“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.”
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.
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.
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).