In the middle of the Kalispel Tribe's powwow grounds, a young man awakens, discovering that the monstrous serpent that had been pursuing him lies dead at his feet. As he takes in this sight, the sounds of a flute drift past him, growing louder. He hides behind a tree to witness another man approaching -- the flute player -- trying to catch birds.
The story that accompanies this action is being told by a tribal elder to a gathering of younger members of the tribe. The performers in the midst of the powwow grounds wear costumes that are a mixture of avant-garde black, accessorized with masks and headdresses. An ensemble of tribal drummers accompanies the elder's narration. A musician at an electronic keyboard and a flutist playing a traditional concert flute join them. The music sung by the performers is by Mozart.
It's not a typical scenario for Mozart's sublime final opera, The Magic Flute. Even in the current age's glut of conceptualized, non-traditional opera staging, the collaboration between New York's "the other company" and the Kalispel Tribe stands out. Entitled The Shared Flute Project, Wednesday evening's production has been understandably drawing attention to itself from sources as widespread and influential as The New York Times and the Associated Press.
"It's obviously touched a nerve," laughs Libby Kopczynski Moore, the other company's artistic director. Last year, Moore's production of Francis Poulenc's rarely performed opera Dialogues of the Carmelites was staged in Newport, Wash., at a church, with a remarkable degree of both artistic and popular success. It was while going through her notes from that production that Moore ran across the idea of involving the Kalispel Tribe.
"I kept finding that I had several times written 'Kalispel Tribe,' " Moore explains. "And I remember someone in the Newport area saying that it would be great if we could involve them in some way. And I wanted to, but I think I was intimidated. And I didn't quite see how to do it at the time. I was just overwhelmed with that project."
The idea stuck with Moore, however. One of the other company's goals is to produce "original, site-specific concerts of contemporary and classical music using artists from across the United States." Moore knew that she could call on remarkable singers from both the New York and Spokane area for the vocal performances, and once she had settled on The Magic Flute as the company's next production in Newport (the event takes place a little closer to Usk), it simply became a matter of expanding the original concept to include something truly unique to the region.
"I started thinking, 'Let's get a piano, let's get some people together, let's just do this opera and put it together very simply,' " Moore recalls. "But I wanted to involve the tribe. I love The Magic Flute, and I thought it would be interesting. I didn't know if it was a crazy idea at first or not, and then [Margie May] Ott said, 'That's a great idea! You need to talk to this man, [the late] Peter Campbell.' So I got in contact with him last fall. And right away I left him this long rambling message on the phone, and thought that this man would never call me back. And then he called and said, 'I understand.' I just about cried, realizing that this man got it. So we had a 10-minute phone conversation, and the next day met and had lunch and spent a couple of hours. And right away, he said, 'You're going to have fun with this. This makes sense. These are stories that are very similar to tribal lore.' "
Once the idea to involve the tribe by staging the opera as a Native American story was made, Moore needed to find a narrator. Campbell recommended Kalispel Tribal Elder Francis Cullooyah, who agreed to take part in the opera. "He thought it was a wild idea, but he said, 'Sure,' " notes Moore.
Cullooyah's involvement also led to the selection of the powwow grounds as the site for the opera's performance. "Chris Fischer, the stage director who lives in Seattle, had gone to meet Francis last fall," Moore says. "Just gone up to the reservation to take some snapshots with Francis and his wife. And she was looking at the pictures and said, 'What is this structure?' And I told her that was the powwow grounds, and she said, 'Wow... do you think it would be possible to do something there?' I think that suddenly shifting it and doing it on the reservation has suddenly opened up all sorts of possibilities."
For all of the weighty implications and lugubrious associations opera can have for a casual musical listener, The Magic Flute has always had an especially friendly relationship with audiences. Written as a singspiel, an opera performed both in songs and spoken words, Mozart and his librettists Emanuel Schkaneder and Carl Ludwig Giesecke/Metzler intended the work to be a popular success. The opera was written in German, easily understood by the general public, rather than the traditional language of Italian.
Within one year of its premiere, it was being performed outside Germany in native translations. And even though the opera has endured contradictory interpretations over the decades -- a psychosexual fantasy, a stern feminist morality play -- the work continues to be that rare creation: an unqualified success with both critics and casual music listeners. Unlike some past incarnations of The Magic Flute, however, The Shared Flute Project promises to put Mozart first.
"People keep asking me if we're changing Mozart," Moore begins, obviously familiar with the line of questioning. "No, we're actually doing Mozart's The Magic Flute. But it's a collaboration with the Kalispel Tribe, and I guess that I see it as a really fine line, sort of the correlation between these folk tales in The Magic Flute and Native American lore. And I've had a lot of musician friends who say, 'I don't get it. How do the Indians fit in? What are you doing, rewriting Mozart?' No. Mozart does not need our help. The music is so wonderful. It's The Magic Flute. And I'm sort of a traditionalist; we're doing the full musical opera. The performers will be singing their Mozart parts in English, but I think that some of Francis' narration will be in English and Salish, which should be kind of interesting."
But for Moore, the implications and potential of staging The Magic Flute in collaboration with the Kalispel Tribe go far beyond stage trappings and musical accents. "Part of my point is that there are really great performers everywhere," she smiles. "There are really great audiences everywhere. It does not have to be done in the opera house. Of course there are great things done there, but I really think there are performing places everywhere."
The other company and the Kalispel Tribe present The Shared Flute at the Kalispel powwow grounds on Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 7 pm. Suggested donation: $5. Call: 509-445-1147. To reach the grounds, head north of Spokane on Highway 2, take Hwy 211 north 12 miles and bear left onto Hwy 20 north for 3/10 of a mile. Turn right on Le Clerc Road and follow the signs for three miles.