Carnival of the Animals

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

There have many big stage events in Los Angeles over the past decade. Some of them have lived up to their hype, like Ian McKellen's King Lear at UCLA Live! or the Tristan Project at Disney Hall, many though, have not: the big set and cast of Dead End the Ahmanson, David Cronenberg and Howard Shore's operatic version of The Fly, or Val Kilmer as Moses in the musical version of The Ten Commandments.

But as lots of so-called "event stagings" have come and gone, there is one big local production that has continued to delight Southern Californian audiences for over a decade: Peter Hall and Gerald Scarfe's candy-colored vision of Mozart's 1791 Singspiel The Magic Flute which has quietly become one of Los Angeles' cultural treasures.

I saw it first when I was school at USC back in the nineties and I enjoyed it as a big colorful spectacle with great tunes and lots of cartoonish, animal costumes. Since then, I've seen it each season it's been revived. During that time, I've also seen countless Magic Flutes at theaters around the world. Some of these have been impressive, like the old-fashioned production at the Paris Opera; some have been modern, expensive and underwhelming, like the much-touted Julie Taymor production at the Metropolitan Opera. What makes Hall & Scarfe's Los Angeles Opera staging stand out, is that it's modern but unpretentious. It is the theatrical equivalent of a first-rate Walt Disney or Pixar animated film: bold, clear designs, a good sense of humor, but most of all, faithfulness to strong storytelling and universal emotions.

This January marks the fourth time this production will play here at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and I'll be there once again on Sunday.

Now, Mozart's Magic Flute has been delighting audiences for over 200 years because it addresses the big themes of classic drama — love, death, honor — and it does so with clarity in its drama and with simple elegance in its music.

The same can also be said Leos Janacek's operatic fable The Cunning Little Vixen, which like The Magic Flute, uses the trappings of children's theater to address some of nature's more profound truths. As luck would have it — for residents of the South Bay Area especially — Long Beach Opera is presenting The Cunning Little Vixen this January, marking only the second time the piece has been staged in Southern California. (The first time was at the Music Center back when New York City Opera's Maurice Sendak production toured here almost 30 years ago.) Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen was inspired by a series of comic strips in a 1920 Czech newspaper —but don't go expecting a Popeye or Little Orphan Annie kind of musical experience. The score may be lush and the animals cuddly; however, as cute as this production (directed by Ken Cazan) may be, The Cunning Little Vixen is really more a grown-up allegory in the tradition of Animal Farm or Watership Down.

Both The Magic Flute and The Cunning Little Vixen have been long considered operas for children – but it's worth noting that both were written by their composers in their final years of life. The real magic of both pieces, is how they allow audiences of all ages feel young, even if only for a few musical hours.

The Cunning Little Vixen plays at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center and The Magic Flute at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, both running through January 25.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner iamge of Long Beach Opera's Vixen by Keiht Ian Polakoff