“It’s a fairytale—it doesn’t have to make sense,” says Sheila Willey with a grin, her face glowing from rehearsal antics. The tall, graceful opera director is referring to one of the best-loved operas of all time, The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, playing May 31-June 3 at the UCSC Recital Hall. Willey is busy fine-tuning the comic opera of good versus evil, love versus hardship that was a hit from the minute it premiered in 1791, two months before Mozart’s death. Performed by a cast of students from the university’s respected opera program, the spring production is becoming a popular tradition with local music and theater lovers.
“The spring production is a full calendar year in the making,” says Willey. “My job is to spend the summer getting the design team coordinated. Then rehearsals begin!”
Mozart’s beloved opera came together as a sort of vaudeville creation the composer contributed to a Viennese theater company led by Emanuel Schikaneder. Mozart kept writing little comic bits, spoken dialogues, and songs, duets, and quartets, while Schikaneder—who “borrowed” freely from medieval romances and French essays—created the libretto. Eventually a freestanding Singspiel (spoken and sung) opera was born.
That first performance must have been a wild ride. Schikaneder sang the lead role of Papageno, Mozart’s sister-in-law sang the torturous coloratura role of Queen of the Night, and Mozart himself played the glockenspiel and conducted. No elite target—not royalty nor religion—was safe from the opera’s delicious symbolism.
The fun lies in not taking too seriously any of the circuitous story about noble lovers Tamino and Pamina, and their earthly counterparts Papageno and his darling Papagena. The Magic Flute has it all—a wicked queen, a love-sick prince, and the erratic saga of two rather silly and delightful pairs of lovers. Trios, duets, and solos—plus a few chorus scenes—abound in this, one of the world’s most famous operas. But there are also compelling vocal challenges: Mozart wrote music in this opera for the highest female voice, as well as a notoriously low bass role. In between, it’s singable by most levels of skill—hence it’s perfect for students in the UCSC Opera Program.
A Year in the Making
Planning for the 2018 season, Willey—collaborating with her UCSC colleagues Emily Sinclair and the opera’s orchestra conductor Bruce Kiesling—had to select an opera that “young students could sing. It’s an undergraduate program after all. And we had to figure out what the orchestra could do.”
That meant plenty of background research. “I spent time reading through the score,” Willey explains, “reading about the opera and performance practice, watching productions on video.”
She also collected images to draw inspiration from other designers about how the final sets and costumes would look. Collaborative brainstorming helped to tease out the themes that would then be translated into set design. Thanks to an alliance with San Francisco’s Academy of Arts University established by her opera program predecessor Brian Staufenbiel, costume design was taken on by a graduate design class. “They get credit and experience, and we gain wonderful costumes. The university provides the venue and my salary. The production—sets, lighting, costumes—is entirely donor funded,” she says.
“Students go home for the summer with audition arias to work on,” Willey says. “We cast it in November. Then they spend one quarter just learning the music—they have to memorize it, after all, and in German.”
Willey herself lived in Germany for three years as a child, before returning to her native Iowa, and attending Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Once Willey finished her graduate work at UCSC, studying voice with Patrice McGinnis, she focused on teaching by giving private lessons in the Bay Area. “It was a lot of commuting,” she says. “And then I married Colin [Colin Hannon, pianist/accompanist with a variety of Bay Area Music groups], and we had kids.” She began teaching voice at UCSC in 2014.
Heading up the spring opera, Willey wears many hats. “In our vocal studies, I help them learn to sing Mozart, and as director I work on character development.
We have a student dramaturge who has built a website about the original 18th century production.”
The website also has lots of resources for the cast, including topics dealing with misogyny and 18th century racial stereotypes about Africans, both of which make the opera a challenge for 21st century performance.
“We have done some tweaking to the text,” Willey admits, “to make it something students can feel comfortable with. I struggle with that a lot. We made Pamina [the Queen of the Night’s captive daughter, who she sends Prince Tamino to rescue] not quite so dependent.” And the villainous slavemaster Monastatos will not be a Moor in blackface. “It really was how people in Europe thought back then,” she says of the character’s uncomfortable racial stereotypes.
“What’s so easy about staging Mozart is that all of the directions are in the music. He just wrote in the stage movements and the emotion—the emotion is very relatable. I tell the students it’s about love. And it is,” says Willey.
She is moved by transformations opera can inspire. “Just watching the students, who might come here with no concept of opera, and then to see them do this”—she points to a room full of performers in T-shirts and torn jeans. “It unlocks something, it’s thrilling, and it’s an honor to help that emerge in the students.”
Rehearsals commit students to a year of work, two days a week at three-hour rehearsals. All of spring is spent staging, and the end of the school year culminates in performance.
Opera is the complete artwork, director Sheila Willey Hannon contends.
“In charge of hearts and minds—it’s a lot to do,” she says. The biggest challenges? “Getting the flow, and the entrances. The dialogues will be spoken in English, the singing in German. Papageno’s part is really the most work—there’s so much text.”
Zade Dardari performs Papageno, who accompanies Prince Tamino on his quest, in the performances, and agrees with the director that “Papageno is quite the challenge. That’s not to say he isn’t delightful,” says Dardari. “The quick-paced, patter-based, and overly dramatic moments are just absolutely a thrill ride.”
He admits that the German language is a challenge. “But also fully embodying the clown that is Papageno. Who knew that being yourself could be so exhausting?” Dardaris is currently a voice major, with two previous operas under his magic belt—last year’s Orpheus in the Underworld and the fall performance of Xochitl and the Flowers.
Why is Mozart such a good choice for students? “There’s very little opportunity for boredom,” says Willey. “It’s essentially comedy, it doesn’t take itself very seriously. Yet Mozart is a genius—there are those moments that give me goosebumps every time.”
Willey likes to work with her singer/actors, encouraging them to bring their own ideas into the mix. In rehearsals, she dashes up to the stage to demonstrate movements, and then invites players to come up with their own decisions. In rehearsal, Willey works inventively, demonstrating movements and reinforcing successes. A soprano sings a gorgeous line—“experiment with that,” Willey suggests. “Act it out—put a pause in between the words.” The line is sung again, with a pause between two phrases. “That was a thousand times better,” Willey says.
“I think one of my strengths as a performer is a passion for communication,” she says. “And I hope I inspire the students to connect and share their passion with the audience. The rewards of being a teacher are great—maybe greater than being a singer. Art is something we need.”
A Passion for Performance
“I’m new to opera,” says sophomore music major Olivia Adolph, who performs the role of Second Spirit in Thursday and Saturday performances of Flute, “and it’s been exciting getting to learn exactly how it differs from the singing I’m used to. Everything in opera has to be learned inside and out. We have to know not only the music, but what it means, the emotions it portrays, and how it relates to the rest of the opera. It’s really demanding and much more comprehensive than most of the other singing I’ve done, with great importance placed on acting.”
Like the other performers, Adolph praises her director. “Sheila is extremely dedicated, and has a very clear vision about our production of The Magic Flute, and I’m very excited for everybody to see what we’ve been working towards,” she says.
Singing the Queen of the Night, Bay Area professional soprano Ann Moss observes, “It’s such a physical role—the elaborateness of the costumes, the heavy headgear, the raked stage. But I’m excited about performing it.”
How do you prepare for one of the most explosive arias in this repertoire? “In certain ways the stars have to align,” she jokes, “but also you have to take care of the voice. And not eat too much.”
Moss says she works with student composers and singers frequently, “and I have to say that these kids have it going on,” she says with a nod toward the UCSC singers rehearsing, “They are the future of music. And I can tell you they are not being groomed to have a diva complex.”
The Magic Flute
Directed by Sheila Willey and conducted by Bruce Kiesling, featuring a score by W.A. Mozart and comic libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. Sung by UCSC music and opera students. Costumes by the Academy of Arts University’s design students, set and lighting by Legend Theatrical, hair and makeup by Jessica Carter. Sung in German with dialogues and supertitles in English. 7:30–10 p.m. UC Santa Cruz Music Center Recital Hall.