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In the 18th century, the term Singspiel was used much more generally for opera and music theater works than its current specific meaning of a dramatic vernacular piece with spoken dialogue instead of sung recitatives. Singspiels in the modern sense, however, were indeed increasingly popular, never more so than in a subset genre, the Zauberoper or "magic opera."
A craze for magic operas, which generally had plots based on fairy tales and spectacular stage effects, took root in suburban Viennese theaters in the late 1780s. Farce and the supernatural mingled freely in these works, of which Paul Wranitzky's Oberon, König der Elfen (Oberon, the King of the Elves) provided a popular model in 1789. Its exotic setting and rescue theme proved highly influential, not least on Mozart's Magic Flute, the genre's most famous and most important example.
The impresario and actor Emanuel Schikaneder, director of the Theater auf der Wieden, home to many successful magic operas, apparently proposed such a piece to Mozart as early as 1789. At the time Mozart was an "Italian" composer again, immersed in the masterpieces of the Da Ponte trilogy, but he had enthusiastically worked in vernacular opera throughout his career, from Bastien und Bastienne in 1768 through Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) in 1786. Schikaneder was another Freemason, and at this time Mozart was desperately in need of money and borrowing heavily from his lodge brothers.
In any case, he welcomed the project, although he also had a commission to write an Italian opera (La clemenza di Tito) for the Prague coronation of the new Austrian Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia, to say nothing of the mysterious Requiem commission which has since haunted Mozart's final year to the popular exclusion of almost everything else. The composer began work on The Magic Flute in July of 1791 and - despite also composing and rehearsing Tito for its intervening premiere - completed the overture on September 28, two days before the premiere.
This was one of Mozart's greatest successes during his lifetime. The composer conducted and Schikaneder took the part of the birdcatcher Papageno, a role tailormade for his limited vocal range and comic prowess. Mozart tested the veteran actor's improvisatory aplomb by altering the crucial glockenspiel part in his Act II aria during the performance, and otherwise thoroughly enjoyed himself. The show had 20 performances in its first month, and Mozart, having delegated the podium responsibilities, loved to attend, inviting such musical eminences as Haydn and Salieri. After Mozart's death, the opera retained a popular place in the repertory - Schikaneder had presented over 200 performances of it by 1800, and wrote a sequel which was set by Peter Winter in 1798.
The original libretto was by Schikaneder himself, suggested by a story from a collection of pseudo-Asian tales. The ostensible locale is ancient Egypt, as filtered through Masonic symbolism. The plot and characters also support a Masonic allegory, which fortunately is largely transparent to the uninitiated.
The music too is filled with Masonic imagery, beginning with the three chords of the overture. The number three is again apparent in the three flats of the tonic key (E-flat), and the concentrated pursuit of wisdom may be reflected in the single theme of the main Allegro and its fugal elaboration, but at this point the extramusical symbolism becomes unnecessary for the appreciation of another of Mozart's miracles, an overture perfect in its purely musical balance and dramatically apt.
Act I opens with one of the stage spectacles beloved in the genre. Prince Tamino enters, pursued by a monstrous serpent. The music supports the terror-filled action with explosive accents and quickly rushing scales. Three ladies kill the monster looming over the fallen Tamino. After rejoicing in their triumph and squabbling over the handsome Prince, they depart to inform their Queen.
Papageno, the birdcatcher for the Queen of the Night, enters singing a folklike song about his profession and playing a set of pipes. Papageno cheerfully allows Tamino to assume that he killed the monster; the ladies on their return disabuse Tamino and padlock Papageno's mouth. The ladies show Tamino a portrait of Pamina, daughter of their Queen. Tamino is quickly smitten, but then is told that Pamina has been kidnapped by the tyrant Sarastro. In another stroke of the stage machines, the background dissolves and the Queen is revealed, singing of her daughter's loss first with melting grief, then with fiery coloratura passion, commissioning Tamino to rescue her. In the finale to the scene, Tamino, Papageno (only grunting at first, through the padlock on his lips), and the three ladies state an instructive moral in a quintet. To protect him in his quest, the ladies give Tamino a magical flute; Papageno receives silver bells. Three wise boys, they are told, will guide them.
The next scene is a room in Sarastro's quarters. Pamina has escaped from Monostatos, the Moorish overseer of the temple, but she is soon brought in and bound at Monostatos' command. When Papageno enters, his weird appearance frightens off Monostatos. Papageno frees Pamina and tells her of the Prince who loves her, while he, alas, has no mate. In duet they reflect on the joys of domestic harmony.
The finale to Act I takes place in a grove surrounded by Temples of Reason, Wisdom, and Nature, its holiness evoked by solemn trombones. Tamino is brought in by the three boys, who urge patience, silence, and perseverance. Here the Prince learns that Sarastro is not a tyrant, but a man of great wisdom. After playing his flute, Tamino hears Papageno's pipes. After much to and fro with Monostatos, Tamino and Pamina are united before Sarastro, who ordains that they (and Papageno) must undergo purification trials to prove their worthiness of higher happiness. At the close, the chorus which introduced Sarastro sings a Masonic hymn, proclaiming that virtue and justice will make a heaven on earth.
Act II begins with more ceremonials, as Sarastro and the priests consider the trials before Tamino. The Prince is determined to proceed, but the terrified Papageno would rather not until he learns that a Papagena will be his reward if he perseveres. The Queen's three ladies attempt to sway them from their course; Papageno ends up in a faint but Tamino is resolute. The priests then appear and congratulate them on passing the first test.
In a garden, Monostatos is preparing to rape the sleeping Pamina, when the Queen of the Night abruptly appears. She tosses Pamina a dagger and in a furious, spectacularly virtuoso revenge aria orders her to kill Sarastro. After the Queen's departure Monostatos returns, and tries to blackmail Pamina for her love. Sarastro intervenes at the critical moment, however, and assures Pamina in another noble aria that it is not vengeance that rules in these halls.
The scene reverts to the trials of Tamino and Papageno, the former obediently silent, the latter chattering to himself. An apparently very old woman offers Papageno a drink and introduces herself as his prophesied sweetheart, Papagena. The three wise boys enter, warning Tamino and Papageno of the coming test. Pamina now enters, but her joy at finding Tamino soon turns to poignant grief, expressed in a haunting aria, as he maintains his silence.
In the next scene, Sarastro reunites Tamino and Pamina, only to separate them for greater trials. Papageno, however, is ready to abandon the search for enlightenment in favor of a drink. He sings another folkish song about his desire for a wife, with the bell music becoming more elaborate with each verse. The old lady from before dances in; when Papageno vows to be faithful to her, she is revealed to be young and lovely, and then is whisked away until Papageno should prove himself worthy of her.
In a garden, the three wise boys sing the symbolic praises of sunlight, and then dissuade Pamina from turning upon herself the dagger her mother has given her. She is reunited with Tamino for the final test, which is introduced in a chorale sung by two men in armor. Protected by the magic flute, Tamino and Pamina pass through fire and water, and the chorus proclaims their welcome into the temple.
The following scene offers a comic foil to Pamina's suicidal angst, as Papageno is now ready to attempt his own death, having lost his Papagena, or so he believes. When he is about to hang himself, the three boys remind him of the magic bells. Papagena returns in her youthfulness, and the two sing a bubbling patter duet about the joys of marriage.
The finale finds Monostatos leading in the Queen and her ladies for a last attack upon Sarastro. But the sun suddenly floods the stage with light, and Sarastro appears with Tamino and Pamina now in priestly garb. The chorus brings the opera to a close with a radiant bit of moralizing and congratulations.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.