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Opera for everyone: "The Magic Flute" brings lighthearted Mozart to Bethel stage

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Despite a layered plot, a multitude of oddly dressed characters (including one covered with feathers) and a central role for a woodwind instrument with mystical powers, The Magic Flute is at its heart a simple and well-loved story – a quest fairy tale.

Since it premiered in Vienna in 1791, The Magic Flute has been one of the most popular of all operas. It is among the top 10 most performed in North America and has been made into two feature films, one directed by Ingmar Bergman (1975) and one by Kenneth Branagh (2006). Bethel College brings Mozart’s opera to the Krehbiel Auditorium stage March 7 and 8.

Classical opera represents a new road for stage director Suzanna Mathews. “I should probably confess that I’m not much of a traditionalist or classicist,” she says. “Opera is not my native language, theatrically speaking. If you ask me to listen or go to the opera, I’d better hear the word ‘rock’ in front of it – as in the 1960s-1970s. Gimme Pete Townshend or Roger Waters.

“Moving beyond my own tastes and preferences, I’m also mindful of the fact that new generations of audiences are going to be exposed to valuable theatrical material in their experience with this opera,” she continues. “So my interpretive process has evolved through imagery rather than narrative or dramatic action. I’m trying to communicate ideas, images and feelings through this pastiche of fantasy subculture references laced throughout the scenery, the costumes, the movement and even the hairstyles and makeup.”

Her influences, she says, range from “the ‘ball culture’ of drag houses, to haute couture, to children’s book authors and illustrators Eric Carle and Dr. Seuss, to punk rock and Goth, to Disney fairy tales, to the Venetian carnivale, to Stanley Kubrick, to the shape-shifting dance troupe Parabolus.”

“It would be fair to say that, aesthetically, this opera is a post-modern production,” she says. “I hope it is anything but the stuffy, overly elegant ‘haute entertainment’ that people probably associate with the word ‘opera.’ All that said, the music’s still the same – it’s still what Mozart wrote.”

Dan Graber, senior from Marion, S.D., has the comic relief role of the bird-man, Papageno. Although Graber has performed in music theater at Bethel, this is his first time to be in an opera.

The Magic Flute does contain a lot more singing than normal musical theater and the singing, in general, is more demanding of the performer,” he says. “The Magic Flute is very similar to musical theater because there is plenty of spoken dialogue, something quite innovative for operatic compositions during Mozart’s time. Singspiel was the term used for this new type of German opera.”

Of his character, Graber says, “Papageno represents the broader scope of humanity – the people simply looking for someone to love, food to eat and possibly a little wine here and there.”

Graber continues, “The music in The Magic Flute is timeless. Its beauty and wit are why this work is still being performed around the world. The plot line can be altered and interpreted to fit modern ideas, but the music speaks, and has spoken for [more than 200] years. It is a joy to sing Mozart. There is nothing that compares.”

Caitlin Linscheid, senior from North Newton, is singing the role of the Queen of the Night, who has one of the most famous, beautiful and difficult soprano arias in Western opera.

“Opera is a very complex form of art in that it combines music, dancing, acting and aesthetic presentation into one production,” Linscheid says. “For me, this production is especially challenging because I have to figure out a way to sing beautiful, charming pieces of music while still embodying an evil and dishonest character. This role is also a challenge because I interact so little with the other cast members on stage.

“I have to admit that I love playing the Queen, both for the music and for the character,” Linscheid says. “I’d like to think that Mozart somehow knew that not all sopranos are content to play the fragile heroine and he created this stunningly beautiful and thoroughly evil creature so that we would have at least one outlet for our dark sides. That being said, I honestly doubt that Mozart wrote this character for the sake of a bunch of self-centered divas.”

Because she is a fifth-year senior, Linscheid is participating in her third opera at Bethel – she also had roles in The Bartered Bride in 2004 and Faust in 2006. “I love working with other people to produce something beautiful and moving,” she says. “I think that all too often people have this impression of opera as something stuffy or just for old people and that’s not true. The Magic Flute is funny and lighthearted and beautiful, an opera that just about anyone can enjoy.”

While both Linscheid and Graber have extensive experience in music theater and opera productions at Bethel, Jeff Buller, senior from Inman, is taking the stage for the first time in his college career. “I was in a musical in junior high school,” he says, “and nothing since. I’ve wanted to but it has been hard to balance with sports and classes” (Buller is a four-year letter winner in both football and track).

“I like opera, and I’ve kept saying I was ‘going to’ do it,” he continues. “Well, if I’m going to do it [at Bethel], it has to be now.”

At around the time of auditions a few months ago, Buller says, he sang at his grandmother’s funeral. A man who knew that Bethel was going to be doing The Magic Flute came up to Buller and told him, “I bet you’re doing Sarastro.” Buller didn’t know his role at the time – but apparently it was meant to be.

The cast of The Magic Flute is: Andrew Findley, senior from Coffeyville, as the prince Tamino; Chelsea Chaffin, senior from Eudora, as Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night; Daniel Graber as Papageno; Caitlin Linscheid as the Queen of the Night; Jeff Buller as the high priest Sarastro; Kate Duncan, senior from Kansas City, Kan., Elizabeth Friesen, sophomore from Littleton, Colo., and Monica Schmidt, freshman from Mount Hope, as the Three Ladies, attendants to the Queen of the Night; Kelly Reed, sophomore from Edinburg, Texas, as Old Woman (Papagena); Oliver Whitney, freshman from Peabody, as Monostatos, the duplicitous servant; Kelsey Easterday, sophomore from Manhattan, Leanne Reimer, sophomore from Hesston, and Leah Smith, freshman from Aurora, Colo., as the Three Spirits; Caley Ortman, senior from Marion, S.D., and Caleb Stephens, freshman from Lawrence, as Men in Armor; William Eash, Karl Friesen and Lowell Wyse as Three Priests of the temple; Will Peterson, sophomore from Bonner Springs, as a Slave; Caitlin Buerge, senior from Kansas City, Mo., and Aimee Siebert, sophomore from Topeka, as mimes and dancers; and Lisa Geist, Dusty Gudde, Victoria Janzen, Sierra Pryce, Keila Quenzer, Albino Quinones, Ben Santos and Melanie Zuercher as the Chorus of Priests.

Music director for The Magic Flute is Soyoun Chun, Bethel College assistant professor of music and instructor of voice. Chorusmaster is William Eash, professor of music, and orchestra director is Richard Tirk, assistant professor of music. Stage manager and props mistress is Amanda Diaz, junior from Berwyn, Ill., assisted by Clint Harris, freshman from Manhattan. Technical director and lead carpenter is Jeff Taylor, Wichita. Lead painter is Kate Larson, senior from Clay Center, and Leanne Reimer is seamstress. Lighting designer is Andrea Kaufman, junior from Harrisburg, S.D. Rehearsal accompanists are Rich Toevs, Newton, and Sara Adrian, senior from Butterfield, Minn. The Theater Practicum class served as construction crew and scenic painters with class members James DeGaeta, Christopher Eitzen and John Kaegi as stage crew.

The orchestra for The Magic Flute is: violin I, Nancy Johnson, adjunct instructor of violin, and Whitney Coleman, freshman from Lawrence; violin II, guest artist Mary Goering (Tabor College student) and Elizabeth Lang, sophomore from Des Moines, Iowa; viola, Paul Regier, junior from Newton; cellos, Terra Wiens, freshman from Newton, and Matt Moore, freshman from Wichita; bass, Michael Voth, junior from Topeka; flutes, Kristin Shaffer, adjunct instructor of flute, and Megan Schrag, junior from Moundridge; oboes, Don Kehrberg, professor emeritus of music and director of the Bethel College Academy of Performing Arts, and Sharayah Williams, sophomore from Kalona, Iowa; clarinets, James Pisano, assistant professor of music, and Megan Abrahams, senior from Canton; bassoons, Stephanie Patterson, adjunct instructor of bassoon, and Heather Robertsen, sophomore from Newton; horns, Genevieve Rucker, freshman from Lawrence, and Rachel Gaeddert, freshman from Larned; trumpets, Kyle Unruh, sophomore from Goessel, and Austin McCabe-Juhnke, sophomore from North Newton; trombones, Andy Toews, senior from North Newton, Benjamin Harder,sophomore from Hesston, and guest artist Matt Blauer; timpani, Blake Long, senior from Moran; and glockenspiel and keyboard, Sara Adrian.

The backstage men's chorus is: Ben Claassen, freshman from Davis, Calif., Sam Gaeddert, sophomore from Hutchinson, Shane Greer, freshman from Whitesboro, Texas, Justin Morton, sophomore from Liberal, Jordan Penner, senior from Reedley, Calif., Drew Rathbun, sophomore from Bennington, Matthew Regier, freshman from Whitewater, Ryan Unruh, senior from Moundridge, and Jeremy Voth, junior from Hillsboro.

Performances of The Magic Flute are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 7, and Saturday, March 8. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for non-Bethel students and senior citizens and $6.50 for children ages 3-12 and are available at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., 316-284-5205, or in the Fine Arts Center ticket office before each performance.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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