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Mozart’s Magic Marriage


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.1

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.”2 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.3 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. He had known Mozart and his father at Salzburg about ten years earlier when Mozart had written an aria for one of his plays; a dozen years later he had the wit to conceive an opera project that might appeal to Beethoven, which Beethoven worked on and then abandoned. He was thoroughly experienced as a writer of plays and librettos, and there are some brilliant things in his conception of The Magic Flute and in his working out of the drama (as well as some less than brilliant things). Best of all was his placement of the action in the barely disguised context of Freemasonry. Some of the numbers paraphrase Masonic texts. The setting draws freely on Masonic iconography. The initiation process that consumes the opera’s second act meshes not exactly, of course, but plausibly and powerfully with the Masons’ secret rites.

Magic operas regularly featured quests and trials, with temple scenes of some solemnity, priests, and pageantry. In a stroke Schikaneder raised all of this to a new level of seriousness, contemporaneity, and, to a degree, mystery and even scandal. Since Mozart was evidently an enthusiastic Mason, and Schickaneder had been ejected from the order for his low morals, some commentators believe that Mozart himself proposed to draw on Freemasonry. In any case, Mozart was the man to capitalize on it.


Schikaneder deserves all the praise he has received for the libretto—in particular, perhaps, for the climactic passages he devised for the finales at the end of each of the opera’s two acts. The two passages are roughly parallel, each bringing the lovers Tamino and Pamina together after an entire act of separation.

In Act I, the separation is literal. The two have been searching for each other aimlessly until well into the finale, when Tamino is led across the stage to meet Pamina for the first time, in the company of Sarastro—the much-talked-about and feared High Priest of Isis and Osiris, now at last before us, an imposing figure in a chariot drawn by lions through adoring crowds. Tamino has been stalking Sarastro, and Pamina has been pleading with him, but for all the attention they pay him now he might as well have been dusting the Masonic paraphernalia rather than holding court. It is extraordinary how fifteen seconds of rapturous greeting music of the simplest kind can cement the bond between these fairy-tale lovers, a bond reaffirmed hardly less simply at the parallel place in the Act II finale.

Though in Act II the lovers have not been literally separated, their meetings have been fraught with anxiety and grief. After surviving two of the trials set for him by Sarastro, Tamino steps up to the last and most profound one:

No fear of death shall daunt or bate me
The gates of hell already wait me;
I hear their dreadful hinges groan
My feet must dare the path alone.4

I think Tamino should indeed step up—up a little twisting path, I would recommend, leading to the gates of Fire and Water, which should have started opening by the time he turns, on hearing Pamina cry “Tamino, I must see you!” from offstage. He should have approached the gates before Pamina enters to greet him—now with the greatest of tenderness—and accompany him through the ultimate trial. As in the Act I finale, the voices merge, the personalities dissolve.

So concludes the progress of the hero and heroine, a special feature of this opera. For Edward J. Dent, whose pioneering book on Mozart’s operas from 1913 is still well worth reading today, the sense of growth and development made The Magic Flute

comparable only to the operas of Wagner. In all his operas, Mozart is remarkable for his characterization; but in none of them before this, except to a slight extent in I domeneo, did he make a single character show a gradual maturing such as we see in Tamino and Pamina. It was indeed almost impossible to do so within the limits of conventional drama. But Die Zauberflöte, although it starts as a conventional opera, very soon departs from all precedent.5


The work starts with conventional fairy-tale figures. Tamino is a prince without a history. At the opening curtain, as he stumbles onstage with his empty quiver, he doesn’t even know where he is; he has shot his last arrow, and when he passes out, about to succumb to a serpent that advances toward him, he succumbs to womanhood instead, in the form of Three Ladies who arrive to save him. It is taking some time for our hero’s heroism—indeed, his masculinity—to establish itself. Mozart sees this, and writes vulnerability into Tamino’s falling-in-love song to the girl whose portrait the Three Ladies press upon him, and whose rescue the Queen of the Night so thunderously orders him to undertake—vulnerability, as well as ardor to spare.

After the Ladies slay the serpent, they want Tamino for their pleasure, but can’t agree on which of them gets the prize. Instead they take charge of his affairs, outfitting him with magic tools, a companion, and a virtual roadmap for his quest. Tamino’s dependence on women in Act I makes the first of his trials in Act II, where he must show that he can resist women, a more serious matter than might otherwise seem.

Tamino when we first see him is alone and afraid. When we first see Pamina a little later, threatened by Monastatos, “a Moor in the service of Sarastro,” she is less afraid than alarmed and very irritated. In this situation she starts explaining herself almost as a reflex, and her brief exchange with Monastatos (she sings for less than half a minute) is the first of many which relate or enact her various relationships—with him, with her mother, later with Papageno, Sarastro, and Tamino, and finally, to fill out history, her father. Her character grows richer and richer, and we end up knowing as much about her as about any of Mozart’s other grandes dames—Constanze in The Abduction, Ilia and Electra in I domeneo, the Countess Almaviva, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Fiordiligi, Vitellia—even though Pamina has only one aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” and they all have two or three.

I have a friend who has sung Tamino in various Magic Flute productions—one of them set in the New York subway—and he has little affection for the role. For the male lead never catches up with Pamina, emotionally or intellectually. His famous scene comes halfway through Act I, as he arrives at Sarastro’s temple and attempts to confront the evil abductor, as he thinks, of his lady love. In an exceptionally long accompanied recitative he disputes with a strange Speaker he meets at the temple door, a priest of Sarastro’s order. It is the first serious musical moment in an opera which will introduce more and more of such moments over its course. As Tamino blurts out one question and answer after another, we hear the generic prince growing into a person. He seems like a little boy: enthusiastic, impetuous, tactless, insecure, uncertain how to respond, quick to despair.

But a tenor can do only so much with a recitative of this kind, however excellent it is. While he can hardly fail to get it across adequately, he has somehow to avoid being overshadowed by the baritone, a deeper role in every respect. (A little later Tamino will find himself upstaged by forest animals.) Paternal, sometimes severe and sometimes sympathetic, the Speaker is in no position to enlighten Tamino, only to try to make him think. This is a wonderful small role for the right singer—Willard White, for one, in an old video of David Hockney’s first Magic Flute at Glyndebourne.6

Ingmar Bergman’s much-loved version of The Magic Flute, from 1973, makes expert use of the small stage of the restored eighteenth-century Swedish Court Theater at Drottningholm.7 In the temple scene, however, Tamino moves through the temple door on stage into a half-lit room with a low fire in the grate, where he stands like a schoolboy in front of the bespectacled Speaker, seated at a desk. After much talking at cross purposes the Speaker makes his final pronouncement and gets up to go, leaving Tamino by himself, to think for himself. “O everlasting night, when will you end?” he says. The Speaker has blown out his lamp. Reading Mozart in his own way, Bergman has turned this moment into one of revelation. In fact, all Tamino can really think of at this point is his continuing commitment to Pamina, and in fact, it’s all he needs.

  1. 1

    Opera as Drama, revised edition (University of California Press, 1988), p. 104.

  2. 2

    David J. Buch, “Die Zauberflöte, Masonic Opera, and Other Fairy Tales,” Acta Musicologica, Vol. 76, No. 2 (2004). For more on the background and much else about the opera, see the Cambridge Opera Handbook by Peter Branscombe, W.A. Mozart: Die Zau-berflöte (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

  3. 3

    Both operas have been recorded, very handsomely, by the Boston Baroque, conducted by Martin Pearlman: Telarc CD–17279 (rec. 2001) and CD–80508 (rec. 1998), respectively.

  4. 4

    From the version of The Magic Flute prepared for NBC television fifty years ago, at the bicentennial of Mozart’s birth, by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, reprinted in W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman: Libretti and Other Dramatic Writings by W.H. Auden, 1939–1973, edited by Edward Mendelson (Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 177. I draw on the same translation below.

  5. 5

    Mozart’s Operas, second edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. 262.

  6. 6

    With Felicity Lott, conducted by Bernard Haitink (Video Arts International).

  7. 7

    Criterion Collection DVD (2000).

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