Friday, May 05, 2006 | We all know about “fine-feathered friends:” those genteel folk who dress-up. Zandra Rhodes knows how to dress-up an opera, even in feathers. The internationally admired haute couture stylist for international celebrities designed and executed the colorful wardrobe for the fairy tale opera “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to be presented by the San Diego Opera in five performances at the Civic Theatre beginning May 6.

Mozart wrote his popular singspiel theater piece in partnership with a fellow Mason who wanted to star as the lovable bird-man, Papageno. He is the protagonist who flits around the stage fully costumed in vibrant feathers looking for a ladybird soul mate and has some of the best songs to sing.

Papageno and his feathered sweetheart Papagena aren’t the only fantasy characters in the musical fable. The magic flute has the power to conjure up many creatures from the forest.

Rhodes designed whimsical outfits for the menagerie of animals that come to protect the lovers from evil forces while Prince Tamino escorts the Princess Pamina through the purification rites out of the realm of darkness into the bright sunlight.

Although written and staged as a comedy of adventures into mysterious domains, “The Magic Flute” is really about good triumphing over evil with stern overtones of Freemasonry ritual.

Rhodes’ costumes are color-coded to reflect the changing spheres. Cool greens and blues define the lovers; bright oranges relate to the benevolent High Priest Sarastro with contrasting dark blues and purples to signify the wicked Queen of the Night and her brazen attendants, the Three Ladies, who conspire to stop the lovers’ transformation.

Mozart’s collaborator for his last opera was Emmanuel Schikaneder, a loutish performer at his own theatre in Vienna during the late 18th century. He wrote the libretto to feature himself as the clownish birdman, Papageno. The name comes from the German word for parrot – papagie. The role gave Schikaneder plenty of stage antics to fit his music hall comedian style while decked out in his feather costume.

His partner Mozart was a bit of a scamp himself. Not all musicologists agree with the character interpretation of the musical genius in the film “Amadeus.” Generally recognized as a precocious child prodigy, his short adult life was assumed to be fraught with rude behavior to royalty and a bawdy lifestyle.

It’s Mozart’s tuneful and vocally challenging music score that keeps “The Magic Flute” in the top ten operas. The Queen of the Night sings only two arias, but they are both showstoppers. Mozart wrote them for his sister-in-law, a coloratura soprano of remarkable vocal range and force. An equally difficult basso aria sung by the Priest Sarastro and a chorus of monks defines the vocal lines between the good and bad characters in the story.

Conducted by Christof Perick of the Nuremberg Philharmonic and directed by Michael Hampe of the Cologne Opera, this San Diego Opera production unites several international artists into a crafted German masterpiece. The sprightly singspiel dialogue is translated into English over the stage.

Zandra Rhodes also designed the sets and costumes for the SDO production of “Pearl Fishers” (2004) that traveled to San Francisco and New York. This “Magic Flute” just came back from Dallas with kudos for its striking design. Other famous artists had their turn at creating sets and costumes for this opera. Marc Chagall glorified the opening season of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 with a vibrant production. San Diego Opera presented the whimsical Maurice Sendak sets and wardrobe in the 1990 season.

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” runs for five performances: 7:00 p.m. Saturday May 6 and Tuesday May 9; 8:00 p.m. Friday May 12; 2:00 p.m. Sunday May 14; and 7 p.m. Wednesday May 17 in the Civic Theatre at the intersection of 3rd Avenue and B Street in downtown. Info: 619 533 7000 or

John Patrick Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and maintains the opera archive at the San Diego Historical Society.

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