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Scarfe's Flute

November 1, 2007

In my favorite scene of the Gerald Scarfe-designed version of Mozart's The Magic Flute (currently being shown at SF Opera) a strange assortment of hybrid creatures gradually gathers around Prince Tamino, the protagonist. As Tamino sings about the special musical instrument that the Queen of the Night has given him so that he might rescue her daughter who has been kidnapped by, Monostatos, the leader of a sun-worshipping cult, he's gradually joined on stage by such magical creations from Scarfe's imagination as a crocoguin (half crocodile, half penguin) and a giraffestrich (half giraffe, half ostrich.)

The scene is a riot of color and laughs. It's also a perfect visualization of an earthly paradise at the heart of an extremely optimistic, fun-loving Flute largely preoccupied with showing the essential humanity and interconnectedness of all of nature.

There's little besides the set design's centerpiece -- an austere-looking pyramid -- and the Ming the Merciless-like head wear of Monostatos and his followers, that's even slightly disconcerting about this production. Even The Queen of the Night's famous, blood-curdling aria in which she asks her daughter to murder Monostatos or face banishment doesn't have the impact it should, as the production's director, Peter Hall, has the Queen deliver her soaring edict from the ground, rather than up in the air. Soprano Erika Miklosa is terrifying in the role dressed in a sculptural aubergine and black costume that makes her look like a poisonous plant. But raising the performer above her daughter would have made an even stronger statement.

This lightness of the production jars with what most people's idea of Scarfe's work. The British satirical cartoonist is known for his rude pen. No politician or celebrity in the UK has escaped his ire. Even his work in other media -- on Pink Floyd's The Wall and for Disney -- has been dominated by darkness.

This Flute isn't new. It was created for Los Angeles Opera's 1992-3 season. Bush Senior was on his way out and Bill Clinton was stepping in. The world was turning over a page and this country was probably steeped in a sense of optimism and humanity that seems like a long-lost dream today. Thus Scarfe's Magic Flute points to a happier time. If Scarfe were to design a production of the opera today, I wonder if it would look less colorful and come across as less humane? Today, if he had the opportunity to re-design the opera, I'm certain the satirist would have his fangs out.


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