The centerpiece of Achim Freyer's colorful and hilarious staging of Mozart's Magic Flute is a great raked circle. It's inspired by the traditional one-ring circuses of Europe. Freyer says his production concept is that his cast is actually a troupe of traveling circus folk. They pitch their gaudy tent wherever they find a ready audience.

Last summer at the Salzburg Festival, they didn't put up the tent in an open field, nor in a theatre: Freyer had to adapt a steel-and-glass exhibition hall for his performances. As in historic venues like Circus Schumann, Freyer's one-ring circus also has a form of proscenium arch theatre upstage. This is built into the huge tent above and around the performance ring. This rear stage makes possible an astonishing variety of stage pictures, some of them amusing visual footnotes to major action downstage.

His circus ringmaster, Sarastro, for example, appears in various fantastic guises in this space: sometimes as a god high overhead, another time as a giant puppet. At a crucial moment, he emerges from a circular hole in the star-studded circus tent ceiling to protect Tamino and Pamina from danger. His power is symbolized by long rods terminating in hands radiating downward. These are symbolic Egyptian images for the rays of Ra, the sun god.

Papageno, the rustic bird-catcher for the Queen of the Night, is Freyer's top banana/circus clown. He warms up the audience, especially the kids. He makes a Ringling Brothers-style entrance on a grotesque Rube Goldberg tricycle hung with birdcages. He also deftly balances a towering stack of cages, suspended by a fine wire.

When Prince Tamino tames wild beasts with his amazing flute, they are a fantastic Freyer menagerie. Some are pure artistic invention; others are marvelous parodies of real animals. Fortunately, even the most bizarre costumes in the Freyer/Mozart circus are playable. Freyer has been designing sets, costumes, and lighting--and working closely with performers as a stage director--so long that he knows what will or won't work.

There are a lot of visual jokes in this show, and they are especially amusing for younger viewers. Freyer has saved audiences the trouble of looking at their watches. As the production progresses, a large illuminated snail--with a big watch face framed by its shell--crawls around the stage perimeter from right to left, keeping very accurate time. It reaches stage right just as the opera ends.

Freyer says he has also recreated some of the circumstances of the original Magic Flute production. Mozart composed the opera for a libretto by Emanuel Schickaneder, a popular Viennese song-and-dance comedian whose theatre was in the suburbs of Vienna. He played to audiences of ordinary people who could not afford costly tickets--or easily go to the heart of Vienna for a night at the opera.

Despite the opera's mysterious Masonic symbolism and much later scholarly studies of the deep significance of libretto and score--initially all Schickaneder wanted was a merry musical romp that would "put bums on seats." The circus ring is flanked by tiers of bleachers on either side, while the audience sits in temporary bleachers in Salzburg's fair-and-exhibition venue. Through 2001, this space will be transformed every summer into Freyer's Magic Flute Hall.

Freyer experimented with an earlier version of this production in the historic Felsenreitschule, with its baroque arcades, carved out of the solid rock of the great Monschberg. Unfortunately for some regulars--who looked forward to seeing the famous arches--the tent hid all the historic rock architecture. So it wasn't quite the crowd-pleaser that Freyer hoped.

Discussing the design and directorial problems of producing his Magic Flute concept in two very different venues, Freyer says, "I think it's very questionable to plan a staging without having a specific theatre space available." He knew the 1997 Salzburg Flute had to be performed in the Riding School venue, so he designed for that space. "It wasn't very good for the work, but it finally functioned. But the Felsenreitschule is to blame for the experience the Zauberflote became.

"Now that we've moved the Zauberflote to the Messehalle, it's a big experiment, a great risk--it's like a Gastspiel," Freyer explains. He's referring to the problems of fitting a touring production into theatres for which it wasn't designed. "You have a different theatre, but you want to present the staging and the look of the scenes with the same effect. That means, in our case, to alter the Messehalle as far as possible, so that it functions in a similar fashion to the Felsenreitschule."

What Freyer liked especially about the enclosed Riding School is that the auditorium and stage can be completely darkened before a performance begins. Viewers are transported from daily life outside into a magical world. "That was such an experience," he notes, "this darkness at the beginning." It became Freyer's starting point for the deepening of the meaning of the story and music. "That's hardly possible in the Messehalle, because it's modern, light, technical, and cold as an auditorium," Freyer notes. He was able to darken the structural glass somewhat, but he concentrated on preparing audiences for the performances also in other ways.

Obviously, audiences entering--or going outside the hall for intermissions--would see not a theatre, but a steel-and-glass exhibition hall in the midst of an industrial area, so Freyer decided to treat this as a kind of Brechtian "alienation effect," introducing spectators by degrees into the magical circus world of the Magic Flute inside.

This visual progression begins with Freyer's unusual Flute sculptures outside the hall and continues through lobbies and foyers, specially lit and decorated. The sheet-steel sculptures are unique and brightly colored. They are inspired by characters and situations in the opera. But Freyer emphasizes that they are symbolic rather than representational.

Freyer is a painter and sculptor, as well as a stage director and designer. He has his own special visual vocabulary of images. He is partial to skulls and to hopscotch patterns, so some of these turn up in his Salzburg Zauberflote. They are also on view in Munich, where he incorporates them in his new staging of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

A special dividend in moving to the edge of the city is that the venue is much larger. With 2,200 seats, that means some 10,000 people can enjoy the performances at much lower prices than usual in the central venues. Cut-price tickets can also be provided for children and teens.

Discussing changes in staging because of the new venue, this multifaceted artist notes, "A Freyer who repeats himself is not Freyer. I don't do it better, but I do change it!"