The Magic Flute at HSU
Interview: Paul Cummings, orchestra conductor
“Since we’re in Gist, which is a smaller place, we decided we needed a smaller orchestra than Mozart called for. We play the usual string parts but instead of large string sections, we have one or two players for each. Rather than pairs of woodwinds and brass, we use single, except for two clarinets. We’ve substituted two saxophones for the French horns. So we have 20 musicians instead of the usual 40.
This is an unusual experience for our players because of the nature of this opera. It’s not a traditional opera in the Italian style. It’s written in the vernacular with all the characteristics of Singspeil, which includes spoken dialogue, or recitative. The orchestra accompanies the recitative, and students wouldn’t be familiar with it otherwise. Composers use it to advance the plot when it can’t be done so easily through arias and ensemble singing—it is fast and free, so it can be difficult for the orchestra to accompany it, but it’s also exciting.
The Magic Flute is definitely in Mozart’s mature style. It was actually written in the last six months of his life. He was writing the Requiem at the same time. He wrote most of The Magic Flute in the summer of 1791, and then got a commission from Prague to compose a grand opera seria—La clemenza di Tito—so he dropped everything and wrote that great opera, and went back to finish The Magic Flute. It was an incredible burst of creative activity in the last six months of his life.
I think you can even say it’s the best of Mozart, because many scholars say that what Mozart is most remembered for are his operas and his piano concertos. That’s where he made his most adventurous steps—the most noteworthy and certainly the most trail-blazing compositions.
In places in this opera, where the singers carry the day because of a beautiful aria or chorus, the orchestra—even in a subordinate role—has the richest, most beautiful writing that you can possibly imagine. Where we might forgive Mozart if he chose to be a little casual for an unimportant background part, you find the most challenging, complex orchestral writing. Even in a secondary role, the music is richly satisfying to play. It’s a truism in music that a good way to measure the value of a composition is how substantial are the parts when they are subordinate, in a secondary or tertiary role. Mozart finds a way to get genius into these background parts, these inner voices.
In the Gist Hall Theatre, the audience will be able to hear the singers in a way they normally could not. The same could be said of the orchestra. You’re going to be a lot closer to the solo flute player than you would be in almost any hall where this opera could be produced."