For many years, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, the Theater Bielefeld was famous in Germany for its unusual programming, featuring long-forgotten operas and the new works of contemporary composers.
Nonetheless, when I finally got around to seeing an opera in Bielefeld it was not any sort of rarity, but rather the most-often-performed opera in Germany (second-most-often worldwide), namely Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Although I have seen The Magic Flute at least 28 times in 18 different productions, I wanted to see this particular production because of the stage director Andrea Schwalbach. I loved her staging of Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore in Frankfurt back in 1997, and I got to know her a bit when she came to my opera appreciation course Opern-Gespräche as our featured guest one evening in May 2001. I was intrigued but not convinced by her staging of Der Walzertraum by Oscar Straus in 2003 (though I thought it was a great idea to set the second act on the deck of the Titanic, complete with a jolting collision with an iceberg). In 2004 I was moved by her staging of Der Kaiser von Atlantis by Victor Ullmann in the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt, but after that I lost track of her for fourteen years until I finally saw the revival of her Magic Flute production in Bielefeld in 2018.
She really did come up with some new ideas for The Magic Flute (new to me, at least), starting with the Drei Damen (Three Ladies), who in most productions are young singers in their twenties or thirties. In this staging they are elderly women in sloppy clothes and white wigs, like the Golden Girls on American television.
(Full disclosure: I have never actually seen the Golden Girls on television, just a few snippets on the web.)
During the overture, the curtain rises and we see the three ladies knitting together, making some kind of long undefinable green tube. I was reminded of the three Norns weaving the Rope of Destiny at the beginning of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), except that the three ladies seemed to be silently arguing among themselves. Soon they will crawl inside the green tube and become the dragon that terrifies Prince Tamino.
The back cover of the program booklet shows the Three Ladies laughing at Tamino, who has fainted and is lying on the floor in front of them. Tamino is a handsome but ineffectual prince (as in most productions), but the Queen of the Night this time looks like a marionette, with strings attached to her wrists. In the first act we can’t see who is manipulating the strings from above, but in the second act it turns out to be Sarastro, the sect guru, at least in one of the scenes.
Sarastro always gives the stage directors a lot of leeway for interpretation, since even Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder seemed unsure about whether he was a positive or negative figure. For most of the first act, they portrayed him as the bad guy, but in the second act they showed him mainly as a wise and benevolent ruler, albeit with male chauvinist tendencies. Andrea Schwalbach presents him as a conniving guru, manipulating not only the marionettes but also his followers, the gullible members of his sect.
The theater in Bielefeld was my sixty-fourth German opera house, out of the seventy-one I have been to so far.
My photos in this post are from 2007 and 2018. I wrote the text in 2018.
See also: The Bielefeld Conspiracy.