Putting Mozart into Sto:lo territory

Ted Pilkington sings along to Andrea Mellis’ piano notes during his audition for the chorus of Magic Flute at the St. Thomas Anglican Church hall, July 12. - Greg Laychak
Ted Pilkington sings along to Andrea Mellis’ piano notes during his audition for the chorus of Magic Flute at the St. Thomas Anglican Church hall, July 12.
— image credit: Greg Laychak

Mozart’s Magic Flute might be an opera classic, but Chilliwack will see it in a whole new light this fall when the Chilliwack Symphony Opera brings it to the stage.

The story centres on the search for enlightenment in the face of ignorance, a theme which sharp-eyed director Andrea Mellis also spotted in local indigenous culture.

And after a visit with Sto:lo Nation education co-ordinator Rose Greene, the framework started to come together; Sto:lo students and community members would help create traditional imagery for the opera, including creating masks especially for the show.

The opera tackles issues that society still wrestles with today, Mellis says.

“We’re becoming materialistic. How do we get back to nature? How do we become one with nature again?” Mellis says. “From [those questions] to using First Nations symbols is just a small step.”

The Magic Flute draws a contrast between two opposing sides, placing Tamino—the protagonist—between three queens of the night and the priests of the temple. The ladies entreat Tamino to kill the sorcerer at the head of the temple, but the hero soon realizes that he has things backwards: the ladies are the antagonists of the tale, and the temple stands for knowledge and understanding.

“In this opera, darkness doesn’t stand for evil; it stands for ignorance and superstition,” Mellis says. “The temple stands for enlightenment and man’s desire to be one with nature.

“It’s a fairy tale,” she continues. “It’s based on an assortment of fairy tales, and it was fascinating to note that the Sto:lo nation has similar tales.”

Mellis is new to the Chilliwack Symphony Orchestra (CSO) this year. She usually calls Austria home, and has lived and worked overseas for the last two decades.

But she hails from the Fraser Valley, and she always knew she’d make her way back to beautiful British Columbia.

“I’ve always loved this valley,” she says with a laugh. “I live right on the border between Austria and Hungary, and yes—we have mountains. But not like this.”

The collaboration with CSO was a natural one—conductor Paula DeWitt wanted to put on an opera to follow their 2012 production of Pirates of Penzance, and instantly clicked with Mellis the first time they met.

“We met, and then we decided to do something together,” she says with a grin. “I said, ‘Magic Flute?’ and Andrea said, ‘Magic Flute!’ and it all just came together.”

The production, which hits the stage in late September, also offered another opportunity—to bring together performers from all skill levels and give them crucial experience in a professional production.

Some are coming from Vancouver Island, another from Toronto, and a few are flying in from Vienna to lend their talents to the local stage, joining performers from the Valley.

“One of my big issues is that there’s still so little work for Canadian singers,” Mellis says. “It’s one of there seasons that I had to leave 40 years ago, and it still seems to be the case.”

Often, she explains, performers aren’t taken seriously until they have professional experience under their belt—and that experience can be difficult to get.

But now she has an opportunity to give back to both the Canadian and Chilliwack opera community.

“This is important to me. It’s important to me that singers—especially singers that I know, singers that deserve it—get a chance,” she says.

She’s put $20,000 of her own money into the project—a testament to her belief in the local opera community.

“We’re still on a shoestring budget, but nevertheless I thought it important to say, ‘This is what I want to spend my money on,’” she says. “For me, these are just about perfect production circumstances. The community’s involved, First Nations are involved, I’ve got such a good collaborative partner, the singers were all hand-picked and they’re really keen on doing the work—for me, this is as close as it gets to heaven.”

The Magic Flute dives into rehearsals at the end of next month, but a few crucial pieces still need to fall into place. Perhaps more importantly, they’re still looking for a rehearsal space—a basement, a church, a gym, or basically any open space with bathroom facilities.

“It doesn’t have to have anything other than a space,” DeWitt says with a laugh. “We can even bring our own piano.”

They’re also looking for more Chilliwack participants—from chorus members to stagehands. With a just a month of whirlwind rehearsal, both Mellis and DeWitt say it’s a great way to dip your toes in opera—and maybe even dive in.

w For more information about space, involvement, or other donations, contact Andrea Mellis at AndreaMellis.Austria@gmail.com, or at 604-795-0521. Tickets for the show are already available through the Chilliwack Cultural Centre at www.chilliwackculturalcentre.ca or 604-391-7469.

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