The Magic Flute, the last opera which Mozart completed, is justly famous for its beautiful music. More dubiously, it has been praised as an elevating philosophical work. Paul Nettl, in Mozart and Masonry, calls the libretto "a book of human wisdom, consummated as a work of art by Mozart." [p. 93] Neal Zaslaw and William Cowdery's The Compleat Mozart states: "The opera's overt message of tolerance and human brotherhood is surely the substance of what Mozart, as man and as Mason, wanted to communicate."
The view that the work is an inconsistent mishmash, with strong misogynistic and authoritarian tendencies, is widely held to be naive, old-fashioned, and discredited. But, as I propose to show here, it is the correct view. Many performances and translations cut the dialogue, softening the ideas expressed. For this essay, I have relied on the text in the 1985 Dover score of the opera.
For the purposes of this essay, I am assuming that you are already familiar with the story; this isn't a complete plot summary.
In the first part of the opera, up to Tamino's discovery of the three temples, everything proceeds according to fairy-tale conventions. A prince falls in love with a princess and accepts a quest to rescue her. He acquires a comical sidekick. They are given magical gifts to aid them on their quest, and are guided to their designation.
But in view of later events, there is already a lot which is odd. The Three ladies punish Papageno for lying. If they are in the service of a Queen who is really evil, why would they care? Perhaps they would resent his taking credit for a deed which they really performed; but the lofty way in which they administer his punishment, and the ensemble in which Tamino and Papageno join them to praise the idea of padlocking liars' mouths, suggest that they really do care about the principle.
The Ladies' advising Tamino and Papageno to follow the direction of the Three Boys is equally strange. The Boys are in Sarastro's service, and spend nearly all their onstage time preaching. What would the Three Ladies have to do with them?
The first look which we have at Sarastro's realm appears to confirm the Queen's view. Pamina is being held by the lecherous Monstatos, who has slaves under his command. The slaves are gleeful to learn that Pamina has fled, though Monostatos quickly recaptures her.
Papageno has somehow made his way directly to Pamina, and he and Monostatos scare each other away at first sight. Monostatos is the first black man Papageno has ever seen, while Monostatos finds Papageno's bizarre bird costume alarming. Papageno recovers first, though, and says, "Am I a fool, letting myself be scared? There are black birds, why not black men?" Of course, he's entirely right in this. Papageno, in spite of his initial fib, is in some ways the most admirable character in the opera. Whatever his faults, he is well-rooted in reality. And he, not Tamino, is all set to rescue the princess and make a second act unnecessary. This wouldn't be inconsistent with fairy-tale logic; it's often the pure-hearted simpleton who wins the day in Grimm.
But as they make their escape, the scene changes to the Temples of Reason, Nature, and Wisdom. The Three Boys are giving Tamino advice, though they have no answers when he seeks useful information. Left alone, Tamino is turned away from the Nature and Reason Temples, and then meets the Speaker at the entrance to the Temple of Wisdom.
Here we have an example of Mozart's genius for reversing the entire perspective on a situation by musical means. In an earlier opera, Mozart turned Don Giovanni from a rake into a doomed hero with the Statue's entrance music. Here, he uses understatement rather than dramatic flourishes to change the moral climate.
The key changes in this scene are significant. Tamino proclaims his intent in the key of D. The first "Zurück" goes out of the key to answer with a B-flat; the second gives a cadence in E-flat. E-flat is the "masonic" key of the opera, of course; but even without knowing this, the listener will sense that something exciting is happening from the raising of the key by half a step. Tamino sings in C minor as he approaches the Temple of Wisdom, and the quiet, unexpected lift from G to A-flat announces the Speaker's appearance and lets him address Tamino in E-flat. Tamino answers in the same key, thus subtly granting the Speaker's authority.
This is one of a number of musical devices which Mozart uses to make the Speaker seem reasonable and Tamino needlessly emotional. But look at the actual content of the discussion. First the Speaker dismisses the Queen's complaints on the grounds that she is a woman. Tamino presses the facts: "Didn't the robber mercilessly tear Pamina from her mother's arms?" The Speaker concedes this, and won't even say whether she has been killed. He then exits with a noble A minor passage, promising that everything will become clear "as soon as friendship's hand leads you to its eternal bond in the holy place."
Left alone and feeling confused, Tamino asks rhetorically when the light will find his eyes. To his surprise, he is answered by an unseen chorus that tells him, "Soon, or never." This should be the first time we hear the chorus of priests. Earlier, the score specifies that "a voice" tells him to go back, but we usually hear the chorus. The voices also answer his question about whether Pamina is still alive, though they keep him in suspense for a few seconds: "Pamina ... Pamina ... lebet noch."
We now return to Papageno and Pamina, who are apparently in the clear and within hearing of Tamino's flute. Monostatos and the slaves catch them, but Papageno uses the magic bells to make them dance away. But they are overtaken by Sarastro and his retinue. Pamina counsels him to tell the truth, even if it is a crime. As Sarastro's chorus enters, they declare that "He is our idol [Abgott], to whom we all consecrate ourselves."
Pamina begs Sarastro for forgiveness for trying to escape. Once again, Mozart works his musical magic, and Sarastro replies in tones which make it impossible for him to be a villain. He also makes a point which is generally overlooked, telling her: "You love another very much. I will not force you to love, but I will not give you your freedom." Apparently Sarastro had entertained hopes that Pamina would marry him!
But when Pamina mentions her mother, Sarastro reveals himself as a deprogrammer who knows what's best for those he abducts: "You would lose all your joy, if I left you to her hands... [She is] a proud woman! A man must guide your heart, for without him every woman tends to overstep her bounds." Mozart's music somehow makes it possible to listen to this without gagging.
Sarastro acquits himself better when Monostatos brings in Tamino as a captive. Sarastro sentences Monostatos to seventy-seven blows on the soles of his feet. The reason isn't given, though most likely it's his recent treatment of Pamina. However, this exchange confirms that Monostatos is in Sarastro's service, even if Sarastro doesn't think much of him; therefore, Sarastro permits slavery.
Sarastro now announces that Tamino and Papageno are to be brought into the Temple for testing, and their heads covered for purification. Papageno has no interest at all in joining the Temple, but his preferences are of no interest to Sarastro.
In the second act, Sarastro talks with the priests about Tamino's initiation. He states that the gods have appointed Pamina for Tamino, and this is the reason why he abducted her from the Queen, who intends to destroy the Temple of Wisdom.
The Speaker, or First Priest, expresses concerns about Tamino's ability to bear up under the trials. "He is a prince," says the Speaker, meaning that Tamino may have lived a sheltered life.
Sarastro's answer almost redeems him: "More than that -- he is a human being [Mensch]." But when the Speaker raises the possibility that Tamino might die, Sarastro says that just means that Tamino will get to meet Isis and Osiris sooner.
As Tamino and Papageno are prepared for their trials, we see the difference between them more clearly than ever before. Tamino gives back all the right answers, and will do whatever he is told. Papageno has no interest in fighting for "love of wisdom"; he just wants to eat, sleep, and drink, and wouldn't mind having a wife. He is pushed through the trials by promises of a wife and threats of lifelong solitary confinement.
The two priests place the initiates under command of silence, and warn them in music against women's tricks. In particular, they may not speak to Pamina or Papagena. The Three Ladies appear, having somehow made their way into the Temple. Perhaps they were allowed to get in so that they would unknowingly serve as part of the initiation test. Papageno is willing to speak with them, but Tamino keeps telling him to be silent. He is already echoing the Temple line, telling Papageno that the Queen is merely "a woman, with a woman's mind."
After a change of scene, Monostatos delivers a significant but ambiguous aria. He is a black man in a white society, and no one will love him; or so he says. We can take this at face value, and suppose that he wants to force Pamina because no one will have him willingly; or perhaps everybody dislikes him because he's a contemptible character, and he can't see this and believes that he's surrounded by racists. Either way, his taking out his frustrations on Pamina is unjustifiable, and Sarastro properly chastises him for it. But it's very disturbing that Sarastro engages in a racial swipe, saying, "Your soul is as black as your face."
The Queen's subsequent dialogue with Pamina is usually cut in translation, omitting key information about the back history of the opera. She says that when Pamina's father died, he left the sevenfold Sun Circle to Sarastro; with it, Sarastro gained the power which formerly belonged to the Queen. This is the reason for all her plotting: she wants the power of the Sun Circle back from Sarastro.
The priests and Papagena now play cruel tricks on Papageno, letting him meet an apparently ancient woman, who tells him that he must marry her or no one. When he agrees, she is revealed as Papagena, only to be whisked away.
Next the cruelty falls on Pamina, who finds the initiates in the temple. Tamino not only doesn't speak to her, he completely ignores her. Nothing in the terms of the trial forbids a sympathetic look, but he just gestures to her to go away. Pamina is utterly broken by this rejection.
To turn the screw further, Sarastro brings Tamino and Pamina into his presence before the next trial, and tells Pamina to bid him a last farewell. Here, at least, Tamino relents and shows that he really does hope to see her again; but she isn't given any explanation of his previous silence.
Driven to the edge, she decides to commit suicide. The Three Boys stop her, but apparently the attempt shows that she has passed a test, because now she is allowed to join Tamino. Normally suicidal depression wouldn't be considered a desirable characteristic; but she has shown her devotion to Tamino, and this apparently satisfies the priests that she will accept Tamino's guidance and not overstep her bounds.
Papageno is also driven to attempt suicide, and the Three Boys again rush to the rescue, advising him to play his magic bells to summon Papagena. He doesn't get to be initiated into the Temple, and never wanted to anyway; the lesson seems to be that he's allowed to live at the level which is natural to him. This doesn't explain why he had to be put through so much torment.
Ironically, this pernicious group is supposed to represent Freemasonry, which is generally considered to have been an enlightened movement in Mozart's time. Some parts of the Temple's behavior make sense if we recall that secret societies such as the Masons were persecuted in some places, and thus had to take their secrecy seriously. Perhaps the lodges feared that members would leak secrets by talking to their wives.
There isn't any denying the musical beauty of Die Zauberflöte; and there are passages in its text which, taken out of context, can seem inspiring. But we have to realize that the music covers a text which is full of irrational ideas and values.
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