I've fictionalized the creation of The Magic Flute in two novels, Mozart's Wife and My Mozart. Nanina Gottlieb, who sang the role of the heroine, Pamina, is the teen narrator of the latter. Therefore, I thought I'd write about it, with all its "earworm" songs, and produced during the composer's hectic last year.
It has been said that The Magic Flute is a "pipe dream in which the ultimate secret is revealed, only to be forgotten again upon waking.” The opera is full of occult and masonic references, which would suit both the popular taste of the times (1791) for “magic,” and also the taste of Mozart and his friend Emmanuel Schikanader, fellow Masons.
Magical numbers--three Ladies, three Genii--and the multiple, nine--Sarastro’s Priests--appear repeatedly—and, because this is Mozart, in the music too. There are also a host of pairs and opposites among the symbolic characters: male/female, day/night, noble/common, perfect union/dischord.
There are trials to be endured before the lovers may unite. Some believe that because Masonic "secrets” are revealed in the course of the action, the Brotherhood may have been responsible for the composer’s sudden demise. While I don’t subscribe to this notion, there certainly are lots of occult and masonic references scattered throughout the rather muddled story.
It is muddled, too, because Mozart had already begun to set music to a script (or "libretto") when he realized that The Theater am Weiden’s chief competitor, the Leopoldstadt Theater, had already launched a singspiel (those tuneful forerunners of Broadway) based on the exact same story. Their musical was called The Magic Zither.
Upon learning this, the writers and the composer simply changed The Queen of the Night from a good character into a bad one. Similarly, they changed her husband, Sarastro, from an evil tyrant into a benevolent “Philosopher King.” This late tinkering with the story/music is obvious, for initially the emissaries of the Queen of the Night, the Three Ladies, give the Prince not only helpful advice, but the magic flute of the title, to help him save the abducted princess. Here, The Queen of the Night appears to be the injured party. Later, we learn that she and her ladies are now in league to thwart the Prince’s quest for enlightenment and the hand of her daughter.
No one much cared, in the end, about logic. The music and the spectacle were (and are still) sufficient to create a luminous piece of theater.
Goethe’s mother wrote: “No man will admit he has not seen it. All craftsmen, gardeners…and even the “Sachsenhausers” (a rough rural suburb of Frankfort), whose children play the parts of apes and lions, are going to see it. There has never been such a spectacle before.”
This is high praise, even if the German word for spectacle carries a double meaning: “show” and “uproar.”
To quote Frederic Blume's essay “Mozart’s Style and Influence”:
“To compose music for all; music which would suit both the prince and his valet…to compose music that had to be both highly refined and highly popular was a new and unprecedented task.”
Two-hundred and twenty-four years since this opera premiered, it's still going strong, a perfect way to introduce young people to this unique western art. Attending a first-rate production is easier and a lot less expensive than it used to be, for the Metropolitan Opera now broadcasts as many as ten operas every year directly into local movie theaters. Here's a cute clip (endure the undie commercial) :
In December I enjoyed a re-run of Julie (she of Lion King fame) Taymor's inspired 2006 Met production. My only quibble being that I missed favorite arias, which were cut to make the show last only a tidy 90 minutes.