Opera companies everywhere struggle daily and mightily with the vexing challenge of attracting new, younger audiences.
After catching the Annex Theater production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," I started to wonder if those opera companies are going about it the wrong way. Their usual methods include unconventional productions with one contemporary angle or another, in hopes that some unsuspecting Generation Y-er or Millennial might be enticed inside.
Maybe a better idea is to turn the job and the product over occasionally to non-traditional outlets that are already all about the under-35 set.
Annex Theater will not be mistaken for a professional opera company, but this youthful, clever DIY troupe has jumped into the genre in spirited, respectful fashion. The result preserves enough of the earthy and spiritual, the comic and serious that gives "The Magic Flute" its, well, magic.
That it does so in the tiny, rough-edged Chicken Box adds one more appropriate layer to the venture. Mozart didn't write the piece for the typical aristocrat-centric opera house of 1791 Vienna, but a more modest venue open to all the people. And you can't get much more modest or open than this place.
The production gets by with only a few operatic voices in the cast (a totally non-classical approach might have been intriguing), and with only an electronically realized version of the orchestral score.
Adapted from the original German libretto and directed by Evan Moritz, this tweaked "Flute" plays on the opera's original themes of loyalty and fraternity to add riffs on gender equality. This is very much a 21st-century take on an 18th-century opera. (The racially insensitive part of the libretto has been scrubbed, as it usually is when the piece is performed in opera houses.)
The original narrative remains in place. A prince, Tamino, sets off to rescue Pamina, daughter of the supposedly noble Queen of the Night, from the supposedly evil Sarastro, head of a secret brotherhood (Mozart's thinly disguised nod to Freemasons). The prince discovers in time the truth about who is good, who is bad.
In the Annex staging, Tamino is portrayed by K Froom, who brings a serviceable, pop-style voice to the music and some wit to the character. It's hard not to miss the sound of a tenor in the role, but easy enough to go with the flow.
Natanya Sheva Washer meets the soprano requirements of Pamina nicely, compensating for occasional technical unevenness with sensitive phrasing. As Queen of the Night, bright-toned Allison Clendaniel tackles the role's coloratura pyrotechnics gamely, if not quite solidly.
Ishai Barnoy has some charming moments as Papageno, the earthy bird-catcher who accompanies the prince, but more assertive acting and singing would be welcome. John O'Loughlin's weathered voice produces enough tonal weight to give Sarastro an authoritative sound, and he shapes phrases naturally.
The most colorful and consistent singing comes from Anais Naharro-Murphy, Lajari Anne and Shannon Ziegler; they maintain a smooth tonal blend and get fully into character in the roles of the Three Ladies and Three Spirits who pop up throughout the opera. It really feels like "The Magic Flute" whenever they take the stage.
Michael Stevenson does not muster enough bluster, vocal or theatrical, to make the wicked character of Monostatos spring to life.
The production, designed by Doug Johnson, has an effective storybook look, with an assortment of impressionistically painted cloths pulled into place as each scene begins. The costumes by Anna Tringali fit neatly into the scheme.
The real star of this "Flute," as usual, is Mozart. The brilliant inventiveness of the music remains unmistakable even when the singing falls short, thanks in large measure to the virtual orchestra, fashioned by co-music directors David Crandall and Jacob Budenz (toy instruments are among the electronically sampled sounds).
Opera does best with a live orchestra and a live conductor to provide an interpretive touch, but Annex Theater's approach still delivers rewards, while reaffirming just how boundary-free Baltimore's DIY theater scene can be.
Incidentally, this is Annex Theater's swan song at the Chicken Box. With the Maryland Film Festival due to move in, the company is heading to 219 Park Ave. this summer, a little closer to its eventual home as part of the multi-building, multi-use renovation project being planned on the 400 block of Howard Street.