Spotlight on: THE MAGIC FLUTE

The Magic Flute

At Seattle Opera May 2017

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder

The Story

Long Story Short

A distressed queen sends a prince (and his sidekick) off to rescue a kidnapped princess. But then the twist: the queen was lying. Instead of returning to the queen, the prince and princess embark on a journey toward truth and light.

Who’s Who?

Tamino is a handsome young prince.

Papageno is a good-natured birdcatcher who travels with Tamino.

Papagena is a pretty girl who likes Papageno.

Sarastro is a wise wizard and the benevolent ruler of a holy brotherhood.

The Queen of the Night is Pamina’s mother and Sarastro’s enemy.

Pamina is a beautiful princess and the Queen of the Night’s daughter. When the opera begins, she is a prisoner in Sarastro’s temple.

Monostatos is a temple guard in Sarastro’s community. He has the hots for Pamina.

The Three Ladies are servants of the Queen of the Night.

The Three Boys are spirits who guide Tamino and Papageno.

Where & When?

Wherever and whenever fairy tales take place.

What's Going On?

A dragon is chasing young Prince Tamino. Three ladies kill the monster, then show the prince a picture of Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter. He falls madly in love, and the Queen asks him to rescue Pamina, who has been kidnapped by the wicked Sarastro. The birdcatcher Papageno is enlisted as Tamino’s sidekick; Tamino is entrusted with a magic flute and Papageno with a set of magic bells.

Our heroes make it to Sarastro’s citadel, where Papageno protects Pamina from Monostatos, an amorous guard, while a wise priest explains to Tamino that the Queen is really the evil one: Sarastro kidnapped Pamina to rescue her from her mother’s evil influence. Tamino and Pamina undertake the series of tests and trials that will grant them entrance to Sarastro’s community and pass with flying colors. Monostatos joins forces with the Queen of the Night to infiltrate the temple and kill Sarastro, but they are unsuccessful. Papageno fails all Sarastro’s tests, but runs off with the girl of his dreams.

About the Composer

Playlist: Mozart, Master of the Ensemble

Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart belongs to a special category of artist; he was one of those rare individuals who forever changed the way we think about ourselves and our world. Written at the height of the Classical period, with its interest in logic, symmetrical structures, and formal perfection, Mozart’s music prefigures Romanticism in its sensuality, its delicacy, and its often violent passion. His music is both immediately accessible to the casual listener and, to a great extent, technically within the reach of the novice performer.

Mozart’s unusual childhood has become the stuff of legends. Born in 1756, the young prodigy delighted the nobility of Austria, Germany, France, and England by playing the keyboard blindfolded, sight-reading perfectly, and demonstrating his ability to memorize a piece of music upon hearing it once.

Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, and the decade he spent there was his most successful, both financially and artistically. But after his father died in 1787, Mozart’s fortunes (which up to that time had been mostly favorable) took a downward turn. He ran into debt and lost many of his patrons. He was turning things around and was on his way back to financial stability in 1791, when he died of rheumatic fever.

Painting of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Barbara Kraft, 1819

Despite his early death, Mozart left us with an enormous amount of music: 41 symphonies, 27 piano concerti, vast amounts of chamber music, and several of the greatest operas ever written, including The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Magic Flute. His ability to write gracefully for every instrument then in use—and to write operas in a variety of languages and dramatic forms—makes him a unique phenomenon among even the greatest composers.

A Fairy Tale for the Age of Englightenment

In 1791, when The Magic Flute was first performed, intellectual Europe was caught up in a frenzy of new ideas. It was the age of science, which, over the next hundred years, would usurp religion’s role as holder of correct answers to all the big questions. Two years earlier the Bastille had fallen; the French Revolution was getting going, causing monarchies everywhere great anxiety. Our own fledgling country arose out of Enlightenment ideals of freedom and knowledge for all. And meanwhile, Mozart concocted this bizarre opera teeming with magic snakes, magic flutes, magic bells, men who dress like birds, sacred trials by fire and water, a benevolent wizard, and a holy brotherhood. Yet despite its seemingly irrational subject matter, The Magic Flute really is a story for the Age of Science. Mozart’s world and experience gave rise to the plot, the imagery, and the structure of his most beloved opera.

The arrival of the Queen of the Night. Stage set by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for an 1815 production.

1790s Plot

The Magic Flute is referred to as a “rescue opera,” since it opens with Tamino going off to free Pamina. Such plots, concerning the triumph of liberty over tyranny, were wildly popular at the time. The libretto to The Magic Flute was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, a rascal and singing actor who ran a small theater in the suburbs of Vienna. His theater was devoted to popular German entertainment and his audience mostly lower and middle class. Schikaneder cobbled his libretto together from a variety of sources; the libretto has much in common with the work of Carlo Gozzi, a contemporary Venetian playwright whose 10 plays all involve a war between a wizard and a witch, plenty of slapsticky comic characters, and exotic settings stolen from the Arabian Nights. Since Schikaneder played Papageno in the first performances, he also made sure his character got all the good lines.

Echoes of Orpheus

When Tamino and Papageno head off on their deadly, dangerous quest armed only with musical instruments, Mozart and Schikaneder are referring to the old Greek myth of Orpheus. Orpheus overcame death and danger through the power of music, and opera composers have been obsessively telling his story ever since.

Masonic Imagery

When The Magic Flute was composed in 1791, many intellectuals in Europe and America were Freemasons. This secret society of men committed to mutual assistance and good works had among its members (in addition to Mozart, Schikaneder, and most other prominent Viennese) George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The Masons based many of their symbols and images on the recently rediscovered culture of ancient Egypt; thus the pyramid with the eye floating above it on the American dollar bill. Masonic ritual and imagery plays an important role in The Magic Flute, which is often set in a never-never land vaguely resembling ancient Egypt. Although Mozart and Schikaneder’s portrayal of the villainous Moor Monastatos has been criticized as racist, many have applauded them for admitting Pamina and the female chorus into Sarastro’s brotherhood at the end of the opera. Freemasonry, after all, was a men-only club.

Politics & Dramatic Structure

A freemason innitiation. This secret society based many of their symbols and images on the recently rediscovered culture of ancient Egypt.

Newcomers to The Magic Flute are often puzzled when the hero’s loyalty shifts, midway through the first act, from the Queen of the Night to her archenemy Sarastro. What began as a rescue-quest, retrieving the Queen’s kidnapped daughter, becomes a story about the hero’s initiation into Sarastro’s brotherhood of light and truth. Some writers see in this structure a political allegory about eighteenth-century Vienna. For most of the century, Empress Maria Theresa, a conservative Catholic, ruled over the enormous Habsburg Empire (including most of what is today Central and Eastern Europe). She was succeeded by her son, Josef II, a liberal-minded reformer and atheist who went so far as to promote Freemasons and their revolutionary ideas about the brotherhood of all men. Might Freemasons Mozart and Schikaneder have cast these two, allegorically, as the superstitious, uncompromising Queen and the loving, merciful patriarch? Perhaps. Other writers have suggested that Sarastro is a kinder version of the terrifying father figure in Mozart’s earlier opera, Don Giovanni. Since The Magic Flute is a fairy tale, there’s no end to what it might mean.

A Singspiel for Rich and Poor Alike

The Magic Flute is a singspiel, an opera partly spoken, partly sung in German, and usually with a happy ending. The word singspiel means songplay; the singers talk in between the musical numbers, which run the gamut from simple folk songs to showy arias to overwhelmingly beautiful and complicated ensembles. As in many Mozart operas, the music keeps shifting tone from lighthearted to deadly serious and back again. If you categorize the numbers in The Magic Flute according to the social status of the singers, you’ll begin to notice many of Mozart’s musical tricks.

Simple Song

Despite The Magic Flute’s Enlightenment ideals of love and brotherhood for all, the opera’s music upholds distinctions of social class. Papageno may wear that outlandish bird-man costume, but at heart he is just an everyday Joe Sixpack whose deepest desires include loving a pretty girl, eating plenty of tasty food, and avoiding obnoxious hazing to get into elitist clubs. So he sings Joe Sixpack music for the late eighteenth century: simple songs with easy to remember tunes, not too many notes, and structured so that the music stays the same from verse to verse.

Complicated Arias

An aria is opera’s equivalent to a soliloquy in a play: it is the personal expression of a single character. It’s also a showcase for the solo performer, and challenging arias—such as the ones sung by Tamino, Pamina, the Queen of the Night, and Sarastro—are all proving grounds for the opera singer. Tamino and Pamina each sing a difficult aria, his a lyrical overflow of romantic infatuation’s first blush, hers the heartbreaking lethargy of complete despair. Mozart casts Sarastro and the Queen of the Night as vocal opposites; she is a coloratura soprano, with an extremely high and agile voice that races up and down brilliant scales in her two famous arias. Sarastro, on the other hand, is a basso profundo, the deepest human voice.

© Rozarii Lynch


When more than one person sings at the same time. The Magic Flute contains duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and two vast pieces of music ending the acts called ensemble finales. The ensemble is Mozart’s greatest contribution to the art form of opera.

Sacred Music

At the opposite end of the social scale from Papageno we find Sarastro’s holy brotherhood. Mozart uses music associated with Catholicism and with Freemasonry to give the priests a holy sound. Listen especially for the long accompanied recitative (derived from readings in church) before the three doors to the temple and the fugue and hymn beginning the trial by fire and water.

The Overture

Before the opera begins, Mozart gives us one of his greatest and most popular pieces of orchestral music. From the three resounding notes that open the opera (foreshadowing the three knocks at the temple door) to its cheerful, energetic fugue subject, the overture lets us know that the music we will hear in this opera is both simple and profound, more heartfelt and more perfect than the music of perhaps any other opera.

Two Films you should Watch

The Magic Flute

Film by Ingmar Bergman, sung in Swedish with English subtitles
Bergman’s intriguing film version of the opera is both a movie of The Magic Flute, with the opera’s score taken as screenplay, and a movie about a traditional stage production of the opera.


Film by Milos Forman
The Mozart presented in this marvelous movie is a fictional creation. However, the movie does contain a wonderfully produced sequence at the first production of The Magic Flute.

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