Theater director Dustin Wills, a 2014 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, says there is a reckoning happening in his industry, an accountability for what one is putting on stage and what that work has to say socially and politically. "That's where I'm coming from," he said recently, during rehearsals for Yale Opera's new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, which he is directing.
The 1791 opera, a Singspiel, was Mozart's last. It added punctuation to his life and to an Age of Reason that was giving way to Romanticism. The story of The Magic Flute, crafted by librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, explored and celebrated Enlightenment ideals, the flaws of which, Wills pointed out, we are dealing with today.
A movement that was born of goodwill, Wills said, forgot those who were not white, male European landowners. "It would be irresponsible for me to allow this opera to happen in a vacuum," Wills said. And while he can't change the libretto, he has used the work as a vehicle for revisiting the original inquiry. "What is our modern-day equivalent of this movement?" he asked. Male-focused heroism, for one thing, is "really old nonsense," Wills said, mentioning his own struggles with playing roles steeped in male stereotypes.
With that in mind, he has reframed the focus—which Schikaneder trained on Tamino—to equally include Pamina. Wills' fundamental inquiry is: What does it mean to be human?
The answer, to Wills, can be found, in part, in our relationship with artificial intelligence. "AI today is the exact same experiment," he said, revisiting Enlightenment-period themes of egalitarianism and individualism. "You have to really investigate what a human is. In Saudi Arabia, they gave citizenship to a robot."
Wills' turn directing The Magic Flute brings up the same moral questions that 18th century philosophers and artists were asking in their time. And that, he believes, is part of the responsibility of the artist who is faced with staying true to a piece of work while bringing it into a modern-day context without going too far. "If we're not making attempts to find that line," Wills said, "I don't know how much of an audience in the future there's going to be." In other words, "How do you reconcile these beautiful, amazing old works with politics that are potentially very harmful and triggering today?"
The goal, he said, "is really to be absolutely more inclusive, to try to open the door wider to more people." This production, he explained, gives us the opportunity to take a break from the chaos around us and also leaves us with questions to ask ourselves and one another. It is his job, he said, to push members of an audience beyond their comfort zones. "The artists are the ones who're up all night thinking about the future," he said. It's not all about angst, though. "We rehearse from a place of joy at all times," he said, "because that's what's at the center of this thing."
Soprano Anush Avetisyan '18MM, who is sharing the role of Pamina with soprano Sylvia D'Eramo '18MM, said, "It has truly been a joy working with Dustin on this production of The Magic Flute. What I have noticed and really appreciated is Dustin’s commitment to the work at hand. His vision and personality are rare in this world and I am grateful for them every day of rehearsal."
Yale Opera presents a new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Shubert Theatre Feb. 16-18.