For opera newbies, there's a lot that's surprising about the Florida Grand Opera's production of The Magic Flute, which arrives this week at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Director Jeffrey Buchman's conception of the 1791 Mozart work turns the whole thing into a trippy pop-culture anachronism, with costumes, scenery, and a little stage patter that's somewhere between the rockabilly '50s and all-out fantasy-land. There are tender moments, and others of typical high drama, but there are plenty of belly laughs, too -- even from a 2013 standpoint.
Buchman, in fact, has brought to fruition Mozart's idea of an ultimate pop opera, the perfect work for complete beginners. "First of all, you can't go wrong with Mozart. The music itself takes you on a journey," he says. "But Mozart was pushing to allow very high ideals and messages to be present in the work, but at the same time, it was a piece for the people. He wanted the audience to come in and have gut reactions of laughter and emotion."
The plot, in a nutshell, follows prince Tamino as he voyages through a magic land to rescue a princess, Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Accompanied by a goofy bird-catcher, Papageno, he's forced to battle the lure of evil and ignorance until he accepts reason and enlightenment, which finally allows him to save his beloved.
Mozart himself wrote the entire search for reason as an allegory for Freemasonry, making the entire opera already a symbol-watcher's delight. But Buchman's taken it even further, framing the action of the opera as the dream of a boy in the 1950s, who's facing adolescence and also his own journey into his father's Freemasonry.
That means splashes of the boy's real time period turn up in his dream -- Papageno the bird-catcher is a feathery greaser, sort of a comic Fonz belting out jokes in German. Pamina, meanwhile, is a blonde ingenue in a polka-dotted dress, battling the kind of sexism from characters that applied in the 1950s as much as it did in the 1790s.
For the first-timer to this production, then, Buchman suggests looking for three key themes. First, there's the maturation of Tamino, both the boy in the 1950s at the beginning of the show, and the character in his own dream. "The young boy puts himself into the story as Pamino, and as he's going through his journey, he's being pulled towards childhood by childish decisions," he says. "He's struggling to make the right decisions, and the wisdom his father's imparted to him. This is very important because very often I see Tamino played as someone who already has all the answers."
Then, there is the general theme of Freemasonry. Buchman uses a fairly light touch here, but Illuminati and Freemason enthusiasts will delight in hunting for symbols in the costume and scenery. You might see an Isis statue on a character's dresser drawer, for instance, or an all-seeing eye on another character's flying kite.
Finally, Buchman says, look for the theme of dark versus light. Besides the presence of Queen of the Night -- who gets superhuman voice from Jeanette Vecchione -- there are clues throughout the show's staging. (Check for a moment during a choral piece in the second act, when a sleeping Tamino gets enveloped in light.)
Overall, though, come with an open mind. This version of The Magic Flute isn't a "dusty museum piece," Buchman says. "Be ready for a fast-paced evening that will take you to places where you can laugh or feel tenderness. If it's your first opera, it's a great one to see that opera's not a place that's far away from your understanding."
The Magic Flute, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21 and 8 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Broward Center, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets start at $21. Call 954-462-0222, or visit browardcenter.org.