Angela Allen

To imagine that The Magic Flute is merely beguiling child’s play is to sell W. A. Mozart’s masterpiece short. His last staged opera’s enchanted world, clear-cut good vs. evil themes, lyrical music, and fanciful characters like Queen of the Night, Papageno and Tamino appeal to children of all ages. Now back on the boards at Portland Opera for four performances this month, it is among the five most frequently performed operas in the world.

The most outsized child-friendly delight is this production’s whimsical scenery, designed in 1980 by the world-famous children’s author, the late Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). And the story of how that wondrous world will reappear in Portland this month is almost as enchanting as Mozart’s music.

From Page to Stage

PO’s general director Christopher Mattaliano worked on the original 1980 production for Houston Opera with Frank Corsaro, one of Mattaliano’s fresh-out-college mentors. Corsaro had the brilliant idea for Sendak to design the sets, and though Sendak — a longtime Mozart lover whose doodles included renditions of the composer — had never designed for theater, he agreed. “Mozart was his god,” says Neil Peter Jampolis, a theater artist whom Corsaro recruited to help Sendak through the process.

When Sendak began designing the sets for the 1980 Houston production, he handed Jampolis a stack of thumbnail sketches done in lush enchanting watercolors. Jampolis loved them but there was a problem. “They were beautiful, but I told Maurice, `We can’t change the stage between each scene.’”

The illustrator should think of the sets as a pop-up book, Jampolis suggested, with sets moving back and forth, in and out.

“That was the key that unlocked Maurice’s heart,” recalls Jampolis, who invited Sendak to use his Manhattan studio to make his drawings. Sendak was “totally dedicated” and finished them in several months.

The next challenge was convincing Sendak that his work could be produced in huge scale, and painted in the style in which he illustrated, so the work looked like Sendak’s. That’s where Michael Hagen, a celebrated set painter, came in. Sendak and Jampolis took pages of Sendak’s work to Montreal, and in three hours, Hagen made several 12-by-15-feet gorgeously and precisely painted pieces. Although known for grumpiness and pessimism almost as much as for artistic brilliance and imagination, Sendak was sold.

The 1980 Sendak-designed sets and costumes were a hit; critics lauded the production for its imaginative visual concepts. Then, 25 years later, all hell broke loose: Hurricane Wilma destroyed the sets stored in Florida.

Magic Restored

Mattaliano had too much history with the production to let it die. About four years ago, he and Jampolis began to talk about bringing new sets based on the originals to the stage again. Mattaliano told Sendak about the effort and the illustrator/author was duly pleased; his foundation contributed to the expensive rebuilding effort. Sendak died in 2012.

Still, reconstructing Sendak’s vision would cost many times more than making the sets 36 years ago, of course. Undaunted, Mattaliano, a Mozart-lover like Sendak, raised the money from Sendak’s foundation and from the Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE and Carol Franc Buck foundations to remake and revive the production.

This time Jampolis, who now teaches at UCLA and has no plans to retire after 52 years as a set and lighting virtuoso, designed the set even better than the first time. It remains true to its 18th-century spirit, with 34 drops and 38 working lines, and lots of soft scenery, but the set is more “tour-able,” he said.

The 2016 sets are lighter-weight and less cumbersome than those from 36 years ago. Pieces are augmented in richer colors and gain three-dimensionality with LED lighting. “It’s a bit jazzier, more razzle-dazzle,” said Jampolis, who has been in Portland for the past weeks tweaking the current production. “But it’s still 18th century. It’s not a Broadway musical.”

The storm spared the costumes, but they were worn out after decades of hard wear. PO’s costume department refurbished or remade them all for this Portland production. Hagen, who painted almost every Sendak production and now works with son, Kevin, again painted this one. And Portland Opera owns the production now.

George Manahan will conduct the 3-hour-15-minute opera with one intermission. PO’s previous The Magic Flute was staged in 2006-07 season, and premiered in Portland in 1970, without the Sendak sets and costumes. Directed by Mattaliano, Portland Opera’s very own production will be sung in English rather than the original German — all the better for Oregon children.