Marmite, Mistakes and Mayhem

Post-performance review of performing in White Horse Opera’s production of The Magic Flute


Performing Magic Flute seems to be a recipe for onstage antics and unpredictability.  The plot is all over the place and has more akin with pantomime than highbrow opera, whilst the characters range from a pious prince and bumbling birdman to the epitome of wisdom and a very vengeful queen.  Thanks to Mozart and the original acting troupe the music is sublime whilst the fantastical storyline is escapism mixed with masonic symbolism.  So within moments of each other, the audience can expect to witness the wisdom of Sarastro, the valour of Tamino and Pamina and the silliness and simplicity of Papageno and Papagena.  The ‘high note’ of the night, however, has to go to the Queen of the Night, who in the original was Mozart’s very talented sister-in-law.  In stark contrast to Sarastro’s calming words, she melodically screams her way through an argument with her daughter, Pamina.  The original acting troupe is also responsible for two characters playing instruments on stage; Tamino has the famed magic flute and Papageno has his magic bells.  These are often mimed in performances and are actually played by the orchestra.

The Preparation

The lead up to performance week went very well, except for one very important factor.  The part of Tamino appeared to be cursed; Not one but two performers pulled out ahead of the October show leaving the society in a pickle with less than two weeks to go!  Fortunately the third Mr T. turned out to be a singing gem with a memory to marvel at.  After just one rehearsal Matthew Bawden was performing the part at the Tech rehearsal almost flawlessly!

Show Week – Marmite!

The Three Ladies defeat the Serpent

So, how did it go?  Really well, actually!  The group was dedicated to the cause and having fun on and off stage.  Director Chrissie Higgs also made sure that the chorus was kept busy, which isn’t always easy in a Mozart opera.  From a centipede-like serpent to dancing slaves to councillors (both male and female), there were plenty of scenes to perform in.  Meanwhile, the principles added excellent characterisation to their parts whilst still sounding superb.  The three ladies were staunchly faithful to the Queen, but also provided silky harmonies and choreography involving umbrellas.  The three Guardians (originally three boys) gave very fun characters performances as a new age traveller, a raver and an old bag lady but still appeared as a collective that sang wonderful harmonies.

I was having a tricky week vocally as I was on the verge of a cold and my voice was much deeper than usual.  Having eaten only apples and honey all day on Tuesday, the Director provided a prop-treat.  When Tamino and Papageno are offered food during their trial, we were given marmite sandwiches.  In this production, my character is meant to be disgusted by them, but I was delighted!  The first one was finished on stage and the second on the journey home!


Papageno. Photo courtesy of Gail Foster.

Wednesday – Mistakes

For me, it was a tricky start…  I lost my way during my first aria (when Papageno introduces himself, explains what he does and what he wants out of life) and ended up singing the first verse three times!  Even worse, knowing that I needed to explain Papageno’s need for a partner, I tried to improvise a third verse but gave up and went back to the first verse.  Off stage again, I could feel the sweat pouring from my head, although that was partly the heat from the lighting.  The rest of the performance was absolutely fine, but the experience shook me a little.

I reacted by reinforcing the structure of the song.  Because it has three verses that use the same tune, I imagined my actions during each verse and what Papageno was expressing each time.  After a few private runs I’d established that in the first verse I would sing about birds whilst holding the bird cage, I’d discarded it by verse two, then sing about catching women whilst holding my other prop, a net.  Finally, during verse three, I’d give the net to  Tamino whilst singing about longing to find a wife.  Thankfully it worked, and I didn’t mess the aria up a second time.

Friday – Mayhem!

Perhaps the craziest single show I’ve ever been involved in.  It was strangely hot that night, and everyone in the hall could feel it.  The show started well, and the orchestra was on excellent form.  They’d gotten to the stage where the group were very confident with the pieces and that showed.  Suddenly, my phone prop (a modern take on the original pan pipes Papageno uses to call for Papagena) started sounding like a phone running out of batteries, getting slower and lower all the time.  Then, when the three Guardians told me to play the magic bells to bring Papagena to me, they made no sound.  I tried again and filled in the silence with “are they broken?!”.   Then I heard a call from the orchestra… “Try again!”.  The song continued and the audience laughed along.  Phew!

The Queen of the Night and Pamina

Things got stranger during the Papageno-Papagena duet however, when the orchestra stopped playing all together.  It turned out that a member of the audience had collapsed. The audience members nearby turned to us in the stunned silence that followed and told us to carry on.  The Musical Director, Roland Melia brought us in from the top of the number and we carried on.  Meanwhile, a doctor was in the house – none other than Soprano Suprema and our Queen of the Night, Barbara Gompels!  She attended to to the ailing gent whilst in her full queen costume.  Then, as soon as the Papageno/na duet was over, she was on stage for her next scene!

Saturday – Order is Restored

Our final night went without a hitch.  I did receive a surprise blow to the head – Chrissie had replaced my marmite sandwich with a baguette – and my magic bells attempted to make a break for freedom, but compared with Friday, this was child’s play.   The feeling afterwards was one of satisfaction.  I’ve spoken to a few co-performers since who would have been happy to continue into the following week.  I was happy to leave my many lines behind, but I’ll miss the onstage collaboration with my fellow performers in White Horse Opera and the music.  Oh, the music!