As Stage Director, Daniel Ellis is a man who wears many hats in the revival of this Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade production of The Magic Flute. His role includes overseeing all artistic departments in the opera including costuming, lighting, sets, and music production. He is responsible for imparting the production’s vision to each of these departments while seeing that everyone is working from the same score. “Ultimately, my job is to be the glue which bonds these various departments together.”

This show marks the third time since 2001 that the Cincinnati Opera will bring this Mozart favorite to life. This version, however, promises to be unique.

This hybrid experience—part opera, part theater, and part cinema—began as a collaboration between Komische Oper Berlin and 1927, a British theater group . This remounted production originally premiered in Berlin before coming to the states where it was presented by Minnesota Opera Company in conjunction with LA Opera in 2014.

The performance is presented without physical sets and uses but a single physical prop—a cigarette holder. Instead, sets and props are created via the projection of images from a 20K digital projector onto a single, large, two-story, white wall in the back of the stage. In this way, the show resembles a movie projected upon the screen. In fact, the production is designed to look much like a silent movie from film’s golden age. The performers in this projection are costumed and made up to resemble some of films most memorable early characters—Chaplin, Keaton, Garbo, and Nosferatu. 

Unlike other theater productions in which actors have performed before a projected film, this production goes far beyond by integrating the actors into the hand-animated film. That is, the movie has been painstakingly drawn around the actors thus forcing the actors to move in place with the action happening about them. In this way, it is difficult to tell where live-action characters begin and the animated film ends. The production, Ellis says, is unique in that it represents the marriage of the organic and inorganic.

It is as if you are watching a movie being made in real time before a green screen except there are no second takes. As with live television, it all has to go right the first time.” As a member of the audience, one witnesses the creation of digital theater in real time.

Although this run marks Ellis’s fourth effort with this production, the opera still remains a challenge. Ellis explains that the primary difference between “this production and a traditional opera is that this production requires exacting precision by the actors throughout the entire three-hour performance.” 

There are, he explains, thousands of points throughout the opera in which actors must interact with the projections on the screen. A few short-comings in timing or position can cause the action to appear out-of-sync to the audience thus marring the illusion of reality.

For instance,” Ellis explains, “there is a point in the show where one of the actors is required to walk a leopard which is straining against a leash. This single action requires the actor to know exactly where the digitally projected leash falls into his hand without looking at the projection. Were the actor to position his hand too high, the leash would mysteriously float below his hand, and the leopard would appear to be straining against nothing.”

Each actor must train, through muscle memory, to know where their hands and body must be positioned each moment in relationship to the surrounding animation in order to create the desired illusion. 

A great deal of this production also requires the actors to appear in secondary story settings. The actors must access pivoted platforms via stairs behind the white wall. They are then, for safety’s sake, harnessed to the set before stepping out onto small platforms some fifteen feet above the stage where they then must sing, move, and interact with the animation and other actors. “In some cases,” notes Ellis, “the platform is too small for the actors to even see their feet. And even if they could, they can’t look down, because the audience wouldn’t be able to see their face and eyes.”

Thus, before the singing even began, the cast had to first learn this extended dance of precision within a compressed schedule of a single month. It is opera on a tightrope, and to really work, Ellis notes, “It must all look natural, effortless.”

It’s a painstaking process. The initial production in Berlin took three-and-a-half years to create from scratch. 

Most importantly, “the technology cannot upstage the story or the music.” At the end of the day, Ellis stresses the point that technology is not the centerpiece of this production. For him, the projection is another tool, another way to tell Mozart’s ageless tale. The North Star of this opera is the music and the grand themes.

While technology may change, human nature does not. Just as in Mozart’s time, men and women today are touched by tales evoking the eternal themes of love and happiness, darkness and light. “There are mythical creatures, a venomous queen, dragons, Masonic themes, and heroic trials of water and fire.” The Magic Flute is a story of redemption through virtue and the endless battle between good and evil.


The Cincinnati Opera‘s performs The Magic Flute on July 15, 20 & 22 @ 7:30pm and July 23 @ 3:00pm at The Aronoff Center’s Proctor & Gamble Hall