Mozart’s Magic Flute may be a “timeless masterpiece,” an “immortal classic” full of music that will last forever. It’s also very specifically a child of 1791. Everything about this opera—its plot, characters, world, range of musical styles, and themes—makes much more sense when considered in its historical context. Musically, The Magic Flute is hugely significant as the first great Zauberoper, the German tradition of popular musical theater on fantasy subjects that eventually gives us such operas as Wagner’s Ring. In terms of the visual arts, it sits on the fulcrum between eighteenth-century neo-classicism and nineteenth-century Romanticism. Images from productions of this opera in its first few decades illustrate how Romantic art emerged from neo-classicism.
The First Production
Mozart’s pal Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote Flute’s libretto and created the role of Papageno, ran a ramshackle theater on the outskirts of Vienna that played for a popular, suburban audience. It was the antithesis of the royal theater, where the Vienna premieres of Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte hadn’t been particularly successful. A pair of brothers, Joseph and Peter Schaffer, published engravings based on the very first visual realization of the opera, one which is a long way from the aesthetics of Romanticism.
Joseph Quaglio’s 1793 Munich Production
Scenic designs survive for an early Magic Flute production in the deep-perspective architectural style of Italian Baroque theater. A few families dominated this tradition; thus, names such as Sormani (creator of Seattle Opera’s old Tosca scenery) and Quaglio come up again and again. Lorenzo Quaglio created the sets for the world premiere of Mozart’s Idomeneo in 1781. Ten years later, his son Joseph Quaglio’s designs gave The Magic Flute a bit more grandiosity and dignity than may have been the style at Schikaneder’s theater, even if they don’t look much farther than Venice for exotic effect.
Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s 1816 Berlin Production
German painter Karl Friedrich Schinkel was so blown away by “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” the 1818 masterpiece of German romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich, he gave up painting and turned to architecture. Several of his buildings survive in present-day Berlin. He designed 32 different theatrical productions; although he never abandoned Baroque principals of geometrical depth and architectural symmetry, his early Romantic images evoke rich moods, atmospheres, and emotions. His 1816 designs for The Magic Flute include some of the most influential images in the history of opera. The Berlin Staatsoper created a new production of The Magic Flute based on Schinkel’s designs in 1994.
Simon Quaglio’s 1818 Munich Production
Magic Flute designs by Simon, son of the Joseph Quaglio who created the 1793 Munich production, show the influence of Schinkel’s production from up north. (The Quaglios were still active in Munich when Ludwig II gave the world premieres of Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in the late 1860s, very much against the composer’s wishes and aesthetic taste.) By now, designs for The Magic Flute start to reflect both the majesty and the mystery of this remarkable opera.
In addition to influencing the visual arts, The Magic Flute pointed the way forward to composers and writers. Goethe tried to write a sequel, although it was never completed. A more substantial literary response came from that rabid Mozart fan E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose novella The Golden Pot is not only his masterpiece, and one of the seminal texts of the Romantic movement, it’s obviously written entirely in response to The Magic Flute.