Lyric Opera’s Magic Flute: A Fitting Tribute to Russell Patterson

Recently, a mentor and a friend of mine, Mr. Russell Patterson, passed away at age 85. I had not seen Russell for many years, but will always be indebted to him for giving me an opportunity to perform as a flutist in the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera, and the Kansas City Ballet. Russell was one of the founders of the Kansas City Lyric Opera in 1958 and he retired from his position as artistic director at the conclusion of the opera company’s 40th season in the spring of 1998. He was a good-natured man with a passion for opera and, when he retired, he did not stand over his successors and micro-manage them. He allowed the current artistic director, Ward Holmquist, “to carry on with the company without his looking over our shoulders.” That is quite a tribute.

I do not attend many opera performances but, as I have gotten older, I enjoy the art form more and more.  I find myself drawn to listen to it on the radio when I can, and I even have a collection of about 10 operas on my iPod.  I was quite enthusiastic when my wife, Rita, and I went to a performance of The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on Wednesday, November 13th, 2013 in Brandmeyer Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri.  I believe that Russell Patterson would have been elated to see this production, from the sets designed by Jun Kaneko, the singing and playing of the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony, and to the work of so many others that make a production like this possible.  In fact, my main quibble is with none of this but with the opera itself.  The Magic Flute is a strange, albeit sometimes humorous, story with some Masonic underpinnings that my wife said took a leap of faith to follow coherently. In fact, at times, Mozart’s music is so sublime that it does not fit the frivolous nature of the overall plotline.  My opinion is that there are other Mozart operas that I enjoy more, but this performance – though a bit static at times – came alive with the sets, the well-sung arias, the ensemble pieces, and the precise and clear playing by the orchestra. Mozart demands clarity and precision, and the assembled forces delivered in a satisfying manner.

The role of Sarastro, sung with definition by Jeffrey Beruan (bass), sets the tone for the apparent gravity of the situation that the lead character Tamino (heartfully sung by Shawn Matley) finds himself in. Tamino professes his love for Pamina (sung beautifully by Lauren Snouffer) but there are some hurdles he must conquer to win her hand for life-long love. Sarastro mentions three virtues that Tamino must demonstrate:  silence, patience, and wisdom. His behavior under duress will reflect what kind of man he really is. The other main roles, one the Queen of the Night, performed in super-star fashion by Kathryn Lewek, and the other, Papageno, performed with great stage presence by Daniel Belcher, provide contrast to the virtues expected of Tamino. The Queen of the Night is all about revenge.  Papageno is mainly interested in his own creature comforts.

As I reflected on the virtues of silence, patience, and wisdom, I thought what a fitting tribute this production was for the memory of Russell Patterson. His patience and oversight for so many years of the Lyric Opera has led to a beautiful venue for some of classical music’s most profound offerings. His wisdom in presenting all of the operas in English prompted those in the opera business to develop ways where opera could be understood even if performed in its original language. Finally, this production was a tribute to Russell’s silence after he decided to turn over his “brain-child” to a new regime and to let them take it to new heights without getting in the way. I have not known many musicians who would say patience is their main virtue (and Russell would probably agree with that in his case!) but he stuck with an idea that continues to pay dividends to the Kansas City music community and to opera in the Midwest.  For that, we should all be grateful.

Rest in peace my friend. Bravo!