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When Mozart meets marimbas

Isango Ensemble brings ‘Magic Flute’ back to ArtsEmerson

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
When Mozart meets marimbas
Mhlekazi Andy Mosiea as Tamino in “The Magic Flute.” PHOTO: KEITH PATTISON

For the third time, ArtsEmerson welcomes South Africa’s Isango Ensemble to their Cutler Majestic Theatre for a short run of “The Magic Flute,” Nov. 6 through 10. This production is Mozart like he’s never been heard before. The Isango Ensemble takes the classic opera score and story and reinterprets them through the lens of traditional and contemporary African art forms.

“The Magic Flute” is a fantasy piece centered on Tamino, a young traveler who encounters a variety of mystical beings and circumstances in the realm of the Queen of the Night. The Queen dispatches him to rescue her daughter Pamina, who is allegedly being held captive by a demon. Upon seeing her picture, Tamino instantly falls in love. As he navigates this strange world, he must learn what is true and what is false, and whom to trust, in his journey to rescue the princess.

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The first change that audiences familiar with Mozart’s original will notice is the way the music is delivered. “The first big idea that we had was to play the whole Mozart score on marimbas,” says Isango music director Mandisi Dyantyis. “We’ve adapted a lot of stuff. We’ve chosen this way of telling the stories because it’s who we are.”

Dyantyis says other changes were driven by the nature of the characters. For example, Sarastro, a high priest in the original storyline who goes from being a perceived evil to a good character over the course of the show, has a very specific bass sound. “A lot of his music … in the original score is very church-based. What we then do is put a lot of traditional sounds underneath,” says Dyantyis.

This performance is the first of five reprise productions ArtsEmerson is staging in celebration of its 10th anniversary season. Isango has previously performed “U-Carmen” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the theater as well as “The Magic Flute.”

Dyantyis says the choice to adapt “The Magic Flute” occurred by chance. The child of a friend of the company saw a production of the show and told Isango it would be much better if they adapted it. That was all it took to get the wheels turning. It turned out to be the perfect production to tackle. The fantasy landscape allows for abundant opportunities for the company to creatively interweave African influences into the performance.

Despite the otherworldliness, Dyantyis says audiences have connected strongly with the production. “We stress the fact that this world is not normal for a lot of people,” says Dyantyis. “The show has a lot of themes that we are still grappling with.”

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