The Circle Of Life

Julie Taymor returns to opera with the Metropolitan's Magic Flute.Photo: Joseph Maida

It’s only after almost an hour at Julie Taymor’s kitchen table that she admits to being frustrated with her public profile. “I’m an opera director,” she says, while rinsing out the remnants of her breakfast—yogurt blended with vitamins in a tall glass. “But I’ve never done opera in New York, so people don’t know that. The Lion King—that’s all they know.”

Of course, it’s not the worst thing to be attached to one of the most beautiful, imaginative hits Broadway has ever seen. At seven years and counting, the musical, with its complex and playful costumes, masks, and puppets, still leaves audiences dazzled. But Taymor didn’t spring fully formed onto a Broadway stage. For much of her career, she’s been an opera director, and her latest project, the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, is “much more complicated than anything else I’ve ever done.” (Though she did stage a much smaller Magic Flute at Florence’s Maggio Musicale in 1993.) Opera, she adds, is “just enormous. People thought Lion King was big, but Oedipus Rex was bigger! There were more people in it; there was a bigger orchestra.” (But not as many lions.)

Moreover, this work’s jewel-encrusted splashiness—Egyptian princesses! Winged goddesses! Bewitched instruments that compel people to dance!—really does suit Taymor’s style. “Julie Taymor at the Met, in theory, makes a hell of a lot more sense than Julie Taymor on Broadway,” says fellow director and opera lover Michael Mayer (Thoroughly Modern Millie and the new film A Home at the End of the World). “This feels inevitable to me—she’s arty, to be crass about it. I’ve seen her work for years, and it’s in the art world. And Broadway tends to thumb its nose at the art world.”

Working with the Met, she had to forgo the artistic luxuries she’s used to: At the opera she has less time, weird schedules (tech rehearsals begin before singers arrive), and—most vexing of all—no say in casting. “At this point in my career, obviously, I cast every play, every movie, every musical that I do. But opera’s different,” Taymor says with a tinge of resignation.

Knowing that an opera can be in a company’s repertory for decades, Taymor is striving to give her Magic Flute “a timeless quality,” ditching the original Egyptian setting while still strongly suggesting the East. Her signature masks and puppets will of course show up (co-designed by Michael Curry, who worked with her on The Lion King). For a scene calling for giant bears, they built huge kites. For the opera’s three veiled ladies, “I’ve created larger-than-life heads that sit on their heads and then can fly off, so they have some magical powers.” Dazzling for the audience, tough on the talent. “It’s a big challenge,” she admits. “They have to really sing through them.”

The Magic Flute, Metropolitan Opera; opens October 8.

The Circle Of Life