Fire in The Magic Flute

A production remembered — By Alexis Mazaloubaud

In his production of The Magic Flute, first performed at the Paris Opera in 2014, Robert Carsen uses the seasons as a metaphor to develop the characters of this initiatory tale. He also works with the elements: as a result, the “Trial by Fire” which occurs at the beginning of Act II, takes on a particularly striking aspect. Alexis Mazaloubaud, responsible for special effects and pyrotechnics at the Opéra Bastille, talks about the conception of that scene.

The first time I worked on fire effects for Robert Carsen, it was in 2001 for the production of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka: an immense flame six metres high and ten metres wide, with a soloist nearby, it was incredible! But the request he made to us almost fifteen years later for The Magic Flute represented another major challenge: we had to put in place two fire ramps measuring 13 and 15 metres for scarcely 90 seconds, which the two characters Pamina and Tamino could cross.

It is not customary for us to work on such large surfaces. Usually, we deal with smaller combustible elements, such as candles and torches. In this case, though, it took a considerable amount of time to find a suitable method. In the end, we designed ramps resembling metal pipes that had been cut lengthwise. We then placed a series of wicks impregnated with a flammable product inside them. These were then lit with a lighter located on either side of the ramps and ultimately extinguished by a mechanical suppression system.

We realised right away that it would be impossible for the singers to cross the flames in bare feet. So we came up with a specific solution: igniting the fire in two stages. First, on the wide lateral sections. Then, the central parts would burst into flames once the singers had crossed them, after moving from downstage to upstage. The two singers then would turn to face the audience from behind the two burning ramps.

To set this impressive effect in motion, four technicians were positioned on the sides and two under the stage of the central section in order to ignite and mechanically extinguish the two ramps. In reality, the rain which comes down at the end of the scene plays no part in extinguishing the flames! Incidentally, at Robert Carsen’s request, that rain is actually comprised of tiny glass beads.

Robert Carsen's production of “The Magic Flute”
Robert Carsen's production of “The Magic Flute” © Elena Bauer / OnP

Of course, safety is our top priority. There are always trained firefighters present in the wings. The numerous Chorus-members, wrapped in white sheets, are positioned close to the fire so they must keep at least one metre away from the flames. Even so, when they rise to step over the extinguished ramps a few small flames can sometimes remain which can be unnerving for them. When that happens, technicians in costume can come on stage with smothering cloths and be barely distinguishable from the other characters!

I returned to this production with a great deal of enthusiasm. Since I am in charge of special effects, I also get to use water, smoke and wind. With these four elements there is an infinite number of possibilities. This season, for The Snow Maiden for example, I will have to work on a number of large wooden fires positioned around the stage. As for Carmen, I will be ensuring that the Spanish flag truly flies…

Interviewed by Juliette Puaux

Your reading: Fire in The Magic Flute