With an abundance of musically talented students and a disproportionate percentage of them trained as singers, Westmont College enjoys an unusual advantage when it comes to producing operas featuring undergraduates. Thus, with years of experience conducting the college’s chorus and orchestra in a wide variety of contexts, Adams Professor of Music and Worship Michael Shasberger was ready when his colleague Professor John Blondell from the theater department approached him about collaborating on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in 2014. That show, the pair’s first opera collaboration, went on to win three national awards, including two from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — Distinguished Production of a Musical and Distinguished Director of a Musical. Coming from an extensive background in directing Shakespeare and other canonical playwrights both here and internationally, Blondell found that the challenges presented by such subsequent offerings as Dido and Aeneas and Die Fledermaus meshed productively with the freewheeling, visually arresting style of presentation he has developed in the theater.
This weekend, the Westmont team brings its most ambitious operatic production yet to the New Vic, which has proved to be an excellent fit for these fast-paced and unamplified performances. The opera this time is The Magic Flute, Mozart’s extravagant display of immortal musicianship and fairy-tale flights of imagination. Inspired in part by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film version, Blondell told me that his aim was to “clear away the confusion of the libretto” in order to “allow the music to speak.” Although it was actually filmed in a studio at the Swedish Film Institute in front of cameras, Bergman’s film includes establishing shots intended to evoke baroque venues such as Stockholm’s Drottningholm Palace Theater and the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. For Blondell, the notion that audience members should remember that they are in a theater is key to the production’s design, which, while taking full advantage of the New Vic’s state-of-the-art technical capacities, remains simple and abstract rather than overtly representational. These sets, while extremely beautiful, are not images of other things; they’re sets.
With an orchestra of 17 musicians and a cast of 24 actors and singers, the task of directing a work as complex and difficult as The Magic Flute would seem overwhelming, especially when so many of the performers are relatively new to the school and the program, but Blondell turns this seeming obstacle on its head. “I love working with students who are this age [approximately 18-22] on this kind of material,” he said, adding that “less trained and mature voices bring a freshness of youth to the music that is captivating. Their innocence has a kind of innate charm.” Not one to neglect the opportunities afforded by any teachable moment, Blondell attributed the progress he felt that the cast had made in recent weeks to an increased intellectual appreciation of the work’s roots in the social movements of the Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment context has really started to hit home in the last four rehearsals,” he said. “We’ve been talking a lot about how Sarastro is trying to create a Utopia, and what we know from other examples of this Enlightenment tendency about what that impulse can bring about.”
The cast features Fritz Mora as Tamino, John Butler as Papageno, Jessica Lingua as Pamina, and Michelle Vera as the Queen of the Night. Performances are on Friday, March 1; Sunday, March 3; and Tuesday, March 5; at 7 p.m., at Ensemble Theater Company’s New Vic Theater (33 W. Victoria St.). See newvictheater.com.