awareness and alertness to their situations, and to connect members of the African diaspora psychically to their homeland.
There was a scene that established the acute urban anxiety that the country was going through during the George Floyd era. We were shown individuals isolated in their stairwells, slamming their doors closed against the outside danger while a voice intoned and informed us “Unrest gripped…” and a different city was named each time. This was a visceral and succinct way to mark the feeling of that time. And it was satisfying to watch.
The performers were also photographed sitting in the stairwell through three eras of the 20th century (as indicated by vintage clothing), suggesting the ongoing presence and repeated efforts to survive and maintain through the years.
The primary weakness in this ambitious piece comes in the setting-up sequence in which the performers debate their justification for engaging with the European canon. Individual characters lacked clear-cut, specific motivation. I understood the debate. I did not understand the personal stake for each of these characters. So, parts of it felt like declaiming and proclaiming a thesis.
The IN Series’ production of Black Flute is a bold, brazen, and invigorating examination of the reasons, rewards, and risks of choosing to engage with Mozart’s Magic Flute and by extension with the canon of western music in general. But, more and more, that’s what I go to the IN Series to do: to question what the art we create is for, what it does, and who and what it serves. And to find out where and how my people have, can, do, and should exist in it.
Running Time: Approximately one hour 51 minutes.
IN Series’ opera film Black Flute will have its free online premiere on Saturday, February 26, 2022, at 4:00 p.m. EST on IN Series’ streaming platform, INvision. Tickets are not required. An artists’ reception follows on Zoom. Black Flute will be available to view on INvision for the foreseeable future.
Music by W.A. Mozart
English-language libretto by Jarrod Lee
Script by Sybil Roberts
Directed by KenYatta Rogers
Assisted by Michelle Rogers
Music Direction by Dr. Elizabeth Hill
Costume Design by Donna Breslin
Video Production by DMV Productions
Carl DuPont as Papageno
Edward Graves as Tamino
Elise Christina Jenkins as Papagena/Third lady
William Powell III as Sarastro
Melissa Wimbish as Pamina/Second Lady
Kristin Renee Young as Queen of the Night/First Lady
And featuring Drummer Jabari Exum