Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
Mozart's The Magic Flute
by Jess Van Nostrand
"The mixture and fusion of the most heterogeneous elements in The Magic Flute are truly incredible."
— Albert Einstein
Mozart had never composed a work quite like The Magic Flute when the director of the Theater auf der Weiden, Emanuel Schikaneder, proposed the idea to him in 1791. Although the composer had written many singpiels in the past, he was not familiar with those that required stage effects such as fire, trap doors and flying machines. In addition, he would have to adjust to a financially-unstable theater in contrast to the high-profile establishments for which Mozart, now in his 30s, was accustomed to working. Whether due to financial problems, as some believe, his interest in helping out a fellow Mason or his attraction to the story, Mozart agreed to compose the opera, saying to Schikaneder, "If we make a fiasco, I cannot help it, for I never wrote a magic opera in my life."
Creating the Fairy Tale
Schikaneder's plan was to write the libretto and play the role of the lighthearted panpipe-playing Papageno, while various family members would fill several of the other roles. The director did not know how to play the panpipe, requiring that it be played by a musician in the wings, whereas the lead role of Tamino was assigned to the singer/flutist Benedikt Schack. As opening night drew near, it became apparent to Mozart and Schikaneder that they would have to change the plot in some way from the story on which it was based. Another theater in Vienna was performing an opera borrowed from the exact same mythical tale; Mozart attended a performance and reported to his wife that, "There's absolutely nothing to it," but it must have been enough of a threat to make the team rewrite their script. It is, therefore, because of Kaspar and the Bassoon Player that The Magic Flute's seemingly benevolent Queen of the Night suddenly becomes evil, and the kidnapping Priest of the Sun good, after the first act.
The biggest change for the composer, however, came after the curtain was lifted. The opera was an immediate success, with ticket-seekers lining up hours before the doors opened so as to avoid being one of the hundreds turned away each night. Many believe that The Magic Flute's instant popularity was due to its German folk-style songs, its technical theatricality and its non-Italian libretto that the entire audience could appreciate and understand.
Mozart conducted the premiere and then attended the performances until he became too ill to go to the theater. A letter he wrote to his wife, Constanze, shows that, although he may have been close to death, he remained actively involved with the opera:
… So I went to another box where Flamm and his wife happened to be. There everything was very pleasant and I stayed to the end. But during Papageno's aria with the glockenspiel I went behind the scenes as I felt a sort of impulse today to play it myself. Well, just for fun, at the point where Schikaneder has a pause, I played an arpeggio. He was startled, looked behind the wings and saw me. When he had his next pause, I played no arpeggio. This time he stopped and refused to go on. I guessed what he was thinking and again played a chord. He then struck the glockenspiel and said, 'Shut up.' Whereupon everyone laughed. I am inclined to think that this joke taught many of the audience for the first time that Papageno does not play the instrument himself.
— October 8 and 9, 1791
Sadly, Mozart only lived another nine weeks after conducting the premiere, unable to enjoy the enduring success of his final opera. Meanwhile, Schikaneder built a new theater with the money raised by ticket sales, and went on to announce the 100th and 200th performances of the opera one and two years later (in fact, exaggerations of the 83rd and 135th performances).
The Quest for Meaning
Mozart specialists have been debating over underlying messages within The Magic Flute for almost as long as its existence, casting a fascinating light onto Mozart's life and inspiring an astounding number of different stage productions. Considering the simplicity of a plot based on finding true love and helping good triumph over evil, The Magic Flute has been treated to an incredible number of interpretations. Productions of the work range from minimalist (designing the set with one stone pillar) to extremely dramatic (commissioning post-modern artist Marc Chagall to recreate his hyper-colorful paintings as the scenery). Audiences have watched Tamino fight the serpent in the Amazon Jungle, the Babylonian desert, a mythical forest and in 20th century Los Angeles. Ingmar Bergman directed a critically-acclaimed film version in 1975, and children have been privy to puppet shows, marionette performances and their own (altered) stage productions of the opera.
When it comes to deciphering underlying themes in the work, many feel that it is important to acknowledge the symbolic presence of the Masons. Both Mozart and Schikaneder were active Freemasons, and the links between Masonic rituals and the trials the characters must endure in the plot are many. Both the overture and the finale are written in the Masonic key of E-flat Major, and the number three — a sacred number for Masons — is found repeatedly throughout the work. The story itself is based on a book by Abbe Jean Terrasson, entitled Sethos, which was highly popular within the Masonic order, and many believe that the figure of the High Priest is meant to represent Ignaz von Born, the highly-revered Masonic leader who had recently died.
Another theory related to the Masons is the possibility that Mozart wanted to make a statement about King Leopold II and the Royal family's attempts to suppress Masonic practice. The challenges the characters face against evil could be read as parallel to the Masons' struggles against what they felt was unjust suppression, and many believe that Leopold's mother is found in the character of the Queen of Night, who tries to manipulate the main characters into helping her steal power from the Priest of the Sun.
A slightly different historical approach connects The Magic Flute to the German Enlightenment. Tamino's quest for acceptance by the gods is akin to the spiritual journey in which many followers of the Enlightenment took part. Ideals of the Enlightenment, such as wisdom, defeating darkness with light, finding the perfect union and bettering mankind, are all major elements within the story of The Magic Flute and would have been fitting attributes of a hero from this time.
Research into The Magic Flute and all its possible meanings will probably never cease; however, it is the connection between Mozart's own life and his work that has yet to be staged. Some feel that Tamino's quest, as aided by a flute, is about the composer's search for musical mastery. By setting the work in Egypt, many argue, Mozart meant to evoke ideas about the afterlife while preparing himself for death. In fact, he was composing his Requiem and The Magic Flute at the same time, perhaps unwittingly creating a poignant message about the symmetry between his life and his final work. The dichotomies between good and evil, love and hatred, and wisdom and ignorance are themes to which anyone can relate, and a balance exists between these elements that results in the triumph of good. And, like the symmetry within the story, there is the profound fact that Mozart was composing music about death as he was simultaneous composing about life. The happy ending in which love prevails makes this opera a work, above all else, about life.