Mozart’s Opera: The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute Poster The Magic Flute [1791] 

This opera (see this great production) was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and is based on a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. The opera premiered in 1791, just two months before the composer’s demise. The story is about the adventure of Prince Tamino and bird-catcher Papageno in the kingdom of Sarastro, after the Queen of the Night persuaded Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina. The Magic Flute was pretty much the product of its time, encompassing humanistic messages which stress the victory of reason and love over vulgarities and superstitions. Notoriously, Mozart is said to have incorporated some “secrets” of Freemasonry into his opera, especially those connected with the initiation process (such as a trial by four elements), see some explanation here. Indeed, the opera is all about mystical symbolism as it fuses family drama, “striving for social utopia” ideas, fantasy and humour. Exotic settings and elements, transformations and miracles also form part of this opera.

The story in The Magic Flute is quite complicated and unusual by the standards of a common fairy-tale. The opening scene is Prince Tamino pursued by a giant snake. When Tamino faints, three ladies in black vanquish the snake and save him. They are also in awe of Prince Tamino’s beauty. Usually, the slaughter of beasts is reserved for a dramatic ending, not a beginning, and it is princes who rescue ladies and not the other way around (it is also princes who are usually charmed by the beauty of ladies). There is more unconventional plotting to come. It transpires that Tamino is in the land of the Queen of the Night who asks him to rescue her daughter Pamina. The latter is allegedly kidnapped by Sarastro, a High Priest. Tamino vows to free Pamina, having fallen in love with her through the presentation of her portrait. The Prince sets out on his journey with the magic flute given by the Queen of the Night and accompanied by Papageno, an earthy bird-catcher. Tamino and Papageno find the kingdom of Sarastro, and it so happens that it is the Queen of the Night who had sinister intentions, and there are goodness, harmony and peace at the kingdom of Sarastro. Tamino and Papageno then have to go through certain trials to join the ranks of other people in the kingdom.

There are a number of interesting or unusual messages/elements in this opera, such as:

  • Evil is not what it seems; the story in the opera subverts the expectations and does not follow a traditional fairy-tale plot with “goodies” and “baddies” clearly demarcated. The opera says that evil or other negative characteristics can take many forms. In this opera, knowledge is tuned on its head, and one has to forget everything one was told and taught to see the real truth.
  • Silence is key; silence is golden is an old proverb which plays an important part in the opera. Tamino and Papageno have to go through trials which test their ability to remain silent and composed when doing so is difficult.
  • Contrast/battle between light and darkness; the ancient battle between day, light and goodness, and night, darkness and evil is emphasised in the story. The Queen of the Night has to be “defeated” so that the night can give way to the day. The night also stands for ignorance, and with the light comes knowledge, wisdom, truth and harmony. To get from one point to another one has to pass certain tests. A similar contrast is drawn between Tamino and Papageno. One is wiser than another: while Tamino aspires to the high notions of love and goodness, Papageno is prone to human weaknesses, including drink and laziness. Papageno is also portrayed as weak and flimsy.
  • Symbolism of the number three; the opera has many ancient Egypt motives, and the prevalence of the number three is noticeable. Freemasonry itself is connected to a number of Egyptian mystery schools (there are similarities in the initiation procedures). In ancient Egypt, there was obviously a preoccupation with a triangle (three sides, three angles), but there are also three aspects to the Egyptian sun god: the rising (Khepri), midday (Re) and setting (Atum). In The Magic Flute, there are three ladies in black, servants of the Queen of the Night, three boy-spirits who accompany heroes on their journeys, and three trials.

The modern audience may discern certain worrying sexist and racist elements in this opera, but The Magic Flute still remains one of the most thought-provoking and enigmatic of all operas, demonstrating the musical genius of Mozart (particularly memorable are Tamino’s aria with the portrait of Pamina, the aria of the Queen of the Night, Sarastro’s aria O, Isis und Osiris, as well as the duet of Papageno and Papagena).


9 thoughts on “Mozart’s Opera: The Magic Flute

  1. It’s crazy to think that, though I love Mozart and have heard many of the individual songs from The Magic Flute, I had no idea it had such an interesting plot. I’m not a massive fan of opera in general, but you make it sound so interesting. I want to find more information about this opera now!

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  2. It’s great that you saw the Minnesota Opera production of The Magic Flute, even if it was only on video and not live. Barrie Kosky is one of my all-time favorite stage directors, in fact his brilliant Frankfurt production of Salome by Richard Strauss was the last opera I saw in March 2020 before the coronavirus lockdown brought everything to a halt. I also loved his Frankfurt staging of Bizet’s Carmen, which I have seen a number of times with varying casts. Also his Bayreuth staging of Wagner’s Meistersinger, which I have only seen on television, not live.

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