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Operapedia: The Magic Flute 

Henry Stewart decodes Mozart’s allegorical fairy tale.


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© akg-images/Fototeca Gilardi

Time and Place

The Magic Flute was Mozart’s last opera, but just barely; La Clemenza di Tito had its premiere in Prague less than a month earlier, even though he had written it later. (Magic Flute is Mozart’s “Let it Be,” Clemenza his “Abbey Road.”) Mozart’s opera output in his last six years was particularly prolific, including premieres of his best-remembered stage works—Così Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro. The Magic Flute was Mozart’s last Singspiel, a kind of German light opera with spoken dialogue.

Reactions

Many critics frown at the libretto’s now-conspicuous racism and misogyny, making it tricky to stage in the age of supertitles. “Characters such as Monostatos, the conniving Moor … have become touchstones for how to present classic works with problematic librettos to modern audiences,” OPERA NEWS reported last year. “Some companies allow the uglier bits of [the] text—‘All men feel the joy of love,’ he says, ‘And I am supposed to avoid love, because a black man is ugly’— to fall out of the projected titles.”

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© akg-images

First Performances

The Magic Flute was first performed on September 30, 1791, in the then-suburbs of Vienna, at the unfashionable Theater auf der Wieden, where the librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, was director. Schikaneder was also the original Papageno, the hero’s sidekick, a bird-catcher typically dressed as a bird; Mozart conducted—and played the prominent glockenspiel part, representing magic bells, in Papageno’s Act II aria, “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen.” Just sixty-six days later, the composer died. He was thirty-five.

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Courtesy HGO

The Performance We Wish We’d Seen

The opera’s mature-yet-childish storybook qualities were ideal for Maurice Sendak, who designed sets and costumes for a 1980 production at Houston Grand Opera (directed by Frank Corsaro) that has since traveled the country. “It was difficult to resist … the dark-edged cartoon whimsy and the clever mock-Egyptian accents of Sendak’s unkitschy illustrations,” the Los Angeles Times reported about a 1990 mounting. Sendak’s backdrops were damaged in 2005 by a hurricane while in storage in Florida but restored under Corsaro’s former assistant (now a director), Christopher Mattaliano, for a revival last year in Oregon.

 

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© UI/Photofest

In Pop Culture

In Letter from an Unknown Woman, Max Ophüls’s 1948 Universal film, Joan Fontaine falls in love from afar with a concert pianist, played by Louis Jourdan; they meet once, make love, then don’t see each other for ten years, during which time she bears and raises their child. He doesn’t remember her when they meet again—at the opera, where The Magic Flute is playing. “This,” TCM.com explains, “offers a particularly poignant doubling of the film’s plot and the opera, in which the comic lead, Papageno, does not recognize his true love when she visits him in disguise.” 

The Basics

A lost prince is enlisted to save an abducted princess. Instead, he performs a series of Herculean trials for her kidnapper, to gain the wisdom needed to marry her.

 

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Library of Congress

Hit Tune

The Queen of the Night’s “Der Hölle Rache” features staccato sequences of impossibly high notes requiring superhuman precision. (Or nonhuman—you can watch parrots “singing” it on YouTube.) In Amadeus, the filmmakers suggest, with dramatic license, that it was inspired by Mozart’s shrill mother-in-law, the wordless coloratura serving as a perfect abstraction of nagging. (The aria was first sung IRL by Mozart’s sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer.) When performed by the tone-deaf Florence Foster Jenkins, for whom it was a signature aria, such a reading seems especially plausible.

Spoiler Alerts

“The masonic allegory … is transparent,” according to the Grove Dictionary of Opera—like the eyeball-topped pyramid on the back of a one-dollar bill (with famous Freemason George Washington on the reverse). Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were both active in the international order at a time when it was mistrusted in Europe, and many believe the two littered their work with cryptic symbols. For example, “The story introduces a mysterious brotherhood, supposedly headed by an evil man,” NPR reported in 2009. “But by opera’s end, the brotherhood turns out to be benign.… Perhaps that was Mozart’s way of saying that Freemasonry may not be the ominous force some folks think it is.”
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© Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy

Something Completely Different

In the 1974 film The Night Porter, a former SS guard follows his ex-prisoner (a young Charlotte Rampling) into an opera house, where her husband is conducting The Magic Flute. The light prettiness of “Bei Männern” and “Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton” ironically contrasts with the ensuing flashbacks to a concentration camp—and the guard’s sexual violence there against her. Much less troublingly, the first two lines of “Ô Canada” are almost musically identical to the first few bars of Mozart’s March of the Priests, which opens Act II. It’s a more high-culture heritage than that of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was based on a drinking song.

 


Surprise Showstopper

The Magic Flute is predominantly bubbly, but it also features stunning moments of musical despair, such as “O ew’ge Nacht,” in which the hero Tamino asks the chorus whether his love, Pamina, is still alive. It’s hauntingly employed in Ingmar Bergman’s eerie 1968 horror movie Hour of the Wolf, during a dinner party, sung by a puppet in a candlelit diorama; a short lecture follows. (“Hear the strange and illogical but genial rhythm: ‘Pami—na.’ This is no longer the name of a young woman but an incantation, a sorcerer’s formula.”) Bergman was particularly fond of The Magic Flute, which he first saw when he was twelve; he directed his own adaptation for Swedish television, aired in 1975.

 


Where It Is This Season

This month alone, there are twenty-six productions, including Julie Taymor’sLion King-esque one at the Met, as well as in Munich, Toronto, Chicago, Paris and at three separate theaters in Berlin. spacer
Operapedia Magic Flute Taymor lg 117 © Beth Bergman 


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