Singspiel in Two Acts
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Libretto by Mozart and Johann Emanuel Schikanaeder
First performance: Theater auf der Wieden, Vienna. September 30, 1791
The Magic Flute is an allegorical tale, not a fantasy or fairy tale. It is also a Song Play, a Singspiel, which means it has spoken dialogue. The singspiel was a very popular form of entertainment in German speaking countries during the 17th and 18th centuries, and led the way to the popular operettas of the 19th century. The setting of the opera is two kingdoms – polar opposites – the Kingdom of the Queen of the Night, represented by the color silver, and the Kingdom of the Temple of the Wisdom, represented by the color gold.
Act I: Following the famous overture, Prince Tamino enters, fleeing a serpent, which represents his fear and lack of wisdom. He calls out for help, and faints before the sight of the beast. The Three Ladies, servants to the Queen of the Night, kill the serpent. Seeing Tamno passed out before them, they admire the handsome prince and argue amongst themselves who will win his heart. They leave to tell their Queen of his arrival, at which point we are introduced to the happy-go-lucky bird catcher, Papageno, whose arrival is announced by his pipes of Pan. The Three Ladies return, and show the Prince a portrait of the Queen’s daughter, who they tell him has been captured by the wicked Sarastro. Tamino is captivated by the image and pledges to rescue her. The Queen arrives. She tells Tamino that if he rescues her daughter, she will give him her hand in marriage; a tempting proposition that the unenlightened Tamino accepts. Tamino and Papageno set off together, led by the Three Boys, who are neither servants to the Queen nor Sarastro. When they enter the forest that divides the Queen’s kingdom from the kingdom of the Sun, the home of Sarastro’s Temple of Wisdom, they are separated. The scene changes to the Temple of Wisdom, where Pamina is indeed being held captive, and is guarded by the evil Monostatos. Papageno finds Pamina first, and scares off Monostatos. He tells Pamina that the Prince is in love with her, and will soon come to rescue her. They muse on finding true love, and creating the happy union between a husband and wife. Tamino finds the Temple of Wisdom. His entrance is stopped by the First Priest – also called the Speaker – who tells him that the Queen has lied to him – that Sarastro is not evil, and that this is a place of peace. Tamino is perplexed by what he has been told by the Speaker. He plays the Magic Flute and discovers it has the power to calm the most savage of beasts. Tamino and Pamina finally meet and pledge to endure the trials of initiation into the Temple of Wisdom together; trials that have their basis in the Freemasonry movement of the 18th century, of which Mozart was a member.
Act II: Sarastro tells the priests that the union of Pamina to Tamino will ensure peace throughout the kingdom. He prays to Isis and Osiris to protect them. Papageno endures the trials too – giving us all a bit of comic relief. The first trial is a vow of silence to women, in order to reject the Kingdom of the Queen of the Night. When the Three Ladies appear to scold Tamino for swerving from his original mission, he will not answer them – but Papageno just can’t keep his mouth shut. The Queen enters Pamina’s chamber and in one of the most famous of all soprano arias, orders her daughter to kill Sarastro and bring the all-powerful shield of the Sun to her. She explains that the shield was given to Sarastro by her husband when he died, so Sarastro could rule the Temple of Wisdom. Pamina is devastated by what her mother has told her. The Queen leaves, and Sarastro calmly tells Pamina not to fear; that in the Temple, forgiveness and peace are the order of the day. Pamina goes to Tamino to tell him what has transpired. But, he is still under the oath of silence and does not speak to her. She does not understand his silence, and in despair, she believes that he does not love her. Papageno, bored with the trials, plays the silver bells the Queen had given him before their journey began. He tells us that his needs are simple — food, good wine, and someday, a pretty little wife. At this, the Papagena appears. But the priests tell Papageno that he is not allowed to marry her unless he finishes his trials. Pamina, desperate after being rejected by Tamino, is persuaded by the Three Boys that Tamino still loves her, and that he is waiting for her to undertake the final trials of Fire and Water. Guided by the Magic Flute, the pair endure the final trial together. After a comical and aborted attempt at suicide, the priest relent and Papageno is finally united with his Papagena. The two sing of their happy life to come – making many little Papagenos and Papagenas, which while a delightful duet, is a rather cynical statement that there will always be more Papagenos in the world than Tamino. The Queen, with Monostatos and the Three Ladies make a final assault on the Temple of Wisdom. But their attack is in vain, as the light of the Temple of Wisdom dispels their hatred. Sarastro gives the mighty shield of the sun to Tamino and Pamina to rule the kingdom in perfect harmony. The people rejoice as Pamina and Tamino begin their reign in peace and harmony.
The Moral: Harmony in human society can only be achieved by the perfect union of man and woman; and that this perfect union is characterized by an equality achieved through pure love and strength of character.