Opera Meets Film: Florian Sigl’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Review)

By Chris Ruel
Photo: ShoutPR (Shout Factory)

This review was written jointly by Chris and Finn Ruel.

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” directed by Florian Sigl, hit the silver screen nationwide on Mar. 10, 2023. It’s a fantasy film that captures the essence of Mozart’s stunning operatic fairy tale and does it well.

There is much to commend about Sigl’s film. It’s well put together, done with care, and has a wonderful cast, including two working opera stars, Morris Robinson and Sabine Devieilhe. You can easily guess their roles.

Sigl always wanted to adapt an opera for film. (“Don Giovanni” was his first encounter with opera, and he said it terrified him.) Eventually, he landed on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

Sigl presented the idea to producer Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 1996), who green-lit the film and did so without even a script in his hand; it was just an idea.

Few readers need a rundown of “Flute” the opera. The film, however, follows a teen named Tim, played by Jack Wolfe, who attends a prestigious Mozartean boarding school. He discovers a portal—a bookcase with a clock—that transports him into the world of Mozart’s opera.

Sigl uses two narratives: Tim at school and Tim as Tamino. Tim at school is a coming-of-age tale complete with a love interest, Sophiie, played by Niamh McCormack; a bully, played by Amir Wilson; and a none-to-pleasant headmaster Dr. Longbow, played by Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham who, instead of walking around with a switch, carries a conductor’s baton in most scenes. The acclaimed actor is known for another film about Mozart: “Amadeus (1984).”

The cast within—let’s call it Flute-world—includes Iwan Rheon as a highly enjoyable Papageno, Asha Banks as a convincing Pamina, and Stefan Konarske as an updated, non-racially-charged Monostatos.

Basso profundo Morris Robinson, of course, played Sarastro, and high-flying coloratura soprano Sabine Devieilhe, Queen of the Night.

Robinson is a delight to watch. He has serious screen-acting chops and transformed his stage interpretation of the character into one for film. No one brings gravitas to a role like Robinson. For opera fans, this is a huge treat, as is the cameo appearance of Rolando Villazón, the bully’s wildly successful musician father.

Having Robinson and Devieilhe on set was helpful for Wolfe because when he opens his mouth to sing in the film, he’s truly singing. He has a beautiful voice, and vocal coach Sam Kenyon really brought it out.

In a conversation with Wolfe, he spoke to OperaWire about working with real opera singers.

“I got to work with these fantastic opera performers, Sabine and Morris. Oh, my God, that was just amazing. That I got to share that with them opened my eyes to this world and made me so much more inspired about it.”

Opera Gateway?

If you think you’re watching a mashup of “Harry Potter,” “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and Mozart, you’re not off base. But keep in mind this is a family-oriented fantasy film, and echoes of other works in the genre can actually be helpful, especially a film with opera. Hopefully, many families who take it in will want to see the full opera live.

That would be a huge win.

Wolfe stated that many people think opera is just for older people. That’s not something he believes—or any of us who love the art form.  He knew several friends who got bit by the opera bug as little children. While he was somewhat familiar with opera, he gained a whole new appreciation of the art form, and he hopes the movie will serve as a magic portal to the opera house.

“I think my joy would be that someone just decides to see it because they enjoy fantasy films. They watch the film, and then they feel like they can go see it [“The Magic Flute”] live,” Wolfe said.

“Live theater and opera are forms that we really need to protect now more than ever in the UK and everywhere.”

But will Sigl’s “Flute” succeed as an audience-building vehicle? Yes and No.

Ironically, the film appears more enjoyable for those who are already opera fans, provided they enter with the right expectations. Purists may have a hard time with Mozart’s work being chopped up.

But opera buffs who go in with an open mind will find much to enjoy about this modern interpretation of Mozart’s renowned work. Sigl has done an excellent job re-contextualizing the sub-textual masonic journey to enlightenment and instead made Mozart’s masterpiece into a coming-of-age story which is a delight to watch.

Musically, the film bounces between Mozart’s and composer Martin Stock’s scores. While Mozart’s music is often quoted in the Tim-at-school narrative, it’s reserved primarily for Mozart’s “Flute” narrative.

Two Stories, One Film

Unfortunately, there’s a disappointing lack of interconnectivity between Tim’s perils in his reality and those he faces as Prince Tamino. The connections between the two are mostly sub-textual, barring the obvious parallel of the love stories present in both realities, which makes the film sometimes feel at odds with itself.

The use of the “Magic Flute” in place of what could just be a generic fantasy world does not add enough that it would be worth watching if one was only interested in Tim’s story as it pertains to the real world.

Sigl explained his motivation for encasing “Flute,” the opera, within a separate story.

“[I thought] maybe we need a little framing story to lead the audience in and give them something they’re familiar with so that they don’t smell the opera from the very first moment.

“The younger generation really has trouble in understanding how that all [opera] works. How do you get a ticket for an opera? How do you dress if you go to a classical concert? When do you clap? When are you allowed to clap?

“There are so many rules that the general audience doesn’t know, and that’s okay. So, let’s do something that’s easier, approachable.”

The film serves to launder Mozart to a young audience by transforming it into a young adult fantasy movie. The intentions of the film are admirable, as to its efficacy as a jumping-on point for Mozart’s music, that comes with some doubt.

The doubt doesn’t arise from lack of quality or thrills, but we know kids move on quickly to the next Disney or superhero film. While they may or may not be drawn into a lifelong love of opera, their parents might, and that may serve as the gateway.

What to Keep, What to Cut?

This is a film meant for a younger audience who are only nominally familiar at best with Mozart’s body of work, if at all, so the removal of some elements of the original story was necessary to keep the film engaging for that demographic.

“That was a very difficult task,” Sigl told OperaWire. “Depending on how fast it’s played, [the opera] is two hours, ten minutes, or two hours twenty— somewhere in between there—so we had to lose more than an hour.”

However, its length may still be an issue. In a time where short-form video content reigns supreme, is a two-hour-long film the best way to connect opera with younger audiences?

When Tim enters Flute-land (we’ll call it that), the opera plays out as Mozart and Schikaneder intended. Sigl doesn’t take creative license by changing any aspect of the story except its length. All the important plot points and arias remain, but the recits have been nixed because it’s a film, and recits are not needed to move the story along (plus they might bore the audience to tears).

“I knew that there are some iconic pieces that are in terms of the music really important, like the Queen of the Night aria or Papageno’s signature aria,” Sigl related. “I knew that some arias or some musical parts are important in terms of telling the story. If you approach an opera as a filmmaker, you’re mainly interested in the parts that actually tell a story because I think most musicals as movies face the issue that as soon as people start singing, the story stops.

“I was looking for the parts where the arias continue the story or give us more info or background info on a certain character. I also wanted to avoid the parts that are too cliché opera so the first thing I did was take out all the recitativos because I thought, okay, that’s something people who have no relation to classical music don’t understand. Why are they singing so weirdly?

“The middle part that mainly has to do with the spiritual approach of the Freemasonry was shortened; and I interpret it more as a coming of age story, about finding your position in society, not necessarily the whole initiation into the Freemasons society.”

A Visually Spectacular Queen of the Night

The film clearly appreciates music in general and opera in specific, which only adds to its charm as an enjoyable alternative take on Mozart’s classic for both opera fans, the opera-curious and fantasy fans.

The film’s digital effects—such as the monstrous snake Papgeno takes credit for killing—are iffy at times, but the absolute spectacle that is the Queen of the Night in her seemingly endlessly flowing robes made sitting through the otherwise underwhelming visuals entirely worth it.

“I was very much inspired actually by the set designs of Schinkel for the Berlin Opera from the early 19th century and also by the picture painted by Simon Quaglio painting with the sky above her. I’m also a big fan of Chinese and Japanese cinema, especially from the early 2000s, like ‘Hero’ ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’

“I love huge amounts of fabric in the wind, and I thought maybe that could work; maybe we could create something huge that also shows her emotions, playing with the fabric, so it goes into the sky and also darkness and shadows,” Sigl explained.

Devieilhe embodies the queen effectively, and while her costume is wonderfully terrifying, you don’t get the feeling that she’s all evil. This, too, was Sigl’s goal. Likable villains are fun to watch.

If, as a fan of opera, you are willing to have an open mind and are interested in how young creatives draw influence from Mozart’s most famous work, then Sigl’s “Flute,” is for you, whether young or young at heart. You will see the opera’s world come alive in a very charming tale.

“Ultimately I think the magic of the film really is that it’s about entering a world that maybe you feel has been closed to you, for whatever reason,” Wolfe told OperaWire.


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