Die Zauberflöte, K. 620., (en: The Magic Flute) is an opera in two acts composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a German libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. This opera is in the form of a Singspiel, a popular form which included both singing and spoken dialogue. It premiered in Vienna on September 30, 1791.
The premiere was at an out-of-town but not obscure theater. Schikaneder himself played Papageno, while the Queen was played by Mozart's sister-in-law Josepha Hofer. The opera was not an immediate success, but slowly thanks to Schikaneder's business acumen, it gained popularity. By November 1792, Schikaneder announced the opera's 100th performance. Unfortunately, Mozart did not have the pleasure of attending this milestone, having died on December 5, 1791. Today, it remains one of the most-performed works in the repertoire. In fact, Opera America claims that Die Zauberflöte is the tenth most performed opera in North America.
The opera is often noted for its Masonic elements, which are rife and often elaborate. Both Schikaneder and Mozart were Masons and lodge brothers. In the political climate of the times, Freemasonry was considered a dangerous organization. Many of the opera's ideas and motifs also echo those of Enlightenment philosophy: It is an analogy to the zeitgeist of enlightened absolutism. The Queen of the Night represents the irrational-diabolic obscurantism, her antagonist Sarastro symbolises the reasonable sovereign who rules with paternalistic wisdom and enlightened insight. In the end he prevails over the darkness ("The sun's rays drive away the night, destroy the evil power of the dissembler"). But the darkness is by no means frightening and abhorrent, but beautiful, mysterious and fascinating. As an awesome seductress the Queen of the Night is a dangerous power who can only be overcome by knowledge.
Many of the melodies are highly familiar, and include the Papageno/Papagena duet and the coloratura aria, "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" ("The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart"), often referred to as the "Queen of the Night" aria, which reaches a high F6 (in Scientific pitch notation).
A notable feature of the music is the way in which Mozart was able to write for a range of skill-sets in the singers. Compare, for example, the vocal lines for Monostatos (which are easy, "obvious" lines to sing for a modest voice; are also often stated first in strings so the singer can find his pitch; and which are doubled as he sings, to give him the tune – anyone who has sung a karaoke arrangement of a well-known song will know the kind of process) with those of Pamina or the Queen of the Night (which give few such clues for the singer and demand decent operatic ability). Yet, in ensembles, Mozart manages to combine voices of virtuosos with those of what are essentially comic actors, and create a satisfying result. The F6 which the Queen of the Night must reach in both her arias is beyond the range of many first-rate sopranos. At the low end, Sarastro must sing an F at several points; it requires a good bass to hit the note impressively, but the note does not go below the range of the choral basses.
Overview: Sarastro, the wise priest of Isis and Osiris, has taken Pamina to the temple for the humane purpose of releasing her from the influence of her mother, the Queen of the Night. The queen induces the young Prince Tamino to go in search of her daughter and free her from the power of Sarastro; Tamino accomplishes his end, but becomes the disciple of Sarastro, whose mildness and wisdom he has learned to admire. The prince and the princess are united.
Tamino, a handsome prince who is lost in the forest, is pursued by a serpent. He faints from fatigue and three ladies, attendants of the queen, in black robes, appear and kill the serpent. They all fall in love with the prince and each plans to be alone with him. Through their arguing, they decide that it is best if they all leave together.
Tamino recovers, and sees before him Papageno, arrayed entirely in the plumage of birds. His entrance aria tells of his job as a birdcatcher and the fact that he is longing for a wife. Tamino approaches Papageno and asks who he is. Papageno jokes with Tamino but says that he brings the birds that he catches to the Queen of the Night's servants, who give him food and drink in return. Tamino thinks that Papageno has saved him from the serpent and Papageno claims that he has strangled the serpent, but the three ladies appear and punish his lie by placing a padlock over his mouth. They tell him they were responsible for saving him. He deeply appreciates them and they show to the prince a miniature of a young maiden, Pamina, upon which he gazes in ecstasy. (Aria: Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön)
The Queen of the Night now appears, demanding that Tamino free her daughter, the original of the picture, from the hands of Sarastro, promising that he can marry Pamina in return. (Recitative and aria: O Zittre Nicht) The ladies give Tamino a magic flute that can change men's hearts, remove the padlock from Papageno and present him with a chime of bells to protect him. Papageno accompanies Tamino, and they set forth, guided by three boys. They escape all danger by the use of the magic instruments. (Quintet: Hm hm hm hm)
Change of scene (this scene forms Act II when the opera is divided into three acts): A room in Sarastro's palace.
Pamina is dragged in by Sarastro's servant Monostatos, who is persecuting her. Papageno arrives and announces to her that her mother has sent Tamino to her aid. Monostatos is terrified by Papageno's strange appearance and takes to flight. (Trio: Du feines Täubchen, nun herein!) Pamina and Papageno talk of their desires, which both turn out to be love. (Duet: Bei Männern)
Change of scene: Grove and entrance to the temples.
The three boys lead in the prince. As Tamino reaches the temple he is denied entrance at the Gates of Nature and Reason, but at the Gate of Wisdom a priest appears, who reveals to him the noble character of Sarastro. When Papageno appears with Pamina all three are about to escape, but are prevented by Monostatos. Sarastro and chorus enter. (Chorus) Pamina falls at his feet and confesses that she was trying to escape because Monostatos had demanded her love. Sarastro receives her kindly and tells her that he will not force her inclinations, but cannot give her freedom. He punishes Monostatos for his insolence and leads Tamino and Papageno into the temple of Ordeal.
Grove of palms. The council of priests determine that Tamino shall possess Pamina if he succeeds in passing through the ordeal, as they do not wish to return her to her mother, who has already infected the people with superstition. (Aria, Sarastro: "O Isis und Osiris" and chorus)
Change of scene: The courtyard of the temple of Ordeal.
Tamino and Papageno are led into the temple. Tamino is cautioned that this is his last chance to turn back, but he states that he will undergo every trial to win his Pamina. Papageno is asked if he will also concede to every trial, but he says that he doesn't really want wisdom or to struggle to get it. The priest tells Papageno that Sarastro may have a woman for him if he undergoes the trials, and that she is called Papagena. Papageno says that he wouldn't mind a look at her to be sure, but the priest says that he must keep silent. Papageno finally agrees.
The first test is that Tamino and Papageno shall remain silent under the temptation of women. (Duet, Speaker and Priest) The three ladies appear, and tempt them to speak. (Quintet, Papageno, Tamino, Three Ladies) Tamino and Papageno remain firm, though Tamino must constantly tell Papageno,"Still!"
Papageno confronts one of the priests and asks why he must undergo tests if Sarastro already has a woman that wants to be his wife. The priest says that it is the only way.
Change of scene: A garden. Pamina asleep.
Monostatos approaches and gazes upon her with rapture. (Aria, Monostatos: "Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden") When the Queen of the Night appears and gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro (Aria, Queen of the Night: "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen," in which the singer must reach a very high F6), Monostatos retires and listens. He tries to force Pamina's love by using the secret, but is prevented by Sarastro, who allays Pamina's alarm. (Aria, Sarastro: "In diesen heil'gen Hallen")
Change of scene: A hall in the temple of Ordeal.
Tamino and Papageno must again suffer the test of silence. Papageno can no longer hold his tongue, but Tamino remains firm, even when Pamina speaks to him. Since Tamino refuses to answer, Pamina believes he loves her no longer. (Aria, Pamina: "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden")
Change of scene (sometimes used as Act III): The pyramids.
(Chorus) Sarastro parts Pamina and Tamino. (Trio, Sarasto, Pamina, Tamino) Papageno also desires to have his little wife. (Aria, Papageno: "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen") At the first ordeal, an old woman had appeared to him and declared herself his bride. She now again appears and changes herself into the young and pretty Papagena. However, she vanishes and Papageno is miserable.
Change of scene: An open country.
The three boys prevent Pamina from committing suicide because she believes Tamino to be faithless.
Change of scene: Rocks with water and a cavern of fire.
Men in armor lead in Tamino. Pamina arrives and is overcome with joy to find Tamino, who is now allowed to speak to her. Both pass unscathed through the final ordeal of fire and water with the help of the magic flute, which Pamina tells him was carved by her father from an ancient oak tree. Papageno wishes to take his life because he can't stop thinking about Papagena, but acts merrily when the boys advise him to use his magic bells to summon the image of Papagena. (Duet, Papageno, Papagena: "Papageno! Papagena!") The traitorous Monostatos appears with the Queen of the Night and her ladies to destroy the temple, but they are magically cast out. (Finale: "Nur stille, stille") The scene now changes to the entrance of the chief temple, where Sarastro bids the young lovers welcome and unites them.
In Ingmar Bergman's acclaimed 1975 film version, Trollflöjten, the opera is sung in Swedish although the sound was not actually recorded in synch with the photography. Bergman makes a major change in the plot: Sarastro is Pamina's father, and has a good claim, morally and legally, to her custody. In addition, the Three Boys introduce themselves, instead of being introduced by the Queen's Three Ladies; thus, in Bergman's version it is obvious from the first that the Three Boys are not in the Queen's service.
In November 2005, it was announced that a new film version, set during World War I, was to be made, directed by Kenneth Branagh and with a libretto by Stephen Fry .
Inspiration of other composers
The theme "March of the Priests" (MIDI file) is very similar to, and may have inspired, Calixa Lavallée's music for the Canadian national anthem "O Canada". In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe, Sir Arthur Sullivan included a musical homage to the Queen of the Night's aria when introducing the character of the Queen of the Fairies.