Joseph Pucciatti both directs and conducts Boheme Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” For a period, he was skeptical about taking on both roles, but he has come to see the advantages of concentrating both dramatic and musical leadership in one person, namely himself. Performances take place at 8 p.m. Friday, April 20, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 22, in the Kendall Hall Theater of the college of New Jersey Center for the Arts.
“I thought it would be difficult to both direct and conduct ‘Magic Flute,’” says Pucciatti in an evening telephone interview from his Trenton home. “But this afternoon we were rehearsing the first act quintet. It was rolling off everybody’s tongue. I didn’t have to discuss anything with a second person. It was seamless, flawless.”
Pucciatti has had the happy of experience of both directing and conducting in the past with the “Rigoletto” that he thought should be set in Fascist Italy. “It lent itself to the update,” he says, “but it would have been a lot of trouble talking another director into it.”
“Normally, as a conductor, I go to all the blocking rehearsals and stand next to the director, and we talk about doing the scene with the music. This time it wasn’t stop and go. We went right into the music. Things moved a lot quicker.”
“Magic Flute” opens when the Three Ladies, handmaidens of the Queen of the Night, rescue Prince Tamino from a serpent. The bird catcher Papageno claims that he slew the serpent. The Ladies punish Papageno by putting a padlock on his mouth. They show Tamino a picture of Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Pamina has been abducted by Sarastro and is being held in his palace.
Tamino vows to rescue Pamina and marry her. Papageno will accompany him. Tamino and Papageno learn that it is the Queen who is evil, and not Sarastro. They successfully undergo trials of their worthiness set by Sarastro. The Queen of the Night and other evildoers are destroyed and the other participants celebrate the victory of light over darkness.
One of the innovations in Pucciatti’s “Magic Flute” will be the use of rear view projection instead of a set. “In fact, we have no set at all,” Pucciatti says. “Storyboards — 22 of them — take the place of scenery. I had the idea of rear view projection from the very beginning. I didn’t want to pass on directing the performance to someone else because of the projections and because I had view about where I wanted the show to go.”
Including animation was an outgrowth of deciding on the projections. “I thought, if we have projection, why not animation?” Pucciatti says. J. Matthew Root is the animator and virtual artist. Pucciatti found him through the intervention of his wife’s nephew, a Hollywood sound man. “Matthew and I had a really good talk,” Pucciatti says. “We hit it off right off the bat. We discussed the appearance of the serpent and we understood each other. I wanted the earth to open up when the Queen of the Night comes out. Matthew was seeing my vision. It was a great fit.”
Root’s grandparents were opera singers, Pucciatti notes, “So this ‘Magic Flute’ means coming full circle for him.”
Pucciatti cites another instance of his smooth collaboration with Root. “I felt that a certain religiosity was missing in the second act scene where Sarastro comes out talking to the priests. I suggested a triangle with an eye on it, like the triangle on the dollar bill. It’s a Masonic symbol. And Mozart and a lot of the founding fathers of the United States were Masons. I thought that the triangle symbol would help make the point that the scene was all about Papageno and Tamino coming from darkness to light. Matthew and I worked it out together.”
Boheme Opera is using rear view projection for the first time. “It’s fun for us,” Pucciatti says, “and it gives the show a cinematic flavor. I don’t want to give too much away. But the show can become very stodgy, and we’re doing it a bit more physical than usual.”
“The Magic Flute” is a fantasy story, Pucciatti notes. “There is no time period. The costumes — robes and vests — do not belong to any particular time. Robes are either very ancient or very new.”
In its April performances Boheme Opera presents “The Magic Flute” for the first time. The performances are in English, with English supertitles. “We decided to use English because we want to build audiences. A common concern for audiences is ‘Will I understand what they’re saying?’ There is considerable dialogue in the opera.” Boheme’s first presentation of the 2011-’12 season, Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” was also presented in English.
The cast for “Magic Flute” is a blend of veteran performers and emerging artists. Lorraine Ernest plays the Queen of the Night, one of the most demanding soprano roles in existence. “I couldn’t see doing it with anybody but Lorraine,” Pucciatti says. “We go back at least 10 years. I respect her artistry.”
Kenneth Overton plays Papageno, the bird catcher, a signature role for him. “Overton has done many Papagenos, and he brings his own ideas to the role,” Pucciatti says.
Making debuts with Boheme opera are James Price as Tamino, who is creating a crossover career throughout the world, and Kristin K. Vogel as Pamina, whose future engagements include appearances in Natchez, Tennessee, and Helena, Montana.
“I’m a collaborative conductor,” Pucciatti says. “I like singers to take ownership of the show. I like to give them an opportunity for input. If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea. This is about opera. It’s about art. It’s not about egos.”
Pucciatti is enthusiastic about the forthcoming “Magic Flute’s” musical qualities. “We are getting young, talented singers,” he says. “They are more dedicated than ever. I’m proud of the fact that we are not cheating the audience on singers. They are as fine as any.
“We have the same orchestra. Some of the players have been with Boheme Opera more than 20 years. They come from Local 62 in Trenton and play with lot of heart.
“We have the same solid chorus that we have had for years and years. Our chorus is getting younger, on the average. Still, some choristers have been with us for 15 or 20 years. The artistic staff is the same. We have had to cut salaries, but they are sticking with us. They believe that this is an important thing, not something frivolous.”
Pucciatti looks for ways to include students in performance. In “Magic Flute” Morgan Griffith, a senior at Lenape High School in Medford, sings one of the Three Spirits. The Spirits play the part of a Greek chorus in the opera and comment on the unfolding story. Griffith sang the Spirit role in “Magic Flute” in Italy and intends to study music in college. Three chorus members are students: Natalie Pica and Jared Salwen are at the College of New Jersey. Stephanie Moon attends Mercer County Community College. Chorus member Ian Highcock, a recent TCNJ graduate, began singing with the Boheme chorus as an undergraduate.
Rounding out its 23rd season, Boheme Opera returns for a second time to Kendall Hall on the campus of TCNJ. In large part the choice of the 830-seat venue is an economic decision. “We wanted to pull back and proceed slowly,” Pucciatti says. “We don’t want to go off hog wild in a tough economy.
“Rental for Kendall Hall is considerably less than for Trenton’s War Memorial, which is more than twice as large. The orchestra pit at TCNJ is a little tighter than the pit at the War Memorial. We have a 32-piece orchestra. They’ll be comfortable.”
Further, there are savings on stage hands. Union stage hands at the War Memorial earn $40 to $50 per hour per person, according to Pucciatti. “We were spending $7000 to $9000 a show for union stage hands. They were excellent workers.”
“At TCNJ students work as stagehands and get valuable experience. Obviously, they’re not like union stage hands. But TCNJ has a fabulous manager who is a technical person.” He refers to Dale Simon, coordinator for the Kendall Hall Theater.
“Many companies have gone down in the last years. A lot of great institutions are in trouble.
“[Milan’s] La Scala is 9 million Euros in debt. The New York City Opera had to cut its season short. The Philadelphia Orchestra is in Chapter 11.”
Pucciatti feels well-supported by the Boheme management team. Board president Jeffrey Stundel and board member Bonnie Brenner are members of the Boheme Chorus. Stundel plays the First Slave in “Magic Flute.”
Pucciatti’s wife Sandra is Managing Director of Boheme Opera. “Sandy does literally all the behind-the-scenes work.” Pucciatti says. “She’s at the computer right now. I don’t know what she’s doing, but it’s for ‘The Magic Flute.’”
“The Magic Flute,” Boheme Opera NJ, Kendall Theater, College of New Jersey. Friday, April 20, 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 22, 3 p.m. Pre-curtain talks at 6:45 p.m. on Friday and 1:45 p.m. on Sunday. $35 to $75. 609-771-2885 or www.bohemeoperanj.com