Mozart opera film shoots in T.O.

By STEVE TILLEY - Toronto Sun


TORONTO - If computers can be used to create an entire virtual metropolis of sleaze in Sin City, then surely they can help transport a slice of stately Salzburg to the dusty fringes of Toronto.

With that in mind, filmmaker Kevin Sullivan figured if you can't take your feature film production of The Magic Flute to Austria, then bring Austria to the production. Mozart -- if not Mohammed -- would be proud.

Shooting wrapped earlier this month on Sullivan's interpretation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's beloved fairy-tale opera, shot largely against CGI-friendly green screen backdrops at Sullivan Entertainment's Scarborough production facility. It's slated for a theatrical release this November.

It will be the second take on The Magic Flute to hit theatres in 2006 -- the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth -- after Kenneth Branagh's film of the same name premieres at the Venice International Film Festival in September.

But each director is taking a personal approach to the source material. Branagh has relocated the setting to World War I, while producer/director Sullivan's adaptation melds operatic flights of fancy with a contemporary storyline about a modern-day mounting of The Magic Flute.

As such, it also brings together accomplished actors (who have never sung opera) with opera performers (who have never stepped in front of a movie camera.)

"The way this is being done, it allows the opportunity to bring The Magic Flute to people who would not normally go out to an opera," said actor Warren Christie during a recent interview on the movie's set.

"It 'contemporizes' it," said Christie, who stars as Tamino in the film's opera-within-a-movie.

Sullivan's budget and timeframe could never have permitted cast and crew to shoot on location in Salzburg, Vienna and Munich. Instead, Toronto-based visual effects house Alumini Designs was brought on board to take high-definition photographs of various locations in Austria and Germany. The backdrops will then be digitally inserted into the film during post-production for a unique theatrical look.

"Sin City was done with computer graphics in the background, we're doing digital stills in the background," said visual effects supervisor Tony Willis.

"No one has really approached a film this way, ever, anywhere. It's actually unique, and we're attempting to do it on a pretty tight schedule and tight money."

Besides the use of green screens and digital wizardry, The Magic Flute does have one other thing in common with the hyper-violent cinematic comic book that is Sin City: Rutger Hauer is in both films.

Hauer plays Dr. Richard Nagel, a scholar of music who trains a captive diva (opera soprano Mireille Asselin) in The Magic Flute's arias. It's a wholly new character imagined by Sullivan for this adaptation.

"There are two realities in the film. Mine I want to make as real as I can," Hauer said. "I take the opera out of my reality."

For Hauer, whose storied three-decade career has had a resurgence of late with appearances in blockbuster fare like Batman Begins, acting in front of green screens is nothing new.

"I think you have to use your imagination a little more, but that's not hard for me," he said.

"It's kind of interesting to know that they can still just artificially change the environment, totally. And I like that idea. I love that about film."

Asselin, in her final undergraduate year at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music, was apprehensive about making her film debut opposite an actor of Hauer's experience. But she said he ultimately made her performance better.

"It was so fantastic to see how he worked out a scene and to be able to collaborate with him," said Asselin, who will also perform in Opera Atelier's stage production of The Magic Flute this fall.

"He really keeps you on your toes, because you never know how he'll deliver a scene and you need to keep up."

With principal photography completed, The Magic Flute now enters a hectic period of editing and post-production, completing the 200 special effects needed for the film's otherworldly backdrops and settings.

If it all comes together, though, Hauer said The Magic Flute could help bring Mozart to the masses.

"I hope they can make it rock," he said.