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Cleveland Orchestra considers power in humanities festival with 'The Magic Flute'

The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance
Roger Mastroianni
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The Cleveland Orchestra
This year's Mandel Opera & Humanities Festival centers on performances of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" on May 16, 18, 24 and 26.

This year’s Mandel Opera & Humanities Festival from the Cleveland Orchestra examines power, both positive and negative, through performances, discussions and even art exhibits. The centerpiece is Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.”

“It evokes the power of music, the power of nature, the power of love,” said Cleveland Orchestra President Andre Gremillet.

There are negative exponents of power too, embodied by the opera’s character, Monostatos. New York-based classical radio host Terrance McKnight will return to his native Cleveland on May 19 for a discussion about the problematic aspects of classical music, such as the “Magic Flute” character, which was written as a subservient, racist caricature of dark-skinned people.

“I opened the libretto, and I see this line where the Black character says, 'I am Black and Black is ugly,''" he said. "I said, 'That's it. That's what I have to deal with.'"

McKnight said the Cleveland performance, which casts non-Black performer Rodell Rosel in the role, points to the power of humanity.

"[Rosel] said, 'Look, man, I'm Filipino and I'm gay. I know what it is to be othered,'" McKnight said. "I think what's... powerful is the opportunity to bring some sensitivity to whomever is being 'othered,' because it might be the overweight kid or it might be the malnourished kid. Any time we look at somebody in our society as being something other than the norm, I think we run that risk of alienating someone. If we can, by contrast, look at that person through a lens of humanity, I think that's the goal."

The main performances of "The Magic Flute" sold out before the festival, and the orchestra opened access to Monday’s dress rehearsal to accommodate more interest.

Other facets of power explored through the festival include the power of images, many of iconic jazz musicians, taken by photographer Chuck Stewart. Those are on view at Severance through May 26.

The power of many voices will echo at Severance as singers from the North Coast Men’s Chorus, Cleveland Chorale, Cleveland School of the Arts and the orchestra's youth chorus perform together on May 25.

Gremillet said the cultural power of Cleveland is also an aspect of the festival, which includes participation from the City Club and Tri-C Jazz Fest. The latter is hosting a performance by Terence Blanchard, who will explore the work of saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

“I just loved how Wayne could take a simple melody but harmonize it in such a way that would make it new and unique and different,” Blanchard said. “He created his own language, which became kind of like the language for a lot of us in jazz.”

Shorter co-founded the group Weather Report and played with Miles Davis and Art Blakey. The performance on May 21 will include Blanchard, his group E-Collective and strings from the Turtle Island Quartet.

The festival’s keynote speaker on May 15 is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird, who co-wrote the book on which "Oppenheimer" was based, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer."

Additional musical performances include a recital by pianist Conrad Tao on May 17. The orchestra performs Mozart’s “Gran Partita” on May 23 and 25.

Ideastream’s "Sound of Ideas” presents a discussion on wealth and power recorded at the Cleveland History Center on WKSU May 20 at 9 a.m.

“My hope is that people from Cleveland who may not frequent all of these institutions on a regular basis or people coming from out of town to hear the opera will take this opportunity to discover University Circle and Cleveland as a major arts and culture destination,” said Gremillet.

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Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.