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In this lesson, you’ll read about an opera full of fantasy and adventure: Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute.’ You’ll learn about the plot and characters in this magical story, as well as some of the cultural influences that shaped the opera’s message.

Singspiel and The Magic Flute

A beautiful princess is imprisoned by a powerful ruler. A brave prince with a goofy sidekick takes on an impossible quest. A wicked queen uses her magic to lure the hero into evil.

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And every now and then, someone breaks into song.Sounds like the perfect Disney musical, doesn’t it? Actually, long before Mickey Mouse graced the silver screen, Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart showed the world how great a song-filled magical adventure can be, with his 1791 opera Die Zauberfl;te, known in English as The Magic Flute.Unlike many operas, in which all dialogue is sung, The Magic Flute alternates musical numbers with spoken dialogue, much like a contemporary Broadway musical. This style of opera is called a singspiel, and it makes The Magic Flute very accessible to first-time opera goers, especially since the opera’s also full of memorable melodies, fairy-tale adventures, and special effects.

Mozart and the Enlightenment

The Magic Flute was one of the last and greatest works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a composer from music’s Classical period. The Classical period refers to European music from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a period that overlaps with an influential philosophical movement called the Enlightenment.

During the Enlightenment, European thinkers believed that natural morality and thoughtful reasoning could solve problems like class inequality and create a just society.Mozart knew a lot about social inequality. Though he was one of the most talented musicians of his time, he spent much of his life poor and frustrated, trying to eke out a living working for controlling, wealthy aristocrats.

Mozart wrote symphonies, string quartets, piano works, and other pieces that display Enlightenment ideas through music. His pieces celebrate reason by following a satisfyingly logical musical structure, and they celebrate natural morality by featuring accessible, tuneful melodies.

Concepts and Characters

The story of The Magic Flute focuses on the triumph of reason and virtue over irrationality and evil. This concept was important in Freemasonry, a fraternal order that was popular during the Enlightenment and of which Mozart was a member.

The opera’s plot borrows symbolism from Masonic ritual, in which members progress through levels of self-understanding in a personal quest for knowledge.The Magic Flute is set in ancient Egypt. Its story centers around Tamino, a young prince who enters a quest to win the hand of the princess, whose name is Pamina.

To marry Pamina, Tamino must undergo a series of initiation rites (symbolic of those found in Freemasonry) which test his dedication to reason.Throughout the story, Tamino is caught between two powerful, symbolic figures. Sarastro, the high priest of Isis and Osiris, leads Tamino through his search for wisdom and symbolizes the power of reason. The Queen of the Night tries to destroy Sarastro and lure Tamino and Pamina into her power; she represents irrationality.The mood in The Magic Flute is often solemn, but Mozart was a great dramatist. He knew his story would benefit from a little comic relief.

The opera’s lightest moments come courtesy of the bird catcher, Papageno, Tamino’s nutty sidekick. Papageno is less interested in reason than he is in finding a wife, and one of the opera’s most charming moments comes when he’s finally united with his equally flighty soul mate, Papagena.

Synopsis

In Act One, Prince Tamino is rescued from a serpent by three ladies who serve the Queen of the Night. In return, the Queen of the Night demands that Tamino rescue her daughter, Pamina, who has been taken prisoner by the high priest Sarastro. The ladies give Tamino a magic flute to protect him in his journey, and accompanied by the eccentric birdcatcher, Papageno, he sets forth to free the princess.

When Tamino arrives at the palace of Sarastro, a priest persuades him that it is the Queen of the Night–not Sarastro–who is evil. Sarastro has imprisoned Pamina in order to protect her from the influence of the Queen. Sarastro appears, declaring his benevolent intentions for Pamina and Tamino. However, Sarastro declares that before Pamina is set free, Tamino must pass a series of initiation rites: trials to prove his dedication to virtue.In Act Two, Tamino and Papageno are led to a temple to begin their first test. Meanwhile, Pamina lives in fear of her lecherous jailer, Monostatos.

The Queen of the Night offers Pamina a dagger and advises her to kill Sarastro in order to gain her own freedom. However, Sarastro rescues Pamina from Monostatos, and declares the power of forgiveness rather than vengeance.In their first trial, Tamino and Papageno must keep a vow of silence. Tamino manages to keep his vow, even when Pamina appears, and Tamino’s silence makes her doubt his love.

The impulsive and talkative Papageno fails the test quickly. He insists that he doesn’t care about the initiation rites and only wants a wife. He receives his own final test.

He is offered an old lady to marry, and when he promises to be faithful to her, she transforms into the beautiful Papagena.After Tamino passes his test, he is joyfully reunited with Pamina. Together, they endure the final trial, a journey through fire and water.

Protected by the magic flute, they triumph together. The Queen of the Night and her armies, aided by Monostatos, make a final attempt to storm Sarastro’s castle, but they are defeated, and reason prevails over all.

Lesson Summary

The Magic Flute is an opera by classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Unlike many other operas of its time, The Magic Flute is in singspiel style, with a combination of sung and spoken dialogue–kind of like a Broadway musical. Mozart was a member of the Freemasons, a secretive Enlightenment-era fraternity, and he worked a lot of the symbolism of Freemasonry into the opera’s plot and music. This symbolism is to depict some of the values of the Enlightenment, especially the triumph of reason and virtue over irrationality and evil.The Magic Flute tells the story of Tamino, a prince who must undergo a series of tests, accompanied by his goofy sidekick Papageno, in order to marry the princess Pamina.

Alongside the priest Sarastro, Tamino, Papageno, and Pamina battle Pamina’s mother, the evil and mysterious Queen of the Night. They ultimately triumph, and reason prevails over all.

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