After presenting Verdi’s La traviata in May, the Kuala Lumpur City Opera (KLCO) returns with yet another popular opera to end the year. The last opera written by Mozart before he died, Die Zauberflöte — known in the English-speaking world as The Magic Flute — is said to be the third most-performed opera in the world and has enchanted audiences since its premiere in Vienna, Austria, in 1791.
The story goes that it was written for the company at the suburban Theater auf der Wieden run by Mozart’s friend Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto and played one of the key characters, Papageno. For the unfamiliar, the fairy tale centres on a prince, Tamino, who, while lost in a foreign land, sees a picture of Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night, and falls in love at first sight. The queen tasks him with saving Pamina from the high priest Sarastro whom she paints as powerful and evil, and off Tamino goes, joined by bird-catcher Papageno. But all is not as it seems, as the hero discovers upon encountering Sarastro, and later, Pamina.
It is not the first time the KLCO has performed Mozart’s final singspiel (a lighter “singing play” opera with spoken dialogue). In 2017, it presented a semi-staged version with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. That experience lingered for the opera company’s founders and executive producers, Danny Chen and Ho Soon Yoon, who decided to put on a full-scale production two years on with a local cast.
“We have staged Italian, French and English productions but not German, so we wanted to challenge ourselves to do that with such a popular German opera,” says Chen.
Invited to rejoin the cast, albeit in a different role, is Yeoh Ker Ker, who plays Pamina this time around, sharing the role with Evelyn Toh. She had been one of the Three Ladies in the previous version. It is an interesting choice, considering that Yeoh is no ingénue, being a seasoned performer with regular appearances in KLCO productions.
The Penang-born soprano had sung since she could remember, from children’s choirs to private music classes, and upon graduating with a degree in chemistry from Universiti Putra Malaysia, she took off to Italy for seven years where she studied and performed in a conservatory in Florence. She also studied and performed in the Teatro Torre del Lago — also known as the Puccini theatre — in Lucca city, Tuscany. Since returning to Malaysia in 2010, Yeoh has ventured into teaching as well, joining the ASWARA (National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage) faculty as a full-time teacher this year.
Equally interesting is the casting of Florence Chong as the Queen of the Night, a role she shares with Joyce Lee Tung. This will mark Chong’s first performance with the KLCO. It is intriguing because Chong radiates youthfulness, but there is a reason why the Netherlands-based coloratura soprano — who graduated with first-class honours from the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, Ireland, and is now pursuing a master’s at the Conservatorium Maastricht — was selected for the role.
The Perak-born songstress has been learning and practising The Magic Flute’s most difficult and iconic aria, Der Hölle Rache (the full title translates as Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart), over the last three years.
“It takes time to build up to performing it. I had been working on the aria with a teacher from Italy, and last year, when I had a performance in Italy, I met Cecilia Yap, who was there to perform as well, as we shared the same teacher. So through that connection, when I came back for Chinese New Year this year, it was arranged for me to sing for KLCO and that’s how I joined the production,” says Chong. Yap has starred, and has been a vocal director in several of the company’s opera shows.
The two sopranos jest: “In that era, you can be a really young mother,” says Chong, as Yeoh interjects while pointing to herself, “Yes, with a daughter who looks like this.”
Commenting on the opera, they point out the humanistic themes behind the fairy tale. “It’s about how Mozart portrayed these different characters. Like the queen is supposed to be garang, scary, but at the same time, she is a mother, so she also displays the gentleness of one. As for Sarastro, he is supposed to be a good guy, but would a good guy abduct someone’s daughter?” Yeoh muses.
She adds that what makes The Magic Flute unique is also its relation to the Age of Enlightenment and Mozart’s association with the Freemasons, with its themes of darkness and light, of things not appearing to be what they seem, of finding your way often linked to the humanistic views of that movement — though several of the prolific composer’s works share that common thread.
“Our stage director Amelia Tan changed the story a little bit in this version, in that Sarastro is not depicted as the high priest but as the father of Pamina and estranged husband of the Queen of the Night. So the story is that of a couple who don’t love each other anymore, and the father takes the daughter away thinking it’ll protect her. At the same time, I think my character is just a mother who, at the end of the day, thinks she knows what’s best for her daughter,” reveals Chong.
Backed by a 24-member orchestra led by award-winning Colombian conductor Juan Montoya, KLCO’s The Magic Flute features a list of Malaysia’s brightest veteran and upcoming operatic talents, who will be supported by the 50-member KL City Opera Chorus and children from the company’s Opera for Kids and Teens workshop. Spoken dialogues will be in English, and there will be a free pre-performance talk half an hour before the show.
'The Magic Flute', Pentas 1, klpac, Jalan Strachan KL. 03 4047 9000. Nov 21-24, 8pm. Tickets RM128-168. Click here to purchase.
This article first appeared on Nov 18, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.