The Hon Sings

Typically, when the character of Papageno the bird-catcher makes his entrance in Mozart's beloved opera "The Magic Flute," he's carrying a cage and, often, sporting a few feathers himself. When he appears in Opera Vivente's new production of the work, Papageno's most avian feature will be the word on his shirt — "Orioles." And don't be surprised if he's hoisting a Natty Boh.

This isn't your father's "Magic Flute," hon.

During the company's 12 seasons, John Bowen, founding general director of Opera Vivente, has frequently spiced and updated familiar works, which are always performed in English. It was probably just a matter of time before he would find a way to reimagine this particular piece in a Baltimore — make that Bawlmer — context.

Bowen's "Flute" comes complete with an authentic accent, at least for Papageno and Papagena, the folksy pair who add color and charm to the opera plot.

"I've sung in French, Italian, Russian, Latin and Spanish, and this is the hardest yet," says the Papageno in the cast, baritone John Dooley. "One of the most terrifying things to do is to sing in the native language of the audience. They're either going to give me their blessing here or throw fruit at me."

Judging by how easily Dooley slips into the local dialect during an interview — nicely tweaked O's, a smattering of "deeze" and "doze" — the Northern Virginia-born, Pittsburgh-based singer is going to be quite convincing. Same for Marcy Richardson, the New York-based soprano originally from Grosse Pointe, Mich., who will sing the role of Papagena. Of course, they have an excellent teacher.

Bowen, a native Baltimorean, can switch into a perfect Hampden or Dundalk voice at the drop of a consonant, mangling grammar deliciously, too, as he goes, with "seen" for "saw," "right" for "very," and all the rest.

"I tell John, 'You're my Rosetta stone for Bawlmer-ese,'" Dooley says. Replies Bowes: "It's hard to I.P.A. this."

What does our local dialect have to do with the opera that Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder created in 1791? Would the composer recognize his masterpiece?

"The Magic Flute" is an entertaining, often comic fairy tale propelled by some of Mozart's most sublime music. The story begins with would-be hero Tamino being enlisted to rescue a fair maiden, Pamina, from a supposed sorcerer, Sarastro, sworn enemy of the powerful Queen of the Night. The colorful Papageno and the woman of his dreams, Papagena, add charm.

The piece operates on several levels at once. Behind the children's story facade are deeply meaningful and symbolic pieces with lessons about life for all of us. We are presented with clearly defined good and evil characters at the start, only to have our perspective reversed halfway through. Sarastro praises virtue and brotherhood, but also keeps slaves. There are puffy sermons on the superiority of men over women, but the strongest acts in the story are performed by women.

Beneath all these intriguing contradictions and twists lie any number of symbols related to Freemasonry (Mozart was a Mason), starting with a number itself — three. The three knocks Masons used are echoed in the overture; Three Ladies and Three Spirits are among the characters; there are three temples, "Wisdom," "Reason" and "Nature," where Sarastro presides over his priestly brethren; etc.

Some commentators obsess over the Masonic touches in the opera. Others gloss over the off-putting ideas that crop up in the libretto, especially the racial insensitivity involving Sarastro's black slave, Monostatos. Bowen's Bawlmer angle does not aim to jettison material so much as re-examine it.

"If I have to change too much of a libretto, the concept isn't right," the director says. "I cut maybe five lines of dialogue. I tried to find modern equivalents of the original German words." (Opera Vivente supporter Ellen von Seggern Richter provided Bowen with a fresh, literal translation of the libretto as a starting point for his final text.)

The Bawlmer "Flute" retains the basic thrust of the plot and the social class distinctions of the characters. Sarastro, for example, is identified as living in Hunt Valley, far from the urban world of Papageno.

"Any metropolitan area has these differences," Bowen, 46, says. "Mozart is trying to represent a very broad spectrum of humanity, and all the subsets."

Fantasy elements in the original have been played down. Instead of a giant serpent chasing Tamino in the first scene, for example, the threat will come from paparazzi. And they will be quelled by the Queen of the Night's Three Ladies, "who are media-savvy and speak with no-accent-news-anchorwomen voices," Bowen says.

Sarastro's business, rather than officiating over a noble ancient priesthood with Egyptian resonances, is "Isis and Osiris Inc." The Queen of the Night "has a very different corporate model," says Bowen. "She has a cosmetics company."

The Three Spirits sent by the Queen to help Tamino find Pamina are "disgruntled teenage daughters of the Ladies. Monostatos is Sarastro's Latino chauffeur, and the other slaves are menial help," Bowen says.

The trials by fire and water that Tamino and Pamina must endure together to prove their love and faith will be transformed, too.

"The trials don't mean anything to me," Bowen says. "What has always been striking to me is the music for them is some of the most banal Mozart ever wrote. We're playing the trials like frat-boy hazing."

In essence, the director is emphasizing the down-to-earth aspect of what can seem like an ethereal opera.

"I just feel 'Magic Flute' is not about magic, but about the amazing spectrum of humanity," Bowen says. "Mozart portrays all the people we encounter in our daily life. These are all people that can be understood."

In this production, it looks as if Papageno and Papagena will be particularly easy to figure out.

"Papageno is an everyman, an average Joe," Dooley, 31, says, pronouncing the 'o' in "Joe" right nice. Instead of catching birds for the Queen of the Night and her Ladies, "he's the Orioles' No. 1 fan and he peddles Orioles souvenirs. The Ladies bring him crab pretzels," the baritone says.

Papagena usually makes her entrance disguised as an old, trembling woman initially spurned by Papageno. "When she first comes out, she's in curlers and a pink track suit," says Richardson, 30, of the Opera Vivente version.

And when this Papagena is revealed to be a young, perfect match for Papageno, she's still vintage Bawlmer. "Aside from the accent, she's got a smoker's cough. She's the stereotypical, blue-collar worker," the soprano says. Adds Bowen: "She's an East Baltimore hon."

Originally, the director had planned for Papagena to be dressed as a Hooters waitress, but that restaurant chain keeps its uniforms protected from such public use. Tank tops with the Hooters logo are for sale, though, so Richardson will be wearing one. Papagena is "the sort of girl who would feel right at home at Hooters," Bowen says.

The dominant image onstage will be giant block letters spelling out "hon." A city map of Baltimore serves as a backdrop. "Usually the opera is staged as a wonderland of no particular identity," the director says.

This new spin on "Magic Flute" doesn't faze Dooley.

"One of the things I really appreciate working with this company," the singer says, "is that there's always a sensible reason for something, and it's within context. In some places, things are not thought through enough. I've performed scenes of 'Magic Flute' that were really off the wall — one set in space, which was a horrifying nightmare, and one that was done as Native American story-telling. I would take a Bawlmer-ese version over a horrible adaptation any day."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go: "The Magic Flute" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. May 16 and 7:30 p.m. May 20 and 22 at Emanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Tickets are $33 to $75. Call 410-547-7997 or go to operavivente.org.

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