The first act of The Magic Flute, shown in mock-up by designer Myung Hee Cho, sets up a play within a play, with guests gathering in the garden to watch a performance on the proscenium stage. ((CBC))

Mozart's music is a kind of road map for director Diane Paulus.

A Tony Award winner for her revival of Hair in 2009, Paulus has moved fluidly between opera and theatre throughout her career, and sees no contradictions between the two. As she prepares to direct The Magic Flute in a new production for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, she is taking cues both from the composer and contemporary theatre design.

"To me as a theatre director, when I work on a Mozart opera, he's giving me theatre, he's giving me structure in the score. That's why I love working on opera — you get a thousand signals," she said in press preview last week.

Johannes Debus is musical director of a cast that includes Michael Schade and Isabel Bayrakdarian, singing together at the COC for the first time. A later performance on Feb. 17 will feature the young artists of COC's Ensemble Studio. There are more than 80 cast members involved in the new production.

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Diane Paulus, director, talks about her new production of The Magic Flute to debut Jan. 29 in Toronto.

The action of The Magic Flute begins when the Queen of the Night asks the prince, Tamino, to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the underworld, promising that Tamino may then have her hand in marriage. When Tamino finds Pamina, her captor, Sarastro, puts him through a series of tests. Eventually, Tamino figures out that the real danger comes not from Sarastro, but from the Queen of the Night herself, and Tamino and Pamina must find their way to safety through a labyrinth.

Working with designer Myung Hee Cho, Paulus says she wants to create a Magic Flute that has all the charm of a fairy tale.

Both mothers of young girls, Cho and Paulus have created a Pamina who is dressed like a princess, with an airy pink gown that little girls in the audience will likely identify with. At the same, Cho and Paulus are aware of the deep layers that run through Mozart's work. The story arcs — of moving from the dark of the underworld to the light, and being tested before you can have your heart's desire — are what give the beloved opera its power.

"We wanted to capture the fairy-tale aspect, but also bring out the deeper meanings of enlightenment, and ritual, and Masonic architecture, and structure and enigma that are hidden inside," Paulus said in a media event at the COC's costume shop, where seamstresses and artists were at work on costumes for The Magic Flute.

The first act of the new COC production features a play within a play.

An 18th-century family gathers in a garden with their friends to watch a production of The Magic Flute. A proscenium stage, complete with the legendary stardrop background that introduced the Queen of the Night in a famous early production in 1815, occupies the centre of the picture as the guests gather round. But once the second act begins and the story gets darker, the frame of the stage disappears, and each of the guests at the evening party is drawn into the story.

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The patriarch becomes the wizard Sarastro, and a mysterious uncle morphs into Monostatos. The household servants — played by members of the COC's Ensemble chorus — become animals such as giraffes and owls. The three little boys of the family become the three spirits who lead Pamina and Papageno through the temple, riding tricycles shaped like horses.

While the costumes adhere to Mozart's time, there is a theatrical air to the hair and accoutrements that could be seen as contemporary. Cho has created an all-black costume for the Queen of the Night, with leather and spiked hair.

"The conception I had of her is she is a star," Cho said. "She's a nice guy when she sings that first aria. She is harsh, nothing about her is soft, she's regal, she has lots of power, she's a manipulator, she's using her daughter to get back the power she thinks is hers. We put a Goth twist to it."

'Treat for a designer'

Cho has worked on musicals like Back to Bacharach, dance works such as Isle of Dunes and Le nozza di Figaro for Chicago Opera Theatre, an earlier collaboration with Paulus. The two have been talking over their ideas for The Magic Flute since the beginning of 2010.

"In theatre, I design in two weeks, three weeks, four at the most. Here I have time to understand and listen to Diane and develop it. It's a real treat for a designer," Cho said. In their research of the Masonic imagery that fills the opera, they came across a garden maze in Britain with hedges cut in the square shapes, pyramids and sphinxes associated with the Masons.

"I had the idea of the journey being inside a maze. The idea of going into something where you are lost but you find yourself again," Paulus said. "It almost has a cinematic feel of following the action through the garden."

Pamina and Tamino have their great trials within this maze. Both Paulus and Cho conceived of Pamina as more than a damsel in distress. And they believe that Mozart himself has shifted from the men-only territory of the Masonic orders by allowing Pamina into the temple.

Paulus claims that it was Mozart's intent to have a man and woman on the journey together. Pamina goes through some wrenching emotions, from fright at the sexual advances of Monostatos to thoughts of suicide.

Opera called 'ultimate art form'

Paulus says she concentrates on working with the singers to show that growth as the young people undergo their trials.  

"In theatre, there is such an expectation of the process being specific and particular with the actor, and my experience in opera is that opera singers are so open and excited for that kind of stimulation as a performer," she said. "It's not about staging, spacing and standing singing, it's really about helping them physically represent the storytelling."

Paulus calls directing a great opera like The Magic Flute "a rite of passage." And she recalls what her mother told her.

"There was a fateful moment when my mother said to me, 'Opera is the ultimate art form.' I was about six years old. 'It has everything — music, dance, theatre, emotion, drama.' Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of directing opera."

The Canadian Opera Company's new production of The Magic Flute opens Jan. 29 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.