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SETTINGS FOR SCENES of an opera are contained in its libretto, “booklet” in Italian. Many librettists offer extreme detail; others give no more than suggestions. Here are tidbits about three familiar operas, their libretti, and the talented people who create magic on the stage.

The Magic Flute. As noted here at SimanaitisSays, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder fashioned Die Zauberflöte as a Singspiel, a song play with singing and spoken dialogue. Sir Denis Forman describes it as “The one with three temples, three ladies, three boys, a birdcatcher, the Queen of the Night, and a serpent.” It’s quite enough to think of Schikaneder as that era’s vaudevillian. 

Rudolf Hartmann’s book Opera described, “… this librettist cum stage director, this experienced artist, whom Oskar Bie once called ‘a manipulator, nice enough fellow, impudent and lively.’ wrote the most effective scene sequences with obvious gay abandon.”

For Act I, Scene 15. Schikaneder wrote, “The scene changes into a grove. At the back, a beautiful temple with the inscription ‘Temple of Wisdom,’ from which collades lead to two other temples: the ‘Temple of Reason’ on the right, and the ‘Temple of Nature’ on the left.” 

Not much left to the creative set designer? Think again.

The Magic Flute. New York, 1967. Gunther Rennert/Marc Chagall. This and other images from Hartmann’s Opera.

Gunther Rennert, 1911–1978, was a German opera director and administrator. Marc Chagall, 1887–1985, was a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin. Together, they took Schikaneder’s instructions and fashioned them into settings for the Metropolitan Opera’s 1967 production of Die Zauberflöte.

Hartmann quoted Rennert about the challenge of working with a famed artist: “Would an artist with so marked a personality be prepared to make any concessions to others? Would not the laws governing the construction of scenery constrict the world of his own imagination?”

In this case, no problem.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Richard Wagner was both composer and librettist of The Master-Singers of Nuremberg. Forman calls this four-and-a-half-hour epic “The one with a disagreeable town clerk, a noble cobbler, a street brawl, and a prize song.” There’s much celebration of human creativity and of the human voice as well.

Die Meistersinger von Nürberg, Act 1, Scene 2. Bayreuth 1963. Wieland Wagner.

Like Schikaneder, Richard Wagner knew what he wanted. Grandson Wieland Wagner, 1917–1966, was producer as well as stage designer for the 1963 Bayreuth production of Meistersinger. Wieland wrote, “I have come to feel that The Mastersingers plays a very special intellectual role in the work of Richard Wagner: It is his confrontation with himself, with his own creativity. He states his theory of art for all time, and he wrote a drama on the birth of the work of art.” 

This is part of Richard Wagner’s concept of “total theater.”

The Tales of Hoffmann. French playwright Jules Barbier wrote the libretto based on his own play, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, first produced in 1851. Jacques Offenbach composed the opera, about which Hartmann wrote, “What a gift for producers and stage designers! In these loosely assembled scenes, the theatrical imagination can be given full reign, to revel in the sheer joy of play-acting, strange events, and bizarre characters.”

Act I, Scene 1. We’re in Spalanzani’s physical cabinet. Performing dolls are standing about. A feast is being prepared. And Hoffmann, unwittingly, has fallen in love with one of the mechanical dolls. 

The Tales of Hoffmann, Act I. Sydney, 1974. Tito Copobianco/José Varona. 

Tito Copobianco, 1931–2018, was an Argentine-American stage director and opera general director. At the age of 15, he played the Cardinal in the opera Tosca; he first produced an opera, Aida, at the age of 22. Costume and stage designer José Varona, Argentine-born 1930, began his career at the age of 21. 

Hartmann cited Copobianco describing the Sydney production: “With due respect for the composer and librettist, we tried above all to address a contemporary audience, to acquaint them with an intelligible version of the work.”

Varona said, “My feeling for this work, needless to say, brought zest to my drawing-board, as did the fact that Richard Bonynge, the conductor, wanted a production as close to Offenbach’s original idea as possible.”

“I have designed three different productions of The Tales of Hoffmann in three different countries,” Varona said. “This opera so appeals to me that I could happily start a fourth one as if it were a new piece.”

With enthusiasm like this, you know the new production would be entertaining as well. ds 

Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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