More Than a Prince, A Man!
Part 1: The Magic Flute Solved
While researching The Magic Flute, one runs into many lengthy discussion of theories about the writing of the opera. Brigid Brophy spends two chapters of her book, Mozart the Dramatist, discussing how the whole opera was a code for the secrets of the Masonic Order; in Joseph Kerman’s book, Opera as Drama, he spends the majority of his chapter on Mozart discussing how there is a shift half way through the libretto that flips the opera’s fundamental forces of good and bad; there are many elaborations on these two themes by many other opera theorists; and many other such polemic themes, also by many other opera theorists. Yet there is little critical discussion of the opera within itself. In the first part of this paper, I plan to lay out the opera in this way, ignoring ideas about the outer world of the Masonic Order (for now), instead focusing on the ‘Brotherhood’ that exists within the opera, and disproving the various ideas that there are inconsistencies between the first and second part of the text by examining the parts of the opera often pointed to as problematic. From there, I will go on to explore the allegorical implications of the opera in regards to Mozart’s life and The Enlightenment.
One of the first elements of the opera that authors who believe the opera’s plot was restructured half-way through its writing point to as proof of this is the character of Papageno. These authors point to the fact that Papageno is a steadfastly ‘good’ character in the opera, and, at the beginning of the opera, Papageno states that the Queen of the Night is a force of goodness, who later becomes a clear force of badness. When Papageno’s original character is examined beyond good and bad, this becomes different. Indeed, Papageno is a steadfastly good character – his light-hearted, bird-catching song is the first delightful tune of the opera, and he carries it on throughout the opera, bringing it in during many moments of despair, lightening the mood and exciting the audience – but Papageno is not a perceptive character. He and Tamino begin their journey together. When we (the audience) and Tamino first meet Papageno, Papageno is ignorant of the world. He does not think that anything exists outside of the mountains in which he sleeps. He testifies to the goodness of the Queen while ignorant. Then, when he hears that there is an outside world, he immediately wants to leave the Queen’s kingdom. If he truly believed that he Queen of the Night was a goodly force, he would not want to leave her for the unknown. Indeed, right after we hear of his desire to leave, we see the Queen’s three ladies take vengeance on him.
The next element of the opera that is pointed to as a sign that the opera’s plot was restructured in the midst of its writing, is the fact that the Queen of the Night is a goodly force toward Tamino at the beginning of the opera: her ladies save him, she offers him her daughter, and she gives him the magic flute and angels to help him on his journey. Upon closer examination of these interactions, it can be seen that none of them are as simple as good and bad. First, when the ladies tell Tamino about Pamina, they do so in a very elusive manner. They give him the picture, letting him fall in love with her looks, then tell him of her many virtues, and only after he has professed his love for her do they tell him of her plight. This is not so simply ‘good’ as some authors may say it is. Then, when the Queen herself approaches Tamino about her daughter, he dazzles him with a story made of half-truths, told in dazzlingly beautiful coloratura. When telling the story of loosing her daughter, the Queen says nothing of Sarastro other than that he is a ‘villain.’ And, in the midst of showing off her glorious powers, she does not explain how she was too weak to save her daughter. It is only later that we find out Pamina’s father gave Sarastro the Orb of the Sun, and thus the power to keep Pamina from the Queen of the Night. The fact that the Queen is tricking Tamino can be felt in the music: the Queen’s speech goes from a rather mock-sad sounding song when she is telling her ambiguous story, to a coloratura that distracts the audience as well as Tamino from the fact that the story is ambiguous. The Queen then gives Tamino the flute, and the three ladies say that the instrument can, “Transform men’s passion.” This gives us insight into the Queens ability – she is a magic flute herself. She has just transformed Tamino’s pure love for Pamina into hatred for Sarastro. She is a vengeful queen from the beginning of the opera. Finally, the three angels that the Queen gives Tamino to guide him on his path are, indeed, purely good forces. But, as we will see later in the opera, they are not controlled by the Queen of the Night, but are elemental forces that act on their own accord.
Leaving the Queen of the Night’s kingdom, Tamino shares Papageno’s thought about Sarastro, which Papageno has been told his whole life, that Sarastro is “as vengeful as a tiger.” When Tamino gets to the gates of the three temples, he meets his first member of the Brotherhood of Isis and Osiris, the third priest. Tamino tells the third priest he is lead by love and virtue, then tells him of his goal to have vengeance on Sarastro. The third priest replies that, “Love and virtue will not lead you while death and vengeance you pursue.” When Tamino asks the third priest what this means, the third priest says that he cannot tell Tamino yet. Tamino becomes scared, thinking that Pamina has been sacrificed. The third priests tells Tamino that this is not the case, and Tamino, unable to fathom anything else, asks, “When will this disillusionment be gone?” To this, the third priest responds, “When friendship’s hand guides you.” In this exchange, we get our first glimpses of the salient characteristics of the Brotherhood as it is in the opera, and of the opera’s larger journey. Yet those who claim the opera’s parameters shifted in mid-writing ignore the subtleties of this exchange and what they reveal. Before this, the only view of the Brotherhood the audience has is as an evil institution that stole Pamina from her mother, and our only view of the journey in the story is that of Tamino to his love. With this exchange, we see that there is more to the brotherhood, something that is kept secret, but that is based on positive ideals. Through Tamino’s inquisition about overcoming disillusionment, we also see that he started this opera with a goal other than love – that of learning about the world. Tamino is a prince. He is going to be a ruler in his life. Yet he still goes through an arduous journey to gain virtue and knowledge. The first thing he is presented with on this journey is the Queen of the Night and her ideas about how to govern. He takes her word for truth and moves on, but he is still learning.
The next thing that proponents of the libretto-shift point to as evidence is Pamina herself, and her desires to be with her mother. These proponents often point to the stark difference between Pamina’s idealization of her mother in her first scene with Sarastro, and the later first interaction between Pamina and the Queen of the Night in which the Queen makes Pamina miserable, as the most obvious problematic element to the plot’s congruity. But again, when this first interaction between Pamina and Sarastro is looked at more carefully, we see that it is not a case of one character being good and one being bad. First of all, Pamina is not horrified by the arrival of Sarastro even though she was trying to escape his kingdom at that very moment. This lack of fear is justified because Sarastro forgives her, which also shows that he is not a vengeful man, as the Queen of the night had both Papageno and Tamino believing. Sarastro then says that he knows why Pamina really wanted to escape: because of a new love. This is true, and it immediately shows that Sarastro is a wise man. Pamina then goes on to list her other reasons for wanting to escape, which are Monostatos forcing her to love him, and her “filial duty” to her mother. Neither of these define either Sarastro or the Queen of the Night as purely good or purely evil from Pamina’s point of view. It is curious that Sarastro allowed Monostatos to take care of Pamina, but Sarastro swiftly punishes Monostatos when he finds out what had happened, and Pamina’s expression of “filial duty” is far from a cry of desirous love.
After Pamina and Sarastro’s first encounter in the opera, we see Tamino and Sarastro’s first encounter. Sarastro does not punish Tamino and Papageno for conspiring against him to steal Pamina, but instead invites them to try and join the Brotherhood. Tamino, on his quest for further knowledge, decides to risk the tests. Sarastro is pleased with this. He goes on to explain why he took Pamina from the Queen: he says that he knew there would be a prince who would marry Pamina, and if she married him in the kingdom of day, it would ensure light (wisdom), and if he married her in the kingdom of night, it would ensure darkness (confusion). He goes on to say that the Queen rules with mysticism, confusing people as she did Tamino and Papageno. Sarastro thinks it is his, and all the people of his kingdom’s, responsibility “To protect him (Tamino) and help him.”
The next scene, with only Sarastro, Pamina, and Tamino, further reveals Tamino’s greater quest, and further justifies Sarastro’s role as a wise guide for the youth. Sarastro starts by telling Tamino that if he wants to “Govern as a wise and sovereign king,” he needs to join the brotherhood and learn its secrets. To do so, he has to go through a series of difficult tasks. Pamina then steps between Sarastro and Tamino and begs Tamino not to attempt the tasks. She says that if Tamino truly loved her they would run away right then. But Tamino is resolved to learn. When he sings to Pamina, telling her his greater need, Sarastro backs him up, delivering the deep notes that will come to define his rationality. Tamino continues his journey.
In the next scene, we learn another key feature about the Brotherhood and the Queen of the Night. Just before Sarastro’s two guards leave Tamino and Papageno, they tell them to not be misled by women. Just after the two guards leave, night falls, Papageno complains about not being able to see what direction is straight, and the Queen’s three ladies enter the scene. The first thing they tell Tamino and Papageno is that “Rumor is rife about the quality of these priests.” Tamino now knows that the things he once believed about the priests were only rumors, and responds with his new knowledge, “A wise man does not listen to rumors.” This sends the three ladies fleeing, then the two priests come back and lead Tamino and Papageno on.
The next scene is the one that some critics point to as the point in the plot where good becomes evil and evil becomes good. However, when the opera has been viewed as more complex than a battle between goodness and badness, this scene is a beautiful solidification of what has come before it, and it is my favorite ten minutes in all of opera.
It begins with one of the most beautiful pieces in all of music, the Queen of the Nights’ “Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” aria. This is a vengeance aria in which the Queen demands that Pamina kills Sarastro and gives her the Orb of the Sun, all while singing some of the highest notes in the whole opera. The coloratura is similar to her first aria, explicitly showing that she has had this vengeance and evilness in her all along. Monostatos hears this song and, after the Queen has left, he is inspired to have his vengeance on Pamina for not loving him. As he is attempting this murder, Sarastro enters and stops him. He then sings his “In diesen heil’ gen Hallen” aria. In this aria, Sarastro propounds his ideas about ruling without vengeance while singing some of the lowest notes of the opera.
This series of scenes solidifies the Queen as a vengeful, manipulative Queen who inspires vengeance in others, defining this with very high notes; and solidifies Sarastro as a ruler who does not take vengeance on conspirators and helps his subjects, defining this with very low notes. All of these ideas and themes were subtly hinted at throughout the opera and come together in full musical glory in these 10 minutes. This doesn’t turn the opera on its head, but it does turn a whole operatic tradition. Previously, there is a pattern in opera of the lead baritone being a force in opposition to the lead soprano and lead tenor’s love. This is even the case in one of two of Mozart’s da Ponte operas: Le nozze di Figaro, and Cosi fan Tutte. The Magic Flute reverses this by having the baritone be a helpful force for the love of the lead soprano and lead tenor.
After this, the last mystery of the opera is solved when the three angels come back to help Tamino on his quest. Earlier in the opera, the Queen gave the three angels to Tamino, saying they would guide him on his journey. The boys are then a minor role in the opera until Tamino has to get through the final part of his Orpheus-test of love by not talking with Pamina when she comes to him. When they come to him here, they say that they are sent by Sarastro. This makes it clear that they are not dictated by the will of the Queen. They are other than the realm of night and day, other than the world, they are angels! As Tamino passes this test, they say, “Soon superstition will vanish, the wise man will be king.” They go on to make this prophecy true by saving both Pamina and Papageno from suicide. After this, Pamina expresses the depths of her love for Tamino by saying she will sacrifice her life for his. This impresses the priests, they allow her to go with him on his final two tasks, and Pamina and Tamino overcome fire and water together. Papageno goes on to find his Papagena, the Queen of the night, her three ladies, and Monostatos are swallowed up by the earth, and the opera ends with Tamino and Pamina being wed by Sarastro, pulling together all the subtly woven themes of the opera.
When the opera is taken as more than a simple fairytale, as the overture demands, the seemingly problematic elements of the plot turns are solved, and the Brotherhood functions perfectly within the bounds of the opera, never demanding extra-opera knowledge. When these things are understood, doors to the deep significance of this opera as a work within Mozart development as an opera writer (indeed, his very last!), and to The Enlightenment, can be opened. In the opera, the Brotherhood is a complex group of rulers: they have many negative rumors circulating about them, they are very secretive, they are not vengeful rulers, and they are opposed to authority based on superstition rather than rational morality. This is all slowly learned through the reflective process of a wandering prince; it is not simply stated at the beginning of the opera as some critics expect it to be because of the opera’s many fairytale aspects. But even at the end of the opera, no forces are purely good of purely evil. Instead, they are all sophisticated representations of the balances of real life – day and night.
In the second part of this essay, I will show how the complications of the fairytale nature of The Magic Flute show a progression in Mozart’s operas, and create a very well articulated view of The Enlightenment.
Part 2: The Magic Flute, Mozart, and the Enlightenment
While The Magic Flute has many fairytale elements, it builds them into articulate allegories of the enlightenment by avoiding simple good or bad characters and situations. We can see that the fairy-tale elements in The Magic Flute are supposed to be taken seriously right from the overture, which is fully an example of sonata form with well developed counterpoint. Through seriously examining the opera’s allegory as the overture demands, the idea’s of the Brotherhood and the wandering prince become profound pictures of the progression of Mozart’s ideals of The Enlightenment, and The Enlightenment itself.
The prince’s journey begins in the kingdom of the Queen of the Night. We do not know where he came from, or why there is a serpent chasing him, but there is serpent chasing him, and he is a prince. When he finds out that the serpent has been slain, he is desperate to learn how. He is so desperate that he attributes it to the first character who claims he did it – Papageno. This shows that the prince, at the beginning of the opera, is willing to believe whatever he is told. When the authority over Papageno tells the prince something else, the prince believes this. As I explained before, what is told to him here is not told in such a way as to be taken as pure truth. Through a mock-sad song that tells an ambiguous story and an outrageous coloratura, the music leads the audience to believe otherwise. This is very different from Mozart’s earlier operas, where good and bad are clearly defined from the beginning. The change from defining good and bad early in an opera to holding back, reflects a deeper understanding of the world and a well articulated Enlightenment view.
In Le nozze di Figaro, the good forces are clear from the beginning of the opera. Figaro does not need to be justified as a protagonist, he simply is one. The audience feels this through his music. Figaro’s quest does come to represent an ideal of The Enlightenment, but it is a much more simplified ideal than that in The Magic Flute, where the music does not cast judgments until all the characters have been introduced. This shows growth in Mozart’s personal understanding of the world, which gives him the ability to control his music for dramatic effect, holding back and letting the plot develop before defining his characters or what their melodies mean. This reflects a very articulate view of The Enlightenment in which judgments are reserved until one gains knowledge.
The next group that the prince learns from is the Brotherhood of Isis and Osiris. It is with his many encounters with them, that his ideas start to develop into their own well-articulated Enlightenment ideas. This is because the Brotherhood is representative of an enlightened kingdom.
The fact that this opera has two dueling kingdoms allows it to do something Mozart’s da Ponte operas could not. The creation of two dueling kingdoms is not a possibility in Mozart’s da Ponte operas because their focuses are within single kingdoms. In Tamino’s larger quest, he and Mozart examine societies in a much broader way than can be done in the da Ponte operas.
Right from the introduction of the second kingdom in The Magic Flute, the opera shows us stark differences between the two, which illuminate Enlightenment ideas. When the Queen of the Night comes on stage, she is shrouded in mystery and only her three ladies harrow her arrival. When Sarastro comes onto the stage, he is celebrated by a chorus of people, and they actually bring him onto the stage. These differences reflect the differences in the way they govern. The Queen of the Night does not govern through her people. She keeps her governing and her subjects shrouded in mystery. Sarastro governs through his subjects. He even asks them if they approve of the way he governs. This shows that different forms of government can alter people’s individual capabilities. While the people of the Brotherhood are wise and worldly, Papageno and the three ladies are ignorant and superstitious. The individual’s capability to enlighten oneself is an important Enlightenment ideal that is well articulated in The Magic Flute.
In Mozart’s da Ponte operas, Mozart focuses on individual struggles within society. Through these, he does manage to give common individuals abilities that reflect Enlightenment ideas, like Figaro’s ability to outwit the Duke, but Mozart cannot show Enlightenment ideas on as grand of a scale as he can in The Magic Flute. The journey of the prince in The Magic Flute gives Mozart the ability to compare the different effects had on individuals by the absolute monarchy of the Queen, and the enlightened kingdom of the Brotherhood. The differences represent the Enlightenment idea that people are not only capable of controlling their daily lives, as the characters of Figaro do, but that they can also make wise governing decisions as they do when Sarastro asks them if Tamino should be trusted.
When Sarastro is justifying Tamino’s trustworthiness to the people, he makes one of the grandest Enlightenment statements in all of opera, “He is more than a prince, he is a man.” This quote is not only a core belief of The Enlightenment, but a core belief of the Brotherhood, and it is something Mozart could not portray in his earlier operas.
At one point in The Magic Flute, the prince needs the approval of the Brotherhood to continue his journey toward enlightenment. The only way the Brotherhood can justify doing this, is if the prince can also be a man. Sarastro says that he can because of his love for Pamina, and his many virtues. This is true of Tamino, and it allows him to continue his quest for enlightenment. There is a stark contrast between this, and the very princely character of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Don Giovanni refuses to become a part of society in the way society demands. Don Giovanni is royalty. He believes that his personal desires are his guiding force, and the most important force in the world. This becomes true within the opera, and it is the problematic element of the opera that keeps it from being an Enlightenment piece. A very complex Enlightenment idea, is that individuals can pursue their own goals, while at the same time helping the community to achieve its larger goals. Mozart cannot make this idea work in Don Giovanni because Giovanni’s quest is contrary to that of the operas community, and it becomes the focal point of the entire opera, without which the opera’s community cannot function. In The Magic Flute, Tamino’s quest becomes intertwined with love and the quest of the community. By marrying Pamina, he solidifies the kingdom of day (wisdom).
From this, another Enlightenment idea is developed. As I pointed out earlier, in two of Mozart’s da Ponte operas: Le nozze di Figaro, and Cosi fan Tutte, Mozart followed the operatic tradition of having a baritone be a force in opposition to the love of a soprano and tenor. The Magic Flute reverses this by having Sarastro desire and support the marriage of Pamina and Tamino. In Figaro, Cosi, and The Magic Flute, the baritones are figures of authority. In reversing the operatic tradition of baritone as hurdle to soprano and tenor love, Mozart shows that his views of authority have grown. He has learned that authority is not always bad, indeed, that an enlightened monarch like Sarastro can be good. This growth gives him new abilities within his operas. Because he can have baritones be aides to love, he was able to write a love duet for Papageno and Pamina, one of the most beautiful love duets in all of Mozart’s operas. This is something Mozart could never have done in Figaro or Cosi, and it reflects the Enlightenment view that authority can progress enlightened ideas.
In The Magic Flute, all of these Enlightenment ideas that come about through the opera’s allegory, culminate in the wedding of Tamino and Pamina: the Queen of the Night and her conspirators are defeated, destroying an anti-Enlightenment force; Sarastro weds the couple, showing that authority can support Enlightenment ideas; the people approve, showing their ability to govern wisely; and Tamino finishes his greater quest, becoming an Enlightened prince. In the wedding of The Magic Flute, love and Enlightenment ideas come together in a way they do not in any of Mozart’s da Ponte opera’s, all of which have weddings of their own.
Figaro comes closest to bringing together love and Enlightenment ideas, but does not have as much of an Enlightenment ending as The Magic Flute, because of its wedding’s erotic connotations. In Figaro, the greater goal of the opera and the expression of love are bound in the wedding, and the purity of this wedding is preserved with the opera’s ending. However, the Figaro wedding had to be saved from an erotic despotism, and thus part of the achievement of saving the purity of the wedding, is itself erotic. This is a grand goal within the opera, but it detracts from Enlightenment ideals.
In Giovanni, weddings are postponed at the end. The Enlightenment ideas of the opera are supposed to come when Giovanni is defeated, allowing the rest of the people to live for themselves, but everyone was so enraptured with Giovanni that they loose their passion for life when he dies. After that, the music is flat, and so are any Enlightenment hopes of the opera.
In Cosi the wedding is very far from a culminating event of enlightenment. It is actually quiet the opposite. When the men reveal their true identities, the women find out they have fallen in love with each man on different occasions. No matter which coupling occurs, it is unclear weather the end is happy or horrifying. Either way, it is definitely not a testament to pure love or Enlightenment ideas.
It is only in the marriage of The Magic Flute that Mozart can finally bring together pure love and Enlightenment ideas.
While each of Mozart’s da Ponte operas express some Enlightenment views, none of them bring as many complex Enlightenment ideas together as fully and completely as they are
brought together in The Magic Flute. This is because Mozart had to grow as a person and a musician between his da Ponte operas and The Magic Flute to be able to define the Enlightenment as well as he did in The Magic Flute. From Mozart’s da Ponte operas to The Magic Flute, we see his idea of The Enlightenment grow from an idealized set of social and moral principles, to an articulate understanding of the complexities of the world. This allowed him to do many things in The Magic Flute that he could not do in his earlier operas. This is reflected in the simple fact that, at the end of his life, he was finally able to compose a mature singspiel. With this maturity, he gives us one of the most complete, well articulated examples of The Enlightenment and one of the greatest operas of all time: The Magic Flute.
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Branscombie, Peter, Die Zauberflote, Cambridge University Press 1991
Brophy, Brigid, Mozart as Dramatist, Harcourt, Brace and World 1964
Hearrtz, Daniel, Mozart’s Opera’s, The Regents University of California 1990.
Kerman, Joseph, Opera as Drama, New York,: Alfred A. Knopf 1956.
Mozart, W. A. Die Zauberflote, The Metropolitan Opera 1992
Nagel, Ivan, Autonomy and Mercy, Harvard University Press 1991.