Looking Again at The Magic Flute by Barbara Ardinger

I have just spent a week watching four productions of Mozart and Schikaneder’s 1791 opera. Four in a row! Now we all know that I adore musical theater more than almost anything else in the world. Operetta. Nelson and Jeanette. Fred and Ginger. Broadway musicals (but not the movies made from them that rewrote them completely). But opera?? Certainly not Italian opera seria. It’s just too loud. Besides, why isn’t La Boheme sung in French? Carmen in Spanish? Madame Butterfly in Japanese? Aida in Egyptian? Turandot in Chinese?

All right—yes, these are ridiculous questions. I’ve seen La Boheme and Turandot live. I’ve seen The Magic Flute live two or three times. Mozart is my favorite classical composer. Born in Salzburg (which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire and now is the site of an annual Mozart festival), he began composing at age five, and he and his sister Nannerl toured the courts of 18th-century Europe and performed before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. (BTW, while much of his story is told in the play and film Amadeus, Mozart was not murdered by Salieri. He died from a highly contagious miliary fever.)

Instead of watching TV in the evenings, I watch DVDs. Mostly musicals. Last week, my fingers alighted on The Magic Flute. I have seven productions on DVDs. You know what? As I watched them, I saw things I’ve somehow been missing. I wonder how many other people have also missed them. Before I go into the details, however, let’s listen to the range of Mozart’s music. We hear baroque music in the Queen of the Night’s two arias.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFktfr1kmHc] We hear sacred music in Sarastro’s temple. His prayer to Isis and Osiris [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eQkgZ-pz1A] is one example; another is the two armed men. (That’s Tamino wandering around.) And we hear what could be folk music when Papageno the bird catcher sings.

The Magic Flute is said to be one of the most performed operas in the world. What I’m focused on today is how Schikaneder’s book expresses the belief system of the Enlightenment and tells several stories. One is the quest story of Prince Tamino, who is wandering through the woods when he’s attacked by a monster. The monster is killed by three women sent by the Queen of the Night, who soon comes to visit and gives him a picture of her daughter Pamina and tells him to rescue her from Sarastro, who kidnapped her. Meanwhile, Papageno, a bird catcher, takes credit for killing the monster, is punished, then goes off and rescues Pamina from Monostatos, who is Sarastro’s black slave. Sarastro forgives Pamina for running away from him, then decides to train the two young men to become priests in his temple, which seems to be quasi-Rosicrucian. (Scholars have long said that the opera reveals Masonic or Rosicrucian esoteric secrets.) Tamino is told to remain silent. He obeys and goes on his quest. But Papageno—my favorite character—would rather eat and drink and find “a little dove,” that is, a wife. He refuses to keep silent and insists on being himself. In my opinion, Papageno is a true, earthy pagan. Like us, he’s grounded and focuses any magic he might possess (like his magic bells) on ordinary life. Meanwhile, Monostatos tries to rape Pamina (for the second time) and the Queen of the Night arrives carrying a knife and tells her daughter to murder Sarastro.

This is not the entire plot, but I’ve touched on important points. First, Sarastro. He’s portrayed as a high priest. But if we listen to his priestly chorus, what we hear over and over again is that women are deceitful and all they do is gossip and all women need to be led and controlled by men. It’s a patriarchal lodge. Given that the opera was written in 1790, this should be no surprise. Men were in charge. Also, Sarastro owns a black slave. Sarastro’s devotion seems to be to the sun, and he is supposed to hold great wisdom. Sure, he is kind and his arias are grand, but I don’t like what he stands for: male domination.

Second, the Queen of the Night. Who is she, really? Sarastro represents light, she represents darkness. Another common patriarchal theme. (Ask Jung about masculine light and feminine darkness.) A modern version of the opera, set in World War I, written by Stephen Fry and directed by Kenneth Branagh implies that Sarastro and the Queen were once married. Following their divorce, Sarastro kidnapped their daughter and took away as much of the Queen’s power as he could grab. No wonder she’s so angry. Does what happened to the Queen remind us of #metoo?

Third, Pamina and Tamino. They’re “fated to be together,” but when Tamino is in training at Sarastro’s temple, she comes to him and he turns away from her because men in training to be priests are supposed to reject women. This makes her suicidal. She sings an aria about suicide, but is rescued by the three little boys, after which Sarastro permits her to accompany Tamino through his ordeals of fire and water. Can’t this girl stand up for herself? How would she behave today?

Fourth, Papageno and Papagena. As I said earlier, he’s a pagan, more interested in eating and drinking and finding a wife than in any esoteric practices. And he just can’t hardly stop talking. While he and Tamino are in their training room, he’s visited by an “old woman” who tells him she’s eighteen years and two minutes old. She explains that if he doesn’t accept her proposal—make that proposition in the sexual sense—he’ll be imprisoned and get only bread and water for the rest of his life. Of course he yields. What’s interesting about these scenes in some productions of the opera is that Papagena seems to be working for or with Sarastro. She comes on stage with the priests, but they prevent her from revealing who she really is and drag her off. Men still dominating women.

Fifth, the flute itself. Before Tamino and Pamina begin their initiatory journeys through fire and water, she tells him that it was her father (Sarastro?) who created the flute out of the roots of a thousand-year-old oak tree and he did this magic work during a dark and stormy night. So the flute is magical. But how is it related to sun worship? I think the Queen of the Night had a hand in making that flute.  

I’ve left out most of the opera, which is certainly worth watching. It’s enchanting. Watch it yourself. My favorite—and I think the best—production is from Stockholm’s Drottningholm Court Theatre, which was built in 1754 and still uses authentic stage machinery. The actors are costumed in 18th-century styles, and the musicians play authentic 18th-century instruments. Buy it here and add it to your DVD collection. You’ll love it, too.


Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

Categories: Art, Music

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20 replies

  1. Wonderful analysis, Barbara! You’ve inspired me to delve more deeply into opera–something I’ve always loved.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh dear Barbara, I love Puccini – love Italian operas! Could be my Italian roots? But I also love Mozart – it’s been eons since I have thought about/heard the Magic Flute but because trees are burning – ancient trees I have never seen – I am caught by the oak tree that created the magic flute… the tree carries the power of the sun in the bones of its wood since all trees literally eat light. In that sense it is magic. The Queen of Night would surely know about this! I love wood – my house is made of logs – wood – from dead trees still carries the essence of our elders. Trees have been around for approximately 450 million years in some form! Fascinating reading.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There’s nothing like trees. I think trees should never be cut down……except that most houses are framed with lumber. Is there a solution to this? I agree with you that trees carry enormous power of all kinds.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Unfortunately we need trees for so many things. We cannot simply stop cutting them down but we desperately need to change our logging practices – and we MUST save the elders who carry the genes that will help the young trees to survive.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Lots of people here in California are worried about the fires approaching the sequoias. CalFire has wrapped the bases of the sequoias in special fireproof material, and they’re working really hard to keep the fires away from those old old old trees. I visited their park once. Seeing those trees was unforgettable. I hope they survive!!!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Friends–I hope you’ll all listen to the music! Nobody’s as good as Mozart. We need beautiful music these days. I just ordered a DVD of another production of The Magic Flute.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Oh my I love the music of Mozart. In fact, I would say he’s my favorite. Whenever he comes on our local classical station, I always stop to take notice.

    Thanks for bringing out the details of the opera. 1000 year old oak tree – I didn’t remember that. A bit of the pagan power rising up there.

    Mozart died so young (35?). He was such a genius musician, I wonder if he lived longer if he would have stepped away from women as deceitful. Oh well, idle speculation. He lived in a world of unfettered patriarchy and so it goes.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. HI Barbara — Today you reminded me of the years when I taught “Women and Music” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One year one of my students did her final paper (delivered to the entire class) on an analysis of heroines in opera. Her conclusion: the main diva is often dead by the end of the opera. Opera composers literally tried to strangle women’s voices. Of course, they were not successful. Who do we love to listen to the most? The soprano singing her amazing arias.

    I love Mozart (and opera, in general), too, and I put up with the plots to hear the music. My favorite version of _The Magic Flute_ is the production by Julie Taymor. I’ve seen it at the Met (and on DVD). It’s absolutely magical!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good for your student to report that the operatic heroines nearly always end up dead.

      I have the Julie Taymor version of The Magic Flute. I bought it mostly because I’m a huge fan of Nathan Gunn (Papageno), who is wonderful on screen and in person. I used to like Taymor a lot (I also have her version of Titus Andronicus, which is excellent and scary), but the last couple times I watched her Magic Flute, I found her puppets overwhelming. And annoying. I also have Taymor’s Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as Prospera. The acting is excellent, but, as usual, Taymor goes overboard with the puppets and props. But good for her for being an aggressively artistic director.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The character who has always fascinated and intrigued me is Kundry in Wagner’s “Parsifal.” A wild, crazy woman who shapeshifts through many lives. I know there’s a powerful Goddess behind her story.
    My rule of thumb in opera is, “look closely at the evil woman.”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks so much for this post! I DID listen to the music you linked to and it is magnificent. That’s the wonderful thing about opera, and music in general. Even if the words and plots reflect the repressions of their time, the music itself can still transport us to places of freedom and joy. I also love that operas from that time gave women a voice they did not have outside of the opera house. The Queen of the Night’s story might be problematic, but the voices of the women singing that role soar in a way that women’s voices could not in other settings. Thanks also for the plot analysis – I hadn’t known or thought about all those details!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Fascinating analysis. Are you familiar with Mozart’s sister’s work? She would probably have ended up as famous as he was, but for her female sex. My dad loved loved loved Mozart. His birthday was last week, and now you’re prompting me to listen to some Mozart in his honor. Thank you, friend. <3


    • Yes, I know about Nannerl. She retired to get married to a jerk. There’s a really good novel in which Nannerl is persuaded to go to Vienna in 1791 to investigate her brother’s suspicious death. The suspicion is that the Freemasons murdered him for revealing “secrets” in the opera. I recommend this novel. Among other things, Nannerl disguises herself as Wolfie and plays the piano and everybody thinks it’s him, not her. Cool, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks, Barbara. I love the analysis of stories. I particularly appreciated the video clips that illustrated your points; I am unlikely to have sought them out independently and I enjoyed watching/ listening to them..

    Liked by 3 people

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