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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The Magic Flute

Die Zauberflöte, 1971: Hamburg Opera directed by Peter Ustinov; Stein, Gedda, Mathis, Deutekom, Workman.

(With English subtitles.)

The Magic Flute (German: Die Zauberflöte), K. 620, is an opera in two acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a German libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder.

The Magic Flute is what the Germans call a Singspiel (a “sing play") - that is, a play with a good deal of singing, like an operetta, a musical comedy, a ballad opera or even an opera comique. Well, most operettas and musical comedies present certain absurdities and inconsistencies in their books, and this one is no exception. For instance, the Queen of the Night seems to be a good woman in the first act and a villainess in the second. Again, the story starts out as a romantic fairy tale, pure and simple, and later takes on serious religious significance. In fact, the rites of the Temple of Isis and Osiris are generally regarded as being reflections of the ideals of the Masonic order, while various critics, writing long after the death of the authors, have found political symbolism of the most profound sort in Act II. There may be something in this if for no other reason than that both Mozart and his librettist were Masons, and Masonry was officially frowned on at the time.

Today such questions seem to matter very little. Far more important is the fact that Schikaneder, a swashbuckling, in- and-out actor-singer-writer-impresario commissioned the work from his old friend Mozart in the last year of the composer's life, when he needed such a commission badly. Mozart wrote his glorious score with specific singers in mind—for example, Schikaneder himself, with a very limited baritone, did Papageno, while Josefa Hofer, Mozart's sister-in-law, was the brilliantly pyrotechnical coloratura for whom the Queen of the Night's arias were composed. Gieseke, who may have written parts of the libretto (he later claimed the whole of it), was a gifted man of science and letters and probably served as the model for Goethe's Wilhelm Meister; but he possessed no great talent for the stage and was assigned the role of the first man in armor.

As for the inconsistencies in the plot, they may be accounted for by the fact that, while the libretto was being written, a rival theater put on a successful musical show called Casper the Bassoonist, or the Magic Zither, which was based on the very story Schikaneder was working on—Lulu, by one Liebes-kind. It is conjectured that Schikaneder changed the whole plot in midstream,that is,after the first act and the beginning of the second were completed. This is a tidy theory, but the only evidence for it is circumstantial.

Despite the inconsistencies (and maybe even because of them!) the opera has always had the dream fascination of  fairy tale, and it was a huge success from the beginning. That success did not help Mozart much. He died thirty-seven days after the premiere. As for Schikaneder, he was able, partly with the proceeds from die continued success of the opera, to build himself a brand-new theater seven years later and crown it with a statue or himself dressed in the feathers of Papageno. It was the high point of his career, and fourteen years after that he died as poor as Mozart; and insane.


The Queen of the Night 
Three ladies  
Three child-spirits 
Speaker of the temple 
Three priests 
Two armoured men
Three slaves 
Priests, women, people,
slaves, chorus

Time: unspecified but roughly about the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses 1
Place: Egypt

First performance at Vienna, September 30,1791


Papageno: (baritone) the birdcatcher, a clumsy, comical character written for the librettist to play, is the heir to the Kasperl and Hanswurst figures of Viennese popular theatre, a trace of whose accent he retains. The attribute of this ‘know-all’ who really knows nothing is a set of panpipes that can charm birds (he will also make incidental use of a set of magic bells). In a sense he lies at the centre of the opera: his failed, even parodic initiation sets in perspective the gravity of the itinerary followed by the Tamino/Pamina couple and the solemnity of a discourse which thus always remains human and accessible. He emerges as an amiable coward with a tendency to put his foot in it, deeply in love with life and with his Papagena, and his feathered person and catchy tunes add a touch of bright colour to the austere interplay of shadows and light which structures the drama.

The Magic Flute: "Pa-pa-pa Papageno" - Nathan Gunn (Met Opera)

Papagena: (soprano) she appears quite late in the opera, in a comic role (disguised as an old woman both physically and vocally) that culminates in a magnificent love duet with Papageno (the only true love duet in the opera). The Second Priest had promised her to Papageno if he passed his trials. Since such is not the case, she appears to him in the least attractive form imaginable. Yet love will transform her into a beautiful female birdcatcher. Her role is at once tender and mischievous.

Dueto: Papageno - Papagena - Jaki Jurgec in Katarina Perger

O Isis und Osiris (Sarastro's F-major aria) - Mihály Székely

The father and the mother: Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. They too may be seen though the eyes of childhood.

Sarastro: (bass) outward appearances suggest that he must be evil; his authoritarianism and severity, his henchman Monostatos, everything seems to indicate that he belongs to the camp of the villains. But his teachings, which guide Tamino and Pamina towards the truth, gradually reveal his deep wisdom and his great kindness. In the end he repudiates Monostatos and condemns him.

The Queen of the Night: (soprano) the better to dupe the innocence of Tamino, Papageno and Pamina – not to mention the audience – she seems kindly and protective at the start of the opera. The knowledge they acquire through their initiation will enable the young people to free themselves from this cruel mother-figure, dangerous, manipulative, and ultimately bound for hell; but not before she has gratified us with two furious, vengeful arias in which she comes close to madness. No other ‘drama queen’ has ever had such fearsome arias to sing in the entire history of opera.Finally we may mention the Three Ladies, who assist her in her nefarious deeds as an emanation of her will.

Magic Flute. "Queen of the Night Aria" -Natalie Dessay

Pamina: (soprano) the object of both the noblest and the basest desires (Tamino and Monostatos respectively), she is Tamino’s reward for successfully undergoing his initiation.She is depicted in a portrait given to Tamino by the Three Ladies, in which, according to Papageno, she is seen with dark eyes, red lips and blonde hair. She encounters her beloved in a particularly dramatic scene, only to be separated from him again until they are at last reunited to accomplish the final trials of purification together.As the daughter of the Queen of the Night, she is torn between her filial love and her love for Tamino. She plays an active role on the path towards wisdom, leading Tamino behind her in the final trials. 

GABRIELLA COSTA sings Pamina's aria "Ach ich fuehl's" from Mozart's "The magic flute"

Tamino: (tenor) the young man is in love with Princess Pamina. We admire his fine bearing, his extreme sensibility, his steadfastness in the trials, his sublime arias. Yet he makes an unexpected entrance by fainting before a serpent that pursues him. Of course it is not the serpent that frightens him, but what it symbolises. The Three Ladies save the young prince, the better to deceive his innocence and subject him to the power of the Queen of the Night. Only once he is inside the Temple does he understand that he has been tricked, a sign that his initiation has been successful. It is on this initiation of Tamino and Pamina – and alongside them the audience – that the entire drama rests. His attribute is a flute. As his initiation progresses, he will discover all its enchanted powers: it can charm the animals of the forest and will assist him in passing through the terrible trials of Fire and Water, thus helping to make the world a better place.

Magic Flute - Tamino Aria

Monostatos: (tenor) a Moor, ‘the same colour as a black ghost’, as the libretto indicates. His sole obsession is to possess Pamina. The Osmin of Die Entführung aus dem Serail is not so far away. This libidinous grotesque will be swallowed up by hell along with his new mistress, the Queen of the Night.

Monostatos' Aria - The Magic Flute 

Photo: Bruce Zinger / Colin Ainsworth as Tamino, Olivier LaQuerre as Papageno and Carla Huhtanen, Laura Pudwell & Cassandra Warner as The Three Ladies (The Magic Flute, 2013).

The Magic Flute, "The Three Ladies" rescue Tamino



The overture begins solemnly, making use of three heavy chords which аррёаг later at some of the most solemn moments connected with the rites of the temple. But, excepting for a later repetition of these chords, as a sort of reminder, the rest of the overture is just as light and gay, in its contrapuntal fashion, as the prelude to a fairy tale ought to be.


Scene 1  The fairy tale itself begins—as a fairy tale should 一with a handsome young prince lost in a valley. His name is Tamino, and he is oeing chased by a vicious serpent. He cries for help, sinks unconscious to the ground, and is promptly saved by three lovely ladies. These are ladies-in-waiting to the Queen of the Night—a supernatural personage, of course—and they vastly admire the handsome young man, who has fainted away. When they have gone, the leading comedian comes on the scene. He is Papageno, a birdcatcher by trade, and he introduces himself in a gay, folksy tune (Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja—"It`s a birdcatcher I am"). He says that he likes catching birds, but he'd rather catch a wife. He also plays a snatch of a tune on his pipes—one we shall hear more of later on.

Papageno informs Tamino that he is in the realm of the Queen of the Night, and he also takes credit for having killed the snake. For this lie the three ladies return and place a lock on the birdcatcher's lips. Then they show Tamino the picture of a beautiful young girl. She is the Queen of the Night's daughter, who has been stolen and whom Tamino is to rescue. Tamino at once falls in love with the picture and sings the so- called Portrait Aria. Now the Queen of the Night appears, and in a dramatic and extremely difficult aria she tells Tamino about her daughter and promises him her hand in marriage when he rescues her. The first scene then ends with a quintet, a beautifully sustained lyric-dramatic composition quite in a class with the wonderful finales of The Marriage of Figaro though in an appropriately different style. During this finale the three ladies-in-waiting present Tamino with a magical flute that should make everyone who hears it happy, and they give the birdcatcher, Papageno, a set of musical bells. For Papa- geno is to accompany Tamino on his quest, and the bells will always protect him.

Scene 2 takes us to the palace of Sarastro. He is the head of a secret and powerful Egyptian religious order, and it is he who has Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, in his power. At the moment she is under the care of a blackface comic villain named Monostatos. This Moorish gentleman drags in Pamina, threatening her with death if she refuses to love him. At the critical moment the birdcatcher Papageno wanders in. He and Monostatos are terribly frightened of each other—but it is the sort of fright that is really comic. No child of eight would be taken in by it. Monostatos finally flees, and when Pamina and Papageno find themselves alone together, he assures her that someone who loves her will come to the rescue, while she assures him that he too will find someone to adore. It is a charming duet in praise of tenderness (Bei Mannern welche Liebe fuhlen—"The man who loves possesses a kindly heart”).

Scene 3 And then the scene changes once more—this time to a grove outside the Temple of Sarastro. Tamino is led there by three boys, the genii of the temple, who encourage him but will answer no questions. Left alone, he tries to enter three different doors. From two he is warned away by a voice offstage, but from the third appears a priest. In a rather long (and, I must admit, slightly dull) exchange Tamino learns that Sarastro is not the villain lie had thought, and that Pamina is somewhere around and still safe. In his gratitude for this information Tamino plays a fine tune on his magic flute, and then sings the same tune himself (Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton—"О voice of magic melody"). Suddenly he hears Papagenovs littie pipes, and he rushes off to find them. If only he had stayed, he should have met both Pamina and Papageno coming in. They are pursued by the comic villain Monostatos, who summons slaves to bind them in chains. At the last moment Papageno thinks of his magic bells. He plays them (they sound like a child's music box), and the delightful magical tune makes the slaves and Monostatos both dance harmlessly away. Pamina and Papageno then have another short and charming duet; when they are interrupted by the arrival of the dread Sarastro and his court in a solemn march. Pamina begs Sarastro’s forgiveness for having tried to flee,which is granted with kindly understanding. Prince Tamino is then brought m by Monostatos,who demands a reward from Sarastro. He gets the reward he deserves—a sentence of seventy- seven strokes from the bastinado, for his impudence; and as the act ends, Tamino and Pamina are solemnly prepared to undergo the rites of initiation, which may or may not prove them worthy of each other.

The arrival of Sarastro on a chariot pulled by lions, from a 1793 production in Brno. Pamina appears at left, Papageno at right. In the background are the temples of Wisdom, Reason, and Nature.

Act II

Scene 1 The second half of the opera has more swift changes of scene than the first. It also has more serious music

For example, the very first scene is a meeting of the priests of Isis and Osins in a palm grove. Sarastro informs the priests that Tamino has been chosen to marry the captive Pamina, but first the couple must prove itself worthy of entering the Temple of Light. He then intones his magnificent invocation О Isis und Osins. Of this grand, simple, and dignified aria with male chorus George Bernard Shaw said: "It is the only music which might be put into the mouth of God without blasphemy.”

Scene 2 Outside the temple Tamino and Papageno undergo some elementary religious instruction. Two priests (who

sing in octaves—possibly to make their instructions quite clear) warn the Prince and the birdcatcher to be on guard against women, the root of most of man's troubles. Sure enough, right on their heels come the three ladies from the Queen of the Night. These, in turn, warn the men against priests. Papageno is inclined to discuss the matter with the ladies, but the high-minded Tamino will have nothing to do with such temptations. A lucky thing, too. For a moment later an off-stage chorus of priests sends the girls right back where they came from—the kingdom of the nether regions!

Scene 3 Once more the scene changes, this time to a garden. Monostatos rather horridly gloats over the lovely Famina as she lies asleep, practically at his mercy. Just in time, her mother, the Queen of the Night, interferes. In her tenific Revenge Aria she demands that her daughter murder Saras- tro. She hurls a dagger to Famina for the purpose and swears that, should she fail, her daughter shall be disowned. This Revenge Aria, with its two high F's, has defeated dozens of otherwise quite able coloratura sopranos.

Immediately after her departure Monostatos returns, threatens to reveal the plot, and demands the love of Pamina as the price for silence. But she is again saved, this time by the entrance of Sarastro. When Pamina begs forgiveness foi her mother, he explains that within the sacred halls of this temple there is no such thing as revenge and that only love binds man to man. It is an aria of extraordinary beauty and dignity (In diesen heil'gen Hallen-“Within these sacred halls”).

Scene 4 In some productions there is an intermission at this point, and the next scene is given as the first of Act III. In most printed scores, however, it is simply the next scene in Act II—a hall, and a pretty bare one. Two priests continue their instruction of Tamino and Papageno, enforcing on them the oath of silence and threatening punishment with lightning and thunder if the oath is broken. Tamino is a very good boy about this, but the birdcatcher cannot hold his tongue, particularly when a sprightly old crone appears and tells him two startling bits of gossip—one, that she is just eighteen years  and two minutes old, and, two, that she has a sweetheart a little bit older named Papageno. But just when she is about to tell her own name, that thunder and lightning come, and off she goes as fast as she can. Immediately after, the three boys enter once more and, in a charming trio, present Tamino and Papageno, not only with food and drink, but also with the magic flute and the bells that had been taken from them. As the birdcatcher solaces himself with the comestibles and the Prince with his flute, Pamina comes in and runs confidently up to her lover. She does not know about his oath of silence and, misinterpreting his actions^ sings a mournful aria (Ach, ich fuhl's, es ist verschwunden—"Ah, I feel it all is vanished"). At its close the trombones sound out, calling the men to the test.

Scene 5 In the following scene, outside the temple gates, Pamina is fearfully afraid that she will never again see her beloved Prince Tamino. Sarastro, in his most comforting tones, assures her that all will be well, but in the trio that follows, with Tamino, she is far from reassured. As Tamino is led off, the two lovers utter a prayer that they may meet again.

Scene 6 And now—as a sort of change of pace from the serious goings-on—we switch again to the birdcatcher Papageno. He is told that he may have one wish granted, and after drinking a glass of wine he sings a delightful little aria that makes a single request: Please, he says, let me have a sweetheart or, at any rate, a wife! Promptly the little old woman reappears, demands a vow of faithfulness, and then reveals herself as a young and feathery counterpart of Papageno. Her name—Papagena! But before they can do much about it, she is dragged off by the Orator.

Scene 7  The next scene takes place in a garden, where the three boys of Sarastro's temple are looking forward to the triumph of goodness. But poor, distracted Pamina wanders in, dagger in hand. She is convinced that she will never see Tamino again, and she prepares to kill herself. Just in time, the boys stop her and promise to take her to Tamino.

Scene 8 The boys are as good as their word. For in the next scene Tamino is aoout to endure the tests of the four elements—fire, water, earth, and air—and is brought in by the priests and the two men in armor, who again give instructions in octaves. Just before he enters the dread gates, Pamina rushes in. She wishes only to share the Prince's fate, and the two men in armor give their permission gladly. Tamino takes up his magic flute; he plays upon it; the two lovers stroll unharmed through the tests of the elements; and a joyous chorus welcomes them as they come through.

Scene 9 But what of our friend Papageno? Why, he is still looking for his sweetheart, his Papagena. He calls and calls throughout the garden, and finding no one, he decides, like Pamina, to commit suicide. With great reluctance he throws a rope bver the bough of a tree, ready to hang himself. But those three boys who saved Pamina save him too. They advise him to play his magic bells, and he does. The sweet little bird-girl appears, and in a delightfully comic stuttering duet, Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-Papageno, they decide to raise a simply huge family.

Scene 10 And finally—still one more change of scene. Monostatos is now in league with the Queen of the Night, who has promised him Pamina. They invade Sarastro’s temple, together with the three ladies-in-waiting. But the power of Sarastro is too great for them. There is thunder and lightning, and the villainous quintet disappears into the bowels of the earth. The Temple of Isis and Osiris appears, and a chorus of triumph of the forces of good ends this fairy opera.

Papageno and Papagena.
From a production at Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Premiere and reception

The opera was premiered in Vienna on 30 September 1791 at the suburban Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden.[4] Mozart conducted the orchestra, Schikaneder himself played Papageno, while the role of the Queen of the Night was sung by Mozart's sister-in-law Josepha Hofer.

On the reception of the opera, Mozart scholar Maynard Solomon writes:

Although there were no reviews of the first performances, it was immediately evident that Mozart and Schikaneder had achieved a great success, the opera drawing immense crowds and reaching hundreds of performances during the 1790s.

As Mozart's letters show, he was very pleased to have achieved such a success. Solomon continues:

Mozart's delight is reflected in his last three letters, written to Constanze, who with her sister Sophie was spending the second week of October in Baden. "I have this moment returned from the opera, which was as full as ever", he wrote on 7 October, listing the numbers that had to be encored. "But what always gives me the most pleasure is the silent approval! You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed." … He went to hear his opera almost every night, taking along [friends and] relatives.

The opera celebrated its 100th performance in November 1792, though Mozart did not have the pleasure of witnessing this milestone, as he had died 5 December 1791. The opera was first performed outside Vienna (21 September 1792) in Lemberg, then in Prague. It then made (Branscombe) "triumphal progress through Germany's opera houses great and small", and with the early 19th century spread to essentially all the countries of Europe—and eventually, everywhere in the world—where opera is cultivated.

As Branscombe documents, the earlier performances were often of highly altered, sometimes even mutilated, versions of the opera. Productions of the past century have tended to be more faithful to Mozart's music, though faithful rendering of Mozart and Schikaneder's original (quite explicit) stage directions and dramatic vision continues to be rare; with isolated exceptions, modern productions strongly reflect the creative preferences of the stage director.

The Magic Flute is presently among the most frequently performed of all operas; statistics collected for the 2015-2016 season indicate over 500 productions worldwide, totaling more than 3000 performances.

Some musical numbers
Act 1

  • "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja" (The birdcatcher am I) – Papageno, scene 1
    "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön" (This image is enchantingly beautiful) – Tamino, scene 1
    "O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn" (Oh, tremble not, my beloved son) – The Queen of the Night, scene 1
    "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" (In men, who feel love) – Pamina and Papageno (duet), scene 2
    "Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton" (How strong is thy magic tone) – Tamino, finale
    Act 2

  • "O Isis und Osiris" (O Isis and Osiris) – Sarastro, scene 1
    "Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden" (All feel the joys of love) – Monostatos, scene 3
    "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" (Hell's vengeance boils in my heart) – The Queen of the Night, scene 3
    "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" (Within these sacred halls) – Sarastro, scene 3
    "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden" (Ah, I feel it, it is vanished) – Pamina, scene 4
    "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" (A girl or a woman) – Papageno, scene 5
    "Pa–, pa–, pa–" – Papageno and Papagena, scene 10

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