It is hard to experience or even think about Mozart’s The Magic Flute without a sense of wonder at how much it differs from all his other operas, ranging from The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, the opera of choice today, to less frequently performed works such as I domeneo, The Abduction from the Seraglio, and La clemenza di Tito. Kierkegaard saw the “magic marriage” between Mozart’s genius and his subject matter in Don Giovanni; but I would argue that Mozart’s supreme dramatic work is to be found not in that fire-and-brimstone morality play but in the Masonic fable of his final year, 1791. As I wrote some time ago:
Everything we know or feel about Mozart should assure us that the inflexible view of sin and death set forth in the [Don Juan] legend must have been distasteful to him. Mozart never saw man’s will as inevitably opposed by the will of God. He conceived an essential harmony expressed by human feelings; his terms were brotherhood and sympathy and humility, not damnation and defiance. The magic marriage is The Magic Flute.
Anyone interested in the opera has probably learned that The Magic Flute was not the outcome of some visionary initiative by the composer or the librettist. It emerged more or less naturally from the opera scene, so vital and so various, of Mozart’s time. Several different genres of Italian, French, and German opera had their day in late-eighteenth-century Vienna, among them a type of Singspiel, or German operetta with spoken dialogue, that inclined toward magic, spectacle, and fairy tale. In 1782 Vienna flocked to Ignaz Umlauf’s setting of Das Irrlicht (“The Will o’ the Wisp”), “one of the most popular fairy-tale singspiel texts of the late eighteenth century,” including “an elaborate trial scene with maidens at the temple with a prophetic fire on the altar.” Mozart didn’t think much of this piece, which played the Hoftheater just before his own Abduction from the Seraglio.
All the same, Das Irrlicht was to be one of The Magic Flute‘s more immediate models. A few years later magic opera became all the rage when Emanuel Schikaneder took over one of the city’s suburban popular theaters. Schikaneder’s first efforts along these lines—many more came later—were Oberon, by Paul Wranitzky, a Masonic lodge brother of Mozart’s, which held the stage from 1789 to 1847, and two pieces composed by committee, a team including Mozart and several of his close associates: The Benevolent Dervish and The Philosopher’s Stone, or The Magic Island. Another theater countered with Kasper the Bassoonist, or the Magic Zither. These works have many dramatic and musical features that played directly into Mozart’s masterpiece. Schikaneder opened The Magic Flute in September 1791, three months before the composer died.
Schikaneder was an important theater director, a librettist, a sometime Shakespearean actor, and a star comedian. He was also a composer …