Mozart's classic 'Magic Flute' gets tech-savvy

University Theatre enhances opera with virtual reality

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Today's audiences certainly wouldn't consider "special effects" like painted flats and suspended actors, novelties in 18th-century theaters, innovative by modern technology standards.

However, when the University Theatre performs "The Magic Flute," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's masterpiece will get a 21st-century twist with the aid of virtual reality technology. Audiences will watch a virtual dragon walk among actors and digital beasts come alive on stage.

What: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Magic Flute"When: 7:30 p.m. April 26 and May 1-3, and 2:30 p.m. April 27 and May 4Where: Crafton-Preyer Theatre, Murphy Hall, KUTickets: $16 and $14 for the public, $10 for students, $15 and $13 for seniors. Tickets may be purchased at Murphy Hall, 864-3982; the Lied Center, 864-ARTS; the SUA office, 864-SHOW; and online at

"It's like Mozart meets modern day," said Joshua Mochel, a Kansas University senior who plays the prince, Tamino. "It wasn't what Mozart intended. Three hundred years later, he wouldn't have guessed that computers would dominate the world, but as we move into modern day, the theater is exploring its options."

Gone are the days of heavy, expensive props. Directors can now change a whole scene in an instant without the constraints of money or manpower. Manipulated by backstage technicians, computers will create live virtual environments and fantastic characters for the opera in real time by projecting digital images onto backdrops.

"It's different to work with virtual reality," Mochel said. "Instead of an actual dragon chasing me, I have to create and run from an imaginary space because it is computer generated."

The play is under the direction of Delbert Unruh, KU theater professor.

"Because the opera is in a world of fantasy, virtual reality offers us the ability to create the fantastic environment that Mozart wanted by using contemporary stage technology," he said.

Experimentation continues

Since virtual locales are not pre-animated but navigated in real time during the show, each performance is unique. As actors perform live, the scenery changes accordingly.

"It's not like pushing a button on a movie and leaving it alone," Unruh said. "The crew members are manipulating the scenery in response to what the actors are doing."

"The Magic Flute" is the seventh experimental work, and the first venture into opera, by KU's University Theatre and the Institute for the Exploration of Virtual Realities.

This newly formed institute within the theater and film department explores the uses of virtual reality and related technologies in conjunction with theater production and performance.

In the case of "The Magic Flute," technology aspires to complement Mozart's original fantasy concept. The opera was Mozart's first to be performed for the general public in Vienna in 1791. Unlike his previous operas, written specifically for nobility, this production instantly achieved universal appeal and has remained a favorite ever since.

"There are so many levels to the opera," which is filled with Masonic undertones, varied symbolism and values, Mochel said. "But it can come down to even a kindergartener's level of a make-believe story about a prince trying to find love and fighting a dragon in an enchanted forest."

Opera for 'young at heart'

In the opera, good triumphs over evil. The wicked Queen of the Night fools her daughter, the lovely princess Pamina, and handsome prince Tamino, into attacking her estranged husband, the sorcerer Sorastro, symbolic of the head Mason. Through a series of tribulations, the protagonists discover the virtues of reason and wisdom. Papageno, Tamino's sidekick, provides comic relief. The songs are in German, with dialogue in English.

The 57-piece KU Symphony Orchestra will play the score.

"It is some of the most profound and beautiful music ever written," Unruh said. "It's an opera for people who are young at heart."

In addition to the opera, Unruh has planned a 20-piece exhibition on early productions of "The Magic Flute." Also planned is a lecture by Thomas Trabitsch, director of the State Theatre Museum in Vienna and a former Fulbright Scholar at KU. "The Magic Flute," University's final production of the 2002-2003 season, is presented in conjunction with the theatre's alumni reunion, "Alums Come Home IV."

-- Monica White is a Kansas University journalism student.