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Your guide to The Magic Flute

4 January 2019

In Spring 2019 WNO revives its 2005 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute – our colourful, fantastical, fairy-tale-esq, Magritte inspired, fun frolic by Dominic Cooke, last revived in 2015

The Magic Flute is an ever-popular choice, and our production with its giant lobster, fish-bicycle and host of other newspaper reading animals making an appearance certainly catches the eye as well as the ear. There’s the multi-coloured feathered cloak of Papageno the bird-catcher; the bowler-hatted, be-suited Chorus; and the fantastically frocked Queen of the Night too. Plus there’s a couple of magical musical instruments – the flute of the title and a set of bells. This opera has everything: an evil man (or is he?) who kidnaps the princess; a prince sent out to rescue her on the orders of the queen with the promise of the princess’s hand in marriage; a comical sidekick; three ladies in waiting; and three spirit guides.

The plot of The Magic Flute is more akin to a fairy tale: a noble prince is ordered by the mysterious Queen of the Night to rescue a beautiful princess who has been kidnapped.

Sameer Rahim, The Telegraph, 22 April 2013 in a piece related to the ROH David McVivar revival

And yes, in case the prevalence of threes doesn’t completely give it away, there is a Masonic link – Mozart was a Freemason and some interpret The Magic Flute, with the repeated references to the number three and the trials Tamino and Pamina have to go through, as symbolic of Masonic rituals. The fantastical elements to the storyline ‘hide’ the themes of Enlightenment, of the human journey of self-improvement, spiritually: courage, virtue and wisdom being rewarded; ignorance, weakness and corruption defeated. Julian Crouch, the Set Designer, further emphasised the link by having three doors in each of the set’s three walls. 

The fundamental idea is that human beings are full of contradictions… What Mozart is interested in are the contradictions in human behaviour and human experience and how people can hold two opposite desires at the same time

Dominic Cooke

A Singspiel opera, a form of German opera originating in the 18th century, meaning there is ‘dialogue’ as well as singing (literally ‘sing-play’) – allowing ‘a direct relationship with the audience, including talking to them across the footlights’ (WNO 2005 programme). The Magic Flute premiered at Theater auf der Wieden, in Vienna on 30 September 1791 just a couple of months prior to Mozart’s death, in a suburban, popular theatre rather than a prestigious court theatre.

The plot follows Tamino, the prince of the piece, who is saved from the attack of a monster by three ladies in service to the Queen of the Night. The Queen wishes him to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil high priest, Sarastro. Once he sees her picture, Tamino falls in love and sets off on his quest, aided by Papageno the bird catcher and guided by three boys, the spirits. With the magic flute and set of magic bells they set off on their journey to Sarastro’s realm. It is during this journey, both physical and spiritual, with a series of three trials to be overcome before they can succeed and gain acceptance into Sarastro’s brotherhood, that the truth is revealed and light triumphs over night and darkness. And for once in opera, the guy gets the girl – a fairy-tale ending.

Unsurprisingly, The Magic Flute has popped up in a multitude of pop-cultural guises, from forming the central theme for an episode of the TV programme Inspector Morse entitled ‘Masonic Mysteries’, playing on the opera’s underlying theme; to big screen uses, from Miss Congeniality to The Rocketeer, Face/Off to Eat Pray Love. Other TV programmes to use the music include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gossip Girl and House.

The enduring popularity of The Magic Flute is further highlighted by its continual presence in the rep of all the opera companies. It really is a perennial favourite in all forms – just like all the best fairy-tales.