The Magic Flute is the ram­bling jour­ney of a soul in search of truth, his voy­age from dark­ness to light,” writes Janos Lieb­ner in Mozart on the Stage, and he is absolutely right.  There is no doubt that Mozart’s last opera is one of the great­est operas ever writ­ten. But there is also no doubt that for quite a num­ber of opera fans — even some Mozart afi­ciona­dos — there often is some­thing of an aster­isk next to the term “great” when used with Die Zauber­flöte.

True, it has a secure place in the reper­toire, and many famous com­posers and con­duc­tors have said fab­u­lous things about it. But — the aster­isk says — while Mozart’s music is super, it is severely under­cut by Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto with its rather silly, con­vo­luted, even con­tra­dic­tory story. What a shame the com­poser had to “slip” and write such a low-brow comic singspiel, rather than end­ing his life’s work with just one more true opera, some­thing that could hon­estly be put beside The Mar­riage of Figaro, Don Gio­vanni and Così fan tutte.

In Die Zauber­flöte, the lis­tener must strug­gle to under­stand — or, per­haps bet­ter, to set aside — the plot for the sake of the music,” is the way one (oth­er­wise admirable) recent biog­ra­phy of Mozart puts it. “The story is hope­lessly con­vo­luted and self-contradictory…The music car­ries it all, even though the incon­gru­ous con­duct of Mozart’s cast of char­ac­ters and the flat human­i­tar­ian preach­ments made great demands on his abil­ity to shift from one style of vocal writ­ing to another.”

Schikaneder as Papageno

At first glance, there does seem to be an abrupt shift in the libretto with the “good” char­ac­ters in act one turn­ing out to be evil in act two — and vice versa. There are also magic tricks check by jowl with Masonic ini­ti­a­tion rit­u­als, fan­tas­tic (in both senses of the word) ani­mals, super­nat­ural appear­ances of char­ac­ters and some of the sil­li­est car­ry­ings on to be found on the oper­atic stage.  This aston­ish­ing array of styles also extends to Mozart’s music itself.  “From the Hayd­nesque folk­tunes of the music for the ‘sim­ple’ beings, Papageno and Papa­gena, to the mys­ti­cal and rit­u­al­is­tic music for Saras­tro and his court, and from the mad col­oratura of the Queen of the Night to the inclu­sion of an antique-sounding north Ger­man Lutheran chorale tune, sung by two men in armor,” as H. C. Rob­bins Lan­don so accu­rately put it. How could such a hodge-podge of seem­ingly dis­parate ele­ments pos­si­bly come together into any kind of coher­ent — much less, pro­found — whole?

Yet it does. And for some of us, The Magic Flute is not a messy coda to Mozart’s out­put. It is, rather, the most utterly per­fect sum­ming up of every­thing Mozart had poured into all of his other operas, a glo­ri­ous final tes­ta­ment to life itself, with its pain and absur­dity, its tri­als but, ulti­mately, its deep sat­is­fac­tion and joy in sim­ply being alive. And in this, the opera bears a rather aston­ish­ing resem­blance to another often puz­zling and mis­un­der­stood last work, also writ­ten by one of West­ern Civilization’s great sages, William Shakespeare’s The Tem­pest.

There are the obvi­ous par­al­lels between the char­ac­ters: the male author­ity fig­ures Saras­tro (Flute) and Pros­pero (Tem­pest) and their antithe­sis, the Queen of the Night and the evil witch Syco­rax; the slaves Mono­statos and Cal­iban, who rep­re­sent the baser instincts and who wish to rav­age  Pamina/ Miranda. There is a strong par­al­lel between the young noble cou­ples who instantly fall in love with each other, Tamino/Pamina  and Ferdinand/Miranda. Even the tri­als Tamino and Fer­di­nand must undergo before win­ning their lady loves are sim­i­lar in their “Every­man” qual­ity. There is no Gor­gon to slay or field to be cleared, sown and reaped in a day, instead Fer­nando only has to stack wood, and Tamino must keep his mouth shut, then walk through tri­als of water and fire. The Tem­pest’s deus ex machina, the spirit Ariel has a direct coun­ter­part in The Magic Flute’s dues ex machina, the three genii.

The famous poster for Marc Chagall’s truly mag­i­cal pro­duc­tion at the Met.

But more impor­tant is the fact Mozart’s and Shakespeare’s last works are related by genre. “The are both adven­tur­ous, roman­tic fairy-tales with naïve magic and child­ish stage tricks, car­ry­ing — in peer­less poetry — wis­dom and ethics and bear­ing exquis­ite under­stand­ing of human­ity,” Janos Lieb­ner explains. He also points out both works con­tain “an infi­nitely rich vari­ety of human, sub-human and super­hu­man types, span­ning a wide range of char­ac­ters, from the mon­ster through dif­fer­ent grade of human evo­lu­tion to the pure spirit, free from all earthly ties.”

Once we under­stand The Magic Flute is not an opera like The Mar­riage of Figaro with three-dimensional human beings por­tray­ing day-to-day life in real time, but an alle­gory, sym­bol­i­cally reen­act­ing the jour­ney of the soul into full con­scious­ness, every­thing falls into place.

The first scene lets us know imme­di­ately The Magic Flute is a fable. Tamino races on stage, flee­ing a giant ser­pent. He faints (so much for the almighty, fear­less hero) and the ser­pent is promptly dis­patched by the Three Ladies.

The snake is a highly ambigu­ous char­ac­ter in mythol­ogy. “The snake sig­ni­fies evil and dark­ness on the one hand and wis­dom on the other,” Carl Jung wrote. It can kill with a sin­gle bite, so it is feared. But because it sheds its skin it is also a sym­bol of rebirth and the con­stant cycle of life itself.  Entwined around a pole it has become the sym­bol of the med­ical pro­fes­sion and heal­ing, and in some Far East­ern tra­di­tions, the kun­dalini snake, coiled at the base of the spine, sym­bol­izes vital energy that can be released through med­i­ta­tion. But unleash­ing such energy can be dan­ger­ous since it means sur­ren­der­ing to, or hav­ing a rela­tion­ship with, a part of life larger than our tiny indi­vid­ual egos.  No won­der Tamino is run­ning — it can be enor­mously fright­en­ing to encounter such a pow­er­ful, poten­tially devour­ing, force with­out any prepa­ra­tion or warning.

But Tamino’s encounter with his ser­pent is what leads him into a new land, and pushes him onto his jour­ney of enlight­en­ment. The alleged dis­crep­an­cies and con­tra­dic­tions in the plot of The Magic Flute dis­ap­pear when we real­ize opera is being told from Tamino’s point of view.  At the begin­ning of the opera he is like every human infant, born into a strange and unknown place. At first we learn about the world from the peo­ple imme­di­ately around us. We lit­er­ally mir­ror our par­ents’ view of the world. Our fam­ily teaches us what is right and wrong, just as the Three Ladies and the Queen of the Night teach Tamino who is good and who is bad in his new world. But then Tamino sets off on his own, and just as human beings often do, when he begins to encounter the world at large, he real­izes not every­thing he has been told is true. Saras­tro is not, in fact, evil, and as Tamino gains wis­dom, he is able to make up his own mind about right and wrong.

Schikaneder and Mozart went to great lengths to remind us (some­times sub­tly, some­times no so sub­tly) that The Magic Flute is a sym­bolic tale.  To men­tion only one of the clues, there is in the con­stant rep­e­ti­tion of the num­ber three, a mys­ti­cal num­ber all by itself (think of the Chris­t­ian tri­une God­head). In The Magic Flute we encounter Three Ladies, then the Three Genii (or boys) who instruct Tamino in three things — “Be stead­fast, patient, and dis­creet!” (“Sei stand­haft, duld­sam und ver­schwiegen!”). There are three tem­ples (for wis­dom, rea­son and nature) and in the score Saras­tro makes his entrance rid­ing in a char­iot drawn by six (3 X 2) lions.

Play­bill for the first performance

Mozart reflects the impor­tance of the num­ber of three in many ways: the opera is in the key of E-flat, which has three flats. The over­ture begins with three major chords and half way through the over­ture, the three chords are sounded nine (3X3) times.  At the begin­ning of the sec­ond act, fol­low­ing the march of the priests, Mozart against writes the three chords to be sounded nine times, after which Saras­tro sings the only aria in the opera writ­ten in three-quarter time, “O Isis und Osiris.” (It can­not be an acci­dent the only aria in three-quarter time falls in the mid­dle — the heart — of the opera.)

Entire books have been writ­ten explor­ing all the sym­bol­ism in The Magic Flute and, as in any work of art, the more we under­stand the sym­bol­ism, the deeper our under­stand­ing of the opera will be.

But the rea­son The Magic Flute, and The Tem­pest, so loved, is not because it engages our brains with delight­ful sym­bolic puz­zles, but because it warms our hearts and nur­tures our souls on the very deep­est level.  As Janos Lieb­ner so pro­foundly pointed out, “ ‘Every phe­nom­e­non of exis­tence is lyri­cal in its ideal essence, tragic in its fate, and comic in its forms of appear­ance,’ says San­tayana. On Shakespeare’s and Mozart’s stages, all three cat­e­gories exist simul­ta­ne­ously and melt into per­fect unity. Tamino’s devel­op­ment is the devel­op­ment of the audi­ence, too, accom­pa­ny­ing their hero through his suf­fer­ing and tri­als, in order to reach, beyond the night’s cold dark­ness, the exhil­a­rat­ing warmth of the sun.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill dur­ing the 2004-05 sea­son.

The image at the top of the page is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s design for the entrance of the Queen of the Night (1815).