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The Story Behind the Opera "The Magic Flute" by Mozart

“The Magic Flute” is a two-act opera crafted by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is accompanied by a German libretto created by Emanuel Schikaneder. The Opera is a “Singspiel,” a classification of German music drama that includes both songs and spoken dialogue.


Poster of "The Magic Flute" by Mozart

The opera marked the culmination of Mozart’s collaboration with Schikaneder's theatrical group, the resident corporation at the “Theater auf der Wieden (Freihaustheater)” in Vienna, Austria. Mozart was an active participant in their productions and was also a close friend of Benedikt Schack, a tenor of the troupe. “The Magic Flute” premiered at the “Freihaustheater” on 30th of September, 1791, just a couple of months before the composer's untimely demise.

History & Performances 

opera "The Magic Flute" by Mozrt - image

According to scholars, the opera is based on various sources. Ignaz von Born’s essay “On the mysteries of the Egyptians,” Jean Terrasson’s novel “ Life of Sethos,” and Chrétien de Troyes’ poem “Yvain, the Knight of the Lion,” all are considered to have influenced Schikaneder’s creation. The libretto is also reckoned to be a natural continuation of the ongoing “fairy tale” operas that were produced by his troupe at that time. The influence of Freemasonry is also courted quite publicly by opera enthusiasts.

Mozart was also influenced by the singers who were intended to perform at the premiere. This is evident from the usage of strings for adjusting the vocal lines of the character “Papageno,” which Schikaneder himself portrayed. The ensemble cast forced Mozart’s hand to tactically combine a collection of diverse voices, each offering different potential. This has also challenged future performers who have recreated the characters, as they had to adjust to the vocal ranges of the original singers.

In September 1792, “The Magic Flute” was first staged outside Vienna - in Lemberg, followed by Prague. In November 1792, the 100th performance was held almost a year after the demise of the composer. It had witnessed triumphant progress through all major German Opera houses and eventually spread all across Europe and the world. However, the earlier productions were often highly altered and even dismembered. The past century has definitely been more faithful towards Mozart’s music, though an authentic rendering of the original work is still quite rare.

In 1903, the Victor Talking Machine Company issued the first-ever recording of the opera, which was performed by the “Victor Grand Concert Band.” In 1937, the first live recording of “The Magic Flute” took place at the Salzburg Festival. The Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic collaborated for the event. In 1938, the first studio recording was conducted by the “Berlin Philharmonic.” Both of these recordings are extremely famous and have been extensively used over the years.   

The Play

Opera "The Magic Flute" stage set up

Act I

The first scene takes place in rocky, rough landscape. Tamino, a prince who has lost his way in a distant land, is facing a mortal peril. He is being followed by a serpent and prays to the gods through the aria “Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe!” to save his life. As he blacks out, three ladies appear at the scene and finish off the serpent. They are attendants of the “Queen of the Night” and find the prince extremely alluring. They try in vain to persuade each other to leave the scene and subsequently leave together, albeit reluctantly.

Tamino eventually wakes up, surprised that he is still alive. Papageno enters the scene dressed up as a bird. He describes himself as a “bird catcher,” and then complains about having no partner through the aria “The bird catcher am I.” Tamino presumes that Papageno saved his life, and introduces himself. The wily Papageno instantly takes the credit, boasting how he strangled the serpent with his bare hands. The three mysterious ladies reappear at the scene and give Papageno a stern warning about by placing a padlock over his mouth. They also offer the Prince a portrait of Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Tamino instantly falls head over heels for her as the aria “This image is enchantingly beautiful” is rendered.

The ladies state that Sarastro, an evil and powerful demon has captured Pamina. Tamino vows to rescue his love. Subsequently, the Queen of the Night appears, assuring Tamino that he has her blessings if he can successfully rescue her daughter. The aria “Oh, tremble not, my dear son!” accompanies the scene. As the Queen departs, the ladies offer Tamino a magic flute, which can transform “sorrow” into “joy.” They also instruct Papageno to accompany the Prince, providing him with magic bells for protecting themselves. They further introduce the duo to three child-spirits, who would guide them to Sarastro's temple. As they begin the journey, the quintet “Hm! Hm! Hm! Hm!” plays in the background.

Tamino sends Papageno ahead to help with the search. At Sarastro’s palace, Pamina’s attempt to escape has been foiled, as she is dragged inside by Sarastro’s slaves. Monostatos, the slave chief, instructs them to chain her up and leave the room. Subsequently, Papageno enters the room as the trio “Du feines Täubchen, nur herein!” is performed. As Papageno and Monostatos face each other, they become terrified by the other’s unusual appearance and flee the scene. Soon, Papageno returns and announces to Pamina that Tamino is coming to save her. Pamina rejoiced to hear that Tamino likes her. As Papageno yearns for a partner, she consoles him and renders the duet “In men, who feel love,” reflecting on the sanctity of marital love.

Tamino approaches Sarastro's temple guided by the child-spirits. They perform the quartet titled “Zum Ziele führt dich diese Bahn,” as the spirits promise that if the Prince remains wise and patient, he will successfully rescue Pamina. Tamino is foiled twice as he tries to access the left and right entrance to the temple. However, an old priest turns up at the middle entrance and allows him in. He warns Tamino against trusting the Queen of the Night, further stating that Sarastro is actually benevolent, contrary to popular belief. If Tamino approaches the temple in a friendly spirit, his confusions will be cleared. Hearing this, Tamino utilizes his magic flute, as dancing animals appear out of nowhere, captivated by his music. Papageno's pipes are also heard at a distance. Tamino hurries off towards the source as the aria “How strong is thy magic tone” is performed.

Pamina and Papageno are also searching for Tamino. This scene is accompanied by the trio titled “Schnelle Füße, rascher Mut.” However, they are soon recaptured. Papageno, sensing danger, plays the magic bells. Monostatos, along with his slaves, become mesmerized and started dancing to the music as the chorus titled “Das klinget so herrlich” is rendered. Soon, Sarastro enters the scene with his entourage to the tunes of the chorus “Es lebe Sarastro!” Pamina falls at his feet, claiming she only tried to escape due to Monostatos’ forced attention towards her. Sarastro assures her that he means no harm, but refuses to let her. He states that although her mother is a proud woman, she is a bad influence on her. Pamina must be with a man. At this point, Monostatos brings forward Tamino. As the two lovers embrace, Sarastro's followers are enraged. Monostatos also demands for capturing Pamina and Papageno.

However, Sarastro punishes Monostatos instead and sends him away for his lecherous behavior. He further directs Tamino to encounter the “trials of wisdom” to become worthy of Pamina. The aria “Wenn Tugend und Gerechtigkeit” accompanies the scene.

Act II

Librettist from opera "The Magic Flute" by Mozart

The act starts at the priests’ council of Osiris and Isis. Sarastro, head of the council declares that Tamino is ready to undergo the trials leading to his enlightenment. He further invokes the gods Osiris and Isis, requesting them to protect the couple as the chorus “O Isis and Osiris” is performed. Papageno and Tamino are brought in for the first trial and advised regarding the dangers that lie ahead. They are warned of the schemes and tricks women use and are also sworn to silence as the duet titled “Bewahret euch von Weibertücken” is sung. Three ladies appear as the quintet “Wie, wie, wie” is played in the background. They try to scare the men into speaking. Papageno almost succumbs to the scheme, but Tamino successfully remains aloof, instructing his companion to do the same. The ladies eventually withdraw in bewilderment.

In the next scene, Monostatos tries to take advantage of a sleeping Pamina. He tries to kiss her while singing the aria “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden” but is foiled by the appearance of the Queen of the Night. Pamina awakens and explains to her mother that she intends to join Tamino in Sarastro's brotherhood. However, the Queen narrates the story of how she lost her power to Sarastro when her husband passed away. She orders Pamina to kill Sarastro with a dagger through the aria “Hell's vengeance boils in my heart,” and also threatens to disown her if she refuses. Monostatos overhears the entire conversation and tries to blackmail Pamina to love him. However, Sarastro enters the scene and drives him away. He reassures a crying Pamina That he will never allow cruelty in his domain through the aria “Within these sacred halls.”

Papageno and Tamino take part in further trials, where Papageno is successfully lured to speak by an Old Woman. The three child-spirits also bring them the magic flute and bells along with food, a gift from Sarastro as the trio “Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen” is performed. As Tamino plays the flute, Pamina appears and tries to communicate with him. However, Tamino stays true to his vow and remains silent. This leads Pamina to believe that he longer loves her. She is distraught and leaves while singing the aria “Ah, I feel it, it is vanished.” 

The priests render the chorus “O Isis und Osiris” to celebrate Tamino’s successes, praying for his successful integration to their order. Sarastro then instructs Tamino and Pamina to bid “final farewell” before the difficult trials start as the trio “Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehn?” is sung. As they leave, Papageno enters, still yearning for a wife. As he sings the aria, “A girl or a woman,” a younger and prettier version of himself (as a woman) appears on the scene, trying to test his faithfulness. He fails again and is driven back by the priests.

In the garden, Pamina is contemplating taking her life as she believes Tamino has deserted her. However, the three child-spirits pacify her and reassure her of Tamino’s devotion as they perform the quartet “Bald prangt, den Morgen zu verkünden.” Outside the temple, two armored men recite the formal creeds of Osiris and Isis, as Tamino awaits the final trials. He has successfully passed the “trial by silence” and is free to speak now. Pamina enters the scene with the magic flute, declaring her intention of accompanying him through the trials by singing the aria “Tamino mein, o welch ein Glück!” They successfully pass-through chambers of fire and water, aided by the magic flute and approach the temple. The priests are jubilant and celebrate enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, Papageno is distraught having lost Papagena (his female version) and contemplates suicide. However, the child spirits appease him, asking him to ring the magic bells. Papagena appears at the sound of the bells, and the couple starts making “bird-like” courting calls to each other. They eventually perform the duet “Papageno and Papagena.”

At night, the Queen of the Night appears with Monostatos, plotting to destroy the temple as the aria “Nur stille, stille” is performed in the background. The Queen has promised to marry her daughter to Monostatos and also seeks revenge. However, they are magically foiled and cast out from the courtyard into the “eternal night.” Sarastro eventually hails the sun’s triumph over darkness as he welcomes a new era of brotherhood and wisdom. Soon, animals appear and start dancing in the sun.

Musical Overview 

Illustration of Tamino & Pamina from "The Magic Flute"

Mozart’s opera is prominently noted for its Masonic elements, although it remains a healthy debate about the extent of such influence. Also, there is further evidence of advocation of the “Enlightenment philosophy,” or preaching enlightened absolutism. The character “Queen of the Night” is widely heralded as a representation of obscurantism, elements of the Roman Catholic Church that was notably anti-Masonic.

The music is scored utilizing the following instruments - strings, timpani, three trombones, two trumpets, horns, bassoons, clarinets, and flutes. The finales of each act and several other numbers require a “four-part” chorus. Mozart also implemented the “instrument of steel” for composing the music of the magic bells. It is believed that Wolfgang used a “glockenspiel,” while modern musicians utilized a celesta.

“The Magic Flute” also boasts the greatest diversity of orchestral colors in the eighteenth century. However, this very lavishness is somewhat paradoxical. Each item has it’s own significant effect on Mozart’s music - the bells, the whistle, the trombones, they all offer a dramatic stroke of musical elegance.

A Visual Feast of Eccentricity

“The Magic Flute” is heralded as a tough nut to crack in for all opera directors, even considering its familiarity. It’s isn’t just another fairy tale - it’s a combination of some touching romance, somewhat of a magic show with a healthy dosage of farcical comedy. All of this culminating in a portrait of a spiritual journey.

It’s not easy to please a modern generation of viewers with a five-minute attention span to this visual feast of eccentricity, which also portrays Mozart’s brilliance. Yes, he had the advantage of adjusting his music according to his performers, but he successfully enchanted the viewers to a feast of eye-catching visuals. An entire drama hallucinated and warped into color. A stimulation that literally leaves you wanting for more. You would insist on taking his music with you on a deserted island.

This is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the height of his powers. You will rarely find any other opera that evokes such intimacy, majesty, mysticism, and wit - all of this with a dollop of musical brilliance. His opera certainly merits a place in any library of classical music.

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