As one of Britain’s most iconic actor/directors, Kenneth Branagh has a special relationship with theater. Throughout his career he has often worked to merge the stage with celluloid, delivering such memorable films as “Much Ado About Nothing,” which he directed, wrote and starred in.
His latest is a venture into opera, about which he knew almost nothing. “I had an amateur’s love and appreciation for opera but that was about it,” he says.
So when opera patron Peter Moore approached him to create a film based on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Branagh was initially “extremely nervous.” But the story intrigued him, as did the fact that this particular opera had been transported to the movie screen several times before, including a much-loved production by Ingmar Bergman back in the 1970s.
“I wanted to make something that matched the scale and passion of the original opera, but I also wanted to make it palatable and meaningful for today’s audiences,” said Branagh during an interview with The Japan Times.
What did you think of the Bergman rendition, and how does it differ from yours?
I loved it. It’s a straightforward interpretation of the original opera. I felt we could experiment a little more, bring a bit more of a contemporary feel to the story. Mozart penned the opera in 1791, and Bergman made a charming piece that keeps the original liveliness and spirit. I shifted the time-setting to World War I since I wanted to give it a more contemporary feel, but not too recent so as to lose the Old World flavor. To me, the First World War was the last war with Old World gallantries. It was also the first in terms of a mechanized war and that saw an advance in the emancipation of women, and both are key factors in the original opera story. WWI marked the loss of innocence and there was a terrible poignancy to death and waste of life. The scale of it was very operatic. WWII had an industrial quality . . . a different kind of tragedy.
Were you an opera fan to begin with?
I loved it, but I always had a wariness of opera. You know, the feeling that you needed a university degree to fully understand and appreciate it. In Mozart’s age it was different; opera was pretty much a low-rent affair, almost like a rock concert in many respects. I wanted to recreate that live experience, the sweat-and-passion feel. People have told me they thought of this as a “bastard rendition,” neither film nor opera, but I prefer to think of it as a marvelous new subgenre, a totally new cinema experience that really takes you out of yourself, which is refreshing and different. So yes, I was wary and nervous in the beginning. I think the actors (who are all opera thesps) and myself shared a mutual terror in that we were all aware of being totally new to this, but after a while I had an immense enthusiasm for the project.
What, in your opinion, is the greatest charm of “The Magic Flute?”
The story is full of mystery and there’s a lot in there that strike chords in contemporary audiences. There are so many things open to many different kinds of interpretations and there’s a wonderful liberal tone to the whole thing. “The Magic Flute” is said to be Mozart’s most fantastical opera, but there’s so much in there that’s hardcore realism: The masonic tale of Sasastro’s cult, the feminist undertones, the plea for peace — these are things that we’re all familiar with. To take all of this and transport it to the screen required a lot of creative energy and there was a pioneering quality to it all. It was exciting every step of the way.