Tamino, a prince (tenor––the highest male voice) Papageno, a bird-catcher (baritone––a middle-range male voice) The Queen of the Night (soprano––the highest female voice) Pamina, the Queen’s daughter (soprano) Sarastro, a high priest in the Temple of Wisdom (bass—the lowest male voice) Monostatos, a servant of Sarastro (tenor)
Three Ladies, servants to the Queen of the Night (sopranos and mezzo-soprano––a middle-range female voice)
Three Spirits (child sopranos) So, What’s Going On?
Before we really get going…
Take a listen…
The Magic Flute’s most recognizable music is played before the curtain even goes up. Listen carefully as the overture is inspired by the number three, the symbolic number for the fraternal organization of Freemasonry of which Mozart was a member. The composer opens and closes this highly energetic music with a group of three stately chords, possibly representing the three phases of Masonry membership. Oh, and for good measure, the overture is also written in E-flat (a traditional key for heroes that includes…wait for it…three flats in its scale). VIDEO
Photo: Tamino finds himself in trouble as soon as the story begins.
In an ancient kingdom, a menacing serpent pursues a prince named Tamino (tah-MEE-noh). The prince collapses in fear, but is saved by three mysterious ladies who rush in to slay the monster. As they hurry away to tell their reigning queen about the handsome fainting stranger, a bird-catcher named Papageno (pah-pah-GEH-noh) dances in.
Take a listen…
Sung in the original German, this folksy tune introduces Papageno, the opera’s biggest source of comic relief. Listen for the whistling of Papageno’s panpipe—which he uses to lure birds into his trap. And (since Papageno’s bird calling game is very much on point), his musical sounds are always answered by distant calls from actual birds, represented by the winds and horns in the orchestra.
Tamino awakens and assumes Papageno has rescued him, but soon the three ladies return and denounce Papageno for taking all the credit. The ladies then proudly proclaim they work for the immensely powerful Queen of the Night, a sorceress whose daughter, Pamina (pah-MEE-na), has been abducted by an evil priest named Sarastro (zah-RAH-stroh). They show Tamino a picture of Pamina…and he falls instantly in love.
Photo: The three ladies admonish Papageno for taking all the credit for slaying the serpent.
Suddenly, the Queen enters (perfect timing, huh?). She urges Tamino to bring her daughter back and orders Papageno to go with him. The three ladies give Tamino a magic flute and provide Papageno with enchanted silver bells for added protection. And before their final goodbyes, the ladies introduce the men to three spirit guides who are duty-bound to help the heroes on their journey.
Far away in the palace of Sarastro, the priest’s servant, Monostatos (moh-NAH-stah-tohss) taunts the captive Pamina. But he’s interrupted by Papageno, who stumbles in almost completely by accident. Confused by Papageno’s wild bird-catcher outfit, Monostatos flees in search of backup, and Papageno introduces himself to Pamina, telling her all about Tamino and his undying love for her.
Elsewhere, the three spirits lead Tamino to Sarastro’s Temple of Wisdom. He tries each of the temple’s three doors (labeled “Wisdom,” “Labor,” and “Arts”), but is denied entry. Just then, a priest appears and tells Tamino it is the Queen, and not Sarastro, who is truly wicked (yeah…just go with it). And though the priest assures Tamino that everything will be revealed to him in due time, Tamino is hopelessly frustrated. He cries into the night, asking if Pamina is even still alive for him to rescue. Miraculously, unseen voices give him an answer: Pamina lives. Tamino then plays on his flute in celebration, causing the animals of the surrounding jungle to dance to his tune.
Happily, the melody also attracts Pamina and Papageno, who quickly head in the prince’s direction. But Monostatos is in hot pursuit, and Papageno and Pamina are forced to get creative as Monostatos’s minions close in (thanks, magic silver bells!). Just as Papageno and Pamina think they’re out of danger, however, a chorus of voices announces the formidable high priest, Sarastro, is on his way.
Unbelievably, Tamino, Pamina, Papageno, and Monostatos all suddenly find themselves in the presence of the great Sarastro. Tamino and Pamina are overjoyed to meet each other in person, but Sarastro separates them immediately, indicating he has a plan in store.
Sarastro declares Tamino must undergo certain sacred trials to become a member of the Temple and therefore worthy of Pamina. The priest also declares Tamino will be joined by Papageno, who’ll be rewarded with a girlfriend of his own.
Take a listen…
Sarastro leads his fellow members of the Temple of Wisdom in a solemn prayer to the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris and asks for protection for Pamina and Tamino. Listen for the way the simple accompaniment forces the audience to focus on Sarastro’s words, which ask the gods to grant the couple strength and patience in the face of adversity. Also listen for how Sarastro’s exceedingly low melody lends his aria some extra gravitas.
While Tamino and Papageno struggle to maintain a vow of silence (another part of Sarastro’s test), Monostatos secretly watches over Pamina. But he’s soon frightened away by the unexpected arrival of the Queen, who approaches Pamina carrying a knife. She commands her daughter to kill Sarastro as payback for his past crimes (he may or may not have stolen a powerful talisman belonging to the Queen and her partner, Pamina’s father…oops). Understandably, Pamina is beside herself.
Take a listen…
In one of Mozart’s most famous arias (you may even recognize it from some 2019 Volvo commercials), the Queen of the Night unleashes all of her fury with one of the highest melodies in all of opera. As she asks Pamina to commit murder, the Queen’s rage against Sarastro pours out in a series of breathtaking high notes that are as sparkling and fiery as the stars in the night sky (…she’s got to live up to her name, right?).
Check the time clock at 1:57. Sound familiar?
Monostatos overhears the whole thing and attempts to bribe Pamina into accepting his love in return for his silence, but Sarastro shows up to set things right. He explains he’s overheard the Queen plotting his demise, and yet he forgives Pamina on the spot.
But further tests await Pamina, Tamino, and Papageno, and the strain eventually proves to be almost too much for both Pamina and Papageno, who sadly contemplate suicide. Yet, guided by the voices of the three spirits, Papageno finally meets his beautiful betrothed—turns out her name is Papagena—and Pamina and Tamino are reunited and allowed to face the final trials of the Temple together.
Photo: The three spirits guide Pamina back to Tamino’s side.
…But will our heroes succeed? Can love, friendship, and the magic flute save both couples from a less-than-happy ending?
Good to Know
The origin of Mozart’s final opera,
The Magic Flute (or Die Zauberflöte—dee TSOW-buhr FLEUH-tuh––in German), which debuted in Vienna in 1791, is almost as mystifying as the plot. The libretto most likely had several sources—among them some original ideas from famous producer and first-ever Papageno, Emanuel Schikaneder—and drew from a variety of folk tales and ancient lore as well as popular operatic, political, and philosophical themes of the day.
Music historians agree the work also includes some pretty blatant references to the Freemasons, an exclusive brotherhood of which Mozart and Schikaneder were both members. Most notable among these Masonic shout-outs is the repeated use of the number three throughout the opera (three ladies, three spirits, three gates to the temple…you get the idea). Sarastro’s belief in friendship, freedom, and forgiveness also seem closely allied to Freemasonry’s Enlightenment-era values, which included reason, liberty, and charity.
Yet although the opera’s message of choosing wisdom over revenge is deadly serious,
The Magic Flute’s latest production at WNO chooses to highlight the story’s underlying sense of fun and fantasy with some help from award-winning author and artist, Maurice Sendak. Blending elements of ancient Egypt with clothing and imagery that’s more typical of eighteenth-century Europe (so, Mozart’s time), Sendak first brought his colorful, larger-than-life style to the stage back in 1980 for the Houston Grand Opera. And if you think Magic Flute’s coming-of-age tale of a young man who travels a long distance, tames wild beasts, and learns something new about himself sounds a little Sendak-ian—you’re absolutely right. It’s also the basic plot of Sendak’s famous 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are.
Photo: Will the Queen and her friends suffer the wrath of Sarastro?
Learning to Listen
Going to the opera means you’ll have to start listening in a new way if you want to take in everything the music and the voices have to offer. And guess what? This is less difficult than it sounds.
Try thinking of opera singing as its own type of language or speech. When we’re speaking, our emotions can change the way our voices sound from moment to moment—and one word can have a thousand different meanings depending on
how we say it (loudly, softly, quickly, slowly, with a high- or low-pitched voice, etc.). The same is true for the characters in an opera. Each voice you’ll hear will have its own special flavor depending on who the character is and what he or she is saying.
The Queen of the Night, for example, is a supernatural ruler with vengeance on her mind. Her voice, therefore, will be on the higher side (a sign that she’s quite literally out of this world), but will sometimes jump from light to dark as she describes her burning hatred for her nemesis, Sarastro.
Sarastro, on the other hand, is the high priest of the Temple of Wisdom, and, as such, always appears calm and in control. His deep bass voice—a traditional operatic sound for characters that have a ton of authority––will stay comfortably in a lower range that falls easy on the ear, providing a clue that he’s a powerful leader with a strong sense of justice.
When in doubt about how a character is feeling or what they’re thinking, always pay close attention to exactly how they
sound. (The instruments in the orchestra will give you hints as well.) Check This Out…
Spoken dialogue. Many operas are sung throughout, but
The Magic Flute features lines delivered without musical accompaniment. Operagoers call this type of work a singspiel (German for “sing-play”), a lighter-hearted opera broken up by spoken words. Characters with possible real-life eighteenth-century inspirations. (Hint: Austrian Empress Maria Theresa was a supposed enemy of the Freemasons, while her son and successor, Joseph II, was more sympathetic to their cause. Do you think these historic figures have counterparts in the opera? If so, who are they?)
Signs of three. Keep your eyes peeled for groups of Masonic three in the set design and among the cast.
Many different styles of singing. Listen for the smooth, lyrical melodies sung by Tamino, Pamina, and Sarastro versus the more frantic, hurried sounds of the Queen, Papageno, and Papagena. Which style do you prefer? Are there any characters that use more than one style? Why do you think this is? Think About This…
The Magic Flute, the realm of darkness and doubt seems to be run by women while the kingdom of light and truth is governed by men. Still, it is Pamina who helps Tamino through his final trials. What do you think were the creators’ ultimate attitudes toward men versus women?
The Magic Flute libretto is highly unusual in that no one—including the characters—can be entirely sure who’s evil or who’s good until pretty much the very end. (For example: Which side are the three spirits really on? Why do they seem to work for the Queen in the beginning if they’re actually there to help Tamino on his quest to join the brotherhood? It’s anybody’s guess…) Why do you think the line between good and bad in the opera is so blurry? How does it add to the drama? Tamino and Papageno make up one of opera’s most famous “buddy” teams. One is steadfast and serious, and the other is wisecracking and cowardly. Where have you seen a buddy team like this before on stage or in a movie?
The Magic Flute’s story seems to draw from pre-existing plotlines, including a few that can be found in Shakespeare. Which Magic Flute characters remind you of figures you’ve encountered in other plays or famous tales? From where? (Hint: Think magical lands and powerful sorcerers.)
Photo: The Queen of the Night tries to infiltrate Sarastro’s Temple of Wisdom.
21st-Century Vow of Silence
In Act 2, Tamino and Papageno are asked to remain completely silent in order to prove their commitment to the brotherhood of the Temple. And though this is partially to prevent them from being distracted by outside forces (ahem…women), it’s also a way to get them to reflect on their thoughts, desires, dreams, and values—sort of like a meditation.
See if you can try this out for yourself. Set aside a little time each week (could be five minutes, could be an hour; it’s up to you) that’s purely for you and your own thoughts and feelings. Shut down all screens and devices and reflect for a bit. If you’re having trouble staying in the present, try breathing slowly in and out over a count of eight seconds and then repeating the process until you’re back on track.
If you end up thinking about nothing in particular, that’s cool. Sometimes it can be useful just to decompress. But if any specific thoughts come to mind (small-picture things like what elective classes to take in the fall or big-picture things like what kinds of local or international causes you’d like to volunteer for…anything at all), write them down in a journal or a digital doc for future reference. If you’re ever feeling lost or unsure about what to do next, check back in with what you’ve written. It’s possible the ideas that came to you in the past when you were silent and calm can guide you toward some positive decisions in the future.
Teachers, Guardians, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. We’re sure you’re already familiar with the concept of opera but, just in case you’re looking for a refresher or you want to go deeper, here are some thoughts that may be of interest:
Opera A 400-year-old genre born in Italy that was cultivated throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and eventually made its way to the United States (that’s right, Americans write operas, too). As you’ve probably guessed, there will be singing. Lots of it. Just think of it as heightened speech. A soprano may hit a really high note when she’s angry or scared. A bass might lay down a low note when he wants to be extra menacing. You get it.
Popular with younger audiences,
( The Magic Flute Die Zauberflöte) is how opera does fairytale. The circuitous plot follows a young prince on a perilous journey of self-discovery in which true love and everlasting wisdom are the rewards. Standard folktale figures such as the damsel in distress, the evil sorceress, and the silly sidekick are all on display, and the “good” characters end up living happily ever after, as would be expected.
But, seeing as how this is an opera, there are a few twists you might want to consider.
First: The tone of the work is nearly impossible to pin down. A strange mix of serious and ridiculous,
The Magic Flute showcases composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s flare for both the comic (a style known in his day as opera buffa) and the tragic ( opera seria), and features music that’s both heart-wrenching and laugh-out-loud funny. Plus, characters tend to change their loyalties from scene to scene, making it hard to differentiate between heroes and villains at any given time.
Second: The story is largely an allegory. And while this is nothing new for fairytales,
The Magic Flute is pretty specific in its subtext. Mozart and the opera’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were both members of the brotherhood of the Freemasons, and Magic Flute appears to include some not-so-subtle advertising for the organization. Themes of fellowship, truth, and justice abound, as do symbolic rituals, and occasional problematic references to the deceptive nature of women (as, back in Mozart and Schikaneder’s Enlightenment age, the association was strictly male). Still, the opera ends with a healthy marriage of the minds (and hearts) between male and female equals who seem destined to reign in the name of righteousness and love, which is encouraging, if not just a bit confusing.
Third: The piece was one of Mozart’s swansongs. Composed alongside the Italian opera
La Clemenza di Tito and Mozart’s eerily prophetic Requiem, The Magic Flute was the last of Mozart’s operas to have its premiere. Given the many legends surrounding Mozart’s untimely death at the age of 35, it’s difficult not to look at Flute as one of Mozart’s parting gifts to the world—full of philosophical meditations on loving partnerships and the importance of treating your fellow humans with respect. And though there’s not much evidence to support that Mozart knew he was dying at the time of Magic Flute’s composition, the opera’s strange timing and mythical subject matter have earned it a lasting place in operatic lore. All this, combined with the opera’s ready accessibility and easy charm, has made The Magic Flute an international favorite.
“To me, the best of all art forms is music, and perhaps opera is my favorite, and the best, best, best of all is Mozart.” - Maurice Sendak
(For more information on Sendak’s designs for the recent WNO production of
The Magic Flute, please see our student guide.)
You’re ready for Mozart’s
The Magic Flute.