As an opera where a colossal snake and enchanted instrument play a pivotal role, perhaps it’s no surprise Mozart’s The Magic Flute inspired some fantastic set and costume designs since its debut in 1791. Maurice Sendak, David Hockney, Marc Chagall, and William Kentridge all tried their hand at expressing the chaotic realm of the Queen of the Night and the orderly dominion of Sarastro. Their art is included among the 18 productions in Magical Designs for Mozart’s Magic Flute at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center, organized in collaboration with the Kent State University Museum.
“I am particularly interested, being a costume designer for the theater myself, in the various takes of creative teams on a single subject,” curator and theatrical designer Judy Levin told Hyperallergic. “And I was particularly interested in The Magic Flute because it is well-loved, has sublime music, is very appealing to different ages, and given to different interpretations over the years.”
Indeed, the spirited second aria of the Queen of the Night is one of the great soprano challenges, and the tale of Prince Tamino finding both love and idealism with the queen’s daughter Pamina endures as an accessible fantasy. Some artists were inspired to create elaborate technological spectacles, like Kentridge’s 2005 production at the Royal Belgian Opera House, which Levin calls the “most cerebral approach.” Set in the 19th century and evoking early photographic techniques, the staging featured Kentridge’s drawings projected on a chalkboard, as well as his charcoal-based animation. Others, like Chagall, were “responding primarily to the music,” Levin said. His 1966 brush-stroked costumes for the Metropolitan Opera, impressively intact and on view in one long exhibition case, have animalistic characters that seem to have prowled from one of his paintings.
Even in the 18th century, The Magic Flute was a phantasmagoric extravaganza. “The original theater, where the production premiered in 1791, it was a state-of-the-art theater,” Levin said. “It held 1,000 people, and it had every device known at the time. They had the trap doors, and machinery for fire, thunder, lighting, and waterfalls.”
According to Levin, most of the first audiences didn’t notice that Mozart was partly using his grand opera as “a vehicle to promote the agenda of Free Masons,” the fraternal society of which he was a member. Some of the artists worked this history into their productions, like Sendak, whose 1980 costumes included Sarastro’s followers dressed as Masons and a finale staged against an illustration of a Masonic Temple.
Many of the costumes on view at the New York Public Library are actually still in use. For example, the Metropolitan Opera is staging an adaptation with Julie Taymor’s designs this December. After the exhibition closes this August, it will open in September at Kent State University Museum.
“This is not a very easy exhibition to get together because of the timing of everything, but we can replace them with other productions every bit as deserving,” Levin explained.
The great joy, then, of seeing the current exhibition, is it may be the only chance to witness these 18 productions at once. Sure, it’s not like seeing the full opera played out on the stage, but you can compare the glimmering wardrobes of the Queen of the Night, the unexpected influences like Hockney in 1991 borrowing the Metropolitan Museum of Art staircase for his Great Temple, and appreciate the incredible whimsy played out through costumes like Jun Kaneko’s colorful and geometric concoctions for the San Francisco Opera. Below, you can check out clips from some of the productions, paired with images of the costumes and set designs on view in Magical Designs for Mozart’s Magic Flute.
David Hockney (1977)
Maurice Sendak (1981)
Houston Grand Opera
Gerald Scarfe (1993)
Los Angeles Opera
Julie Taymor (2004)
The Metropolitan Opera
William Kentridge (2005)
Royal Belgian Opera House
Jorge Jara (2006)
Jun Kaneko (2013)
San Francisco Opera
Magical Designs for Mozart’s Magic Flute continues at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center (40 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through August 27.