Translating The Magic Flute

magflute-325px-2Here I am in St. Louis, awaiting with enormous excitement my premiere as an opera librettist, or rather: as a translator of an opera libretto, or, to be even more precise: as the translator of the book scenes of a fairly loquacious opera. This is much too much beating around the bush. The thing I am so excitedly awaiting is the premiere of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an Isaac Mizrahi production for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis featuring choreography by John Heginbotham and conducted by Jane Glover. The English-language libretto is a sort of after-the-fact collaboration with Andrew Porter, who wrote a wonderful singing translation of the opera back in the 1980s. And now, for this new production, Mizrahi hired me to help him update the opera’s feel with a new translation of the book scenes incorporating the songs from Porter’s translation, in some cases tweaked to fit their new context. Mizrahi asked me to do something “minimal, Beckett-like,” and the result is perhaps more an adaptation than a straight-up translation, with many of the scenes by Mozart’s librettist buddy Emanuel Schickaneder trimmed down to the pith. Research for the job involved watching some old movies from the Hollywood Glamour era and a field-trip to the Masonic Temple on W. 23rd St. In our version, the Queen of the Night is secretly the heroine. I was relieved not to have to translate all the sung parts my first time out of the gate as an opera translator, since I know from my composer-sister, who has written a great deal for voice, how technical and complicated it is to produce singable lyrics. And in rehearsals here in St. Louis certain lines of the sung libretto turned out to be problematic for some of the singers: certain combinations of vowels at certain pitches can be tricky, and the particular combinations that pose difficulties appear to vary from singer to singer. I learned so much by watching the rehearsals. And I was moved to sit down and write a little something about my general take on the opera and the ways I tweaked the libretto in deference to its new twenty-first century context. This turned into an essay that’s just been published on the Public Books blog. I thought it would be a shame not to share it with Translationista’s readers too, so here it is: just follow this link. And if you live in or near St. Louis, I hope you’ll come out to see the production. It features gorgeous singing, stunning dancing and a set containing (at least so I’m told) 100 lbs. of glitter.

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