1756 – 1791
The Magic Flute (1791)
Click HERE for a list of cast members for the April 25, 2015 performance.
In the year 1791, 35-year-old composer Wolfgang Mozart was trapped in a maze of debts, illness, loneliness, and despair. Efforts to land a well-paying position at court or a nobleman’s palace had been to no avail. Then, friend and fellow mason/showman, Emanuel Schikaneder approached the composer to write music for a revision of a stolen German libretto. It needed further top to bottom revision because of competition with two similar theatrical productions at the time.
Mozart had mixed feelings about the “low-brow” fairy tale plot, but became intrigued by the notion of writing “singspiel” music, a variant of opera with sections of dialogue between music selections. The singspiel suited the audiences of Schikaneder’s shabby Viennese theatre because they enjoyed the raucous comedy and burlesque elements. Furthermore, Mozart liked the change from composing Italian operas for the elite crowd of opera lovers. Singspiel fulfilled his life-long dream of writing a German opera.
Mozart and Schikaneder revised the story plot to be set in Egypt while including their dedication to 18th century Masonic order. The principles of the freemasons dovetailed well with the Age of Enlightenment, with its fervent endorsement of reasoning and scientific thought over the dictatorial powers of hereditary monarchy and the Catholic Church. There were those who felt that The Magic Flute was a coded document of Freemasonry’s democratic principles: one coded symbol throughout is the numeral 3, as in 3 ladies, 3 spirits, 3 prominent chords, and 3 flats in the key signature. Additionally, the tests of silence, water, and fire, taken by the main characters in Act II are similar to those used by the Freemasons for their own initiation ceremonies.
Mozart, the procrastinator, spent his time composing during the day and drinking and playing in favorite evening bars. Within the last few days before the premiere, he finished the choruses, and two days before premiere night, the overture.
Initial reception was cool because of the complicated plot, but Schikaneder knew that well-publicized performances of this opera would draw in the crowds. The Magic Flute became the rage of all Viennese social classes and of appreciative composer Salieri. Unfortunately, Mozart died 37 days after its premiere, and Schikaneder destroyed a commission contract designed to provide future funds for Mozart’s family. .
SUMMARY OF THE PLOT
In ancient times, Prince Tamino is attacked by a serpent (“Oh, Help Me”) and saved by Three Ladies, servants of the Queen of the Night. The ladies show Tamino a portrait of the queen’s daughter, and Tamino falls in love with the image. Passerby Papageno, the Queen’s feather-wearing (but human) bird catcher (“Oh, catching birds is my trade”) claims that he has saved Tamino. The three ladies know he is lying, and temporarily padlock his mouth. The Queen wants to dominate the world by creating the cold night’s bleakest features to rule over all. She promises her kidnapped daughter Pamina to Tamino, if he rescues her from evil high priest Sarastro (“You shall boldly go forth to save her”). The Queen’s Three Ladies give Tamino a magic flute which will lead him safely through danger, while providing power over human emotions. The ladies give Papageno, who is accompanying Tamino, a set of bells that will conquer savage beasts and dispel all harm. Escorted by the Three Spirits, they reach Sarastro’s temple whose three doors carry the titles of Temple of Wisdom, Temple of Reason, and Temple of Nature. A flurry of activity occurs: the entrance of the evil, lustful servant Monostatos, the sounding of both flute and bells, and a chorus hailing magic music.
At the temple entrance appears high priest Sarastro leading a majestic procession. Once inside the palace grounds, the high priest leads the two to an environment of joy, love, and laughter. (This is the opposite of the evil and negativity preached by Queen of the Night about head priest Sarastro.) His palace has also provided Pamina with protection from her evil-intentioned mother, the Queen. With the aid of flute and bells, Tamino meets Pamina, and immediately they fall in love.
Sarastro orders Pamina and Tamino to be led into the Temple for a series of tests and trials to determine whether they warrant initiation into his Temple of Isis (Freemason ideals). Papageno is also included for the trials.
In a palm tree garden Sarastro informs his priests of Isis and Osiris that Tamino and Papageno will thus begin the trials. The Queen tells her daughter that she must kill Sarastro (“You will avenge me, daughter”). Meanwhile, Tamino and Papageno undergo a trial of complete silence. Pamina misunderstands the silence as rejection, and the intervention of the Three Spirits keeps her from suicide. Papageno has already flunked the test of silence, and thus attempts to hang himself, but the Three Spirits suggest that he play his magic bells. After this occurs, an old woman appears, claiming that she is 18 years old. She eventually turns into feather-wearing Papagena. Her appearance fulfills Papageno’s wish for a wife and family. Evil Monostatos joins forces with the Queen of the Night, but both are hit by a thunderbolt and disappear forever. The opera ends with Sarastro, Tamino, and Pamina celebrating the victory of light over darkness (“The sun’s golden glory has vanquished the night”). Wisdom and Enlightenment have won over the old ways of sycophancy, brute force, and vengeance.
MUSIC FOR THE MAGIC FLUTE
Perhaps only Mozart could have written such an enduring potpourri of a wide range of music. The notes flesh out the characters beyond that of acting and words. Tamino’s music is earnest and cultured, while Pamina’s is graceful and beautiful. Papageno, caring little about moral or social progress, wants a job, a pretty wife, and a glass of wine with dinner. His music is unpretentious, bouncy, and folk-like. The bully Monostatos, shouts in disconnected, crude fragments. Music for Sarastro, reveals a sense of controlled, melodic gravitas, while the evil Queen of the Night’s music is vertically unhinged and intense – especially in her Act II aria.
Notes researched & written by Joan Olsson