Mozart and The Magic Flute

Article by Robin Simon, 1997

The Magic Flute is both solemn and absurd.  It is full of humour and spectacle, in almost equal mixtures of light and darkness.  Like all the best comedies and romances, it is about the triumph of love, and good over evil.

These simple and enduring themes are embodies in a farrago of magical-mystical-comical-fantastical goings-on.  They seem, on the face of it, to make it impossible to deal with serious and enduring matters.  And yet the opera does just that.

In the British theatre, the nearest parallel with the Magic Flute, in its combination of the sublime with the ridiculous, is that late product of the only other divine genius to compare with Mozart himself, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Here too, in the setting of an enchanted island, presided over by a magician, with Ariel buzzing about overhead and banqueting tables flying through the air, are the darkest subjects of drama and of life.  Like the Flute, there is abduction; potential rape; theft; murder; and suicide.  At the same time, both works contain a rich mixture of humour and plain knock-about farce.

The sublime power of the music on the one hand and of thee poetry on the other persuades us that extreme artificiality of presentation is combined with profound realism of emotion.  These highly theatrical extravaganze, from two of the greatest creative geniuses who ever lived, explore the moral nature of humanity itself:  specifically, the capacity to choose between right and wrong, when opportunity tempts us.

In both works, once the action begins, none of the grimmest events actually occurs, although each of them is powerfully presented to us as an imminent possibility.  They do not occur, but we learn all about them, and feel the emotions they arouse without having to suffer the reality of their execution.  That, as Oscar Wilde might put it, is what comedy means.  It encompasses and transcends tragedy, but, while the action lasts, the dilemmas are acute, dramatic and immediate.  Pamina, for example, is placed in a position where she has to choose between losing her relationship with her mother and murdering Sarastri,  Early on, Papagno succumbs to the temptation to take the credit for Tamino’s rescue from the serpent (as Falstaff, a kind of theatrical twin, takes the credit for Hotspur’s death).  Monostatos, more ominously, never fails to seize the opportunity to inflict pain or force himself upon Pamina (as Caliban upon Miranda).

As it happens there are perfectly genuine reasons for supposing that Shakespeare exerted a general influence upon the Flute.  There was an extraordinary passion for Shakespeare in the German-speaking world towards the end of the eighteenth century, where he was celebrated as a kind of ‘wild child’, the supreme example of natural genius so popularized by Rousseau (whom Mozart much admired).  Constanze Mozart was at pains to tell friends after her husband’s death that he had been familiar with all the works of Shakespeare in translation.  Furthermore, Emanuel Schikandeder, the writer/producer of the Flute, and Mozart’s great friend for over a decade, was the leading performer of Shakespeare in German.  He excelled as Hamlet and Lear, although the versions in which Shakespeare’s plays were known in the eighteenth century were very free adaptations, indeed, often operatic or musical versions of the originals, which stressed visual and spectacular elements, and the Lear that Schikaneder knew, for instance, had a happy ending with Cordelia waking just in time (love triumphant again).

The Flute has immediate models in contemporary Austrian theatre.  It was conceived as the latest example of ‘magic theatre’ (Zauberoper), which was in the very process of being perfected by Schikaneder out of the varied theatrical traditions of the eighteenth century (including commedia dell’arte).  One contemporary Viennese production came uncomfortably close to his new production, however, and may have resulted in some last-minute changes.  Just as the Flute was being created, with Mozart beginning the score in the summer of 1791 for an autumn production, a humorous play, Kapar der Fagottist, appeared on the stage in a rival theatre to Schikaneder’s.  It also adapted key elements of the same story as Schikaneder’s libretto, Lulu, oder di Zauberflöte, which had been published two years before.  Mozart actually broke off from the Flute for a couple of months – to knock off the whole of La Clemenza di Tito, no less- perhaps precisely because Schikaneder had to make some hasty changes to the plot.

The main problem is the way in which the Queen of the Night begins as a goody and ends as a baddy, while Sarastro starts, reportedly, as a baddy but turns into a near-saint.  This shift doesn’t bother me; it is quite adequately worked out, but it puts me in mind of the creative process behind another sublime masterpiece, Casablanca: a film actually shot without a conclusion, which was settled immediately before the last ‘wrap’.   This is not an idle comparison:  the Flute was conceived within a similarly hectic commercial context, and with equally frantic deadlines.  Mozart finished the score on 28 September, precisely two days before he conducted it in public for the first time, a brute fact of theatrical life which really gets up the nose of the academics.  Yet the comparison with the habits of modern scriptwriter goes further.  With a first-night deadline to hit, Schikaneder had Mozart cooped up in a summer-house until he had finished (it survives in the Mozarteum, Salzburg), force-feeding him on a diet of oysters and wine.

The Flute is, then very much a creation of a particular moment in time.  It is also a creature of its time in respect of its other key element:  freemasonry.  The freemasonry can be a stumbling block, either because it all seems too much like mumbo-jumbo, or precisely the opposite, because of taking it too seriously.  To understand how Mozart and his fellow-mason Schikaneder walk the tightrope between these extremes, it is worth recalling the role that masonry played at the time. It took off with the establishment of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1717, and immediately it became fashionable with intellectual and creative people of different classes, as a meeting-place for those of shared interests.  By 1730, William Hogarth, whose tercentenary we celebrate this year, was a mason; so were Dean Swift, Alexander Pope, and almost every painter, architect and writer you can name.  In England, masonry gave way to gentlemen’s clubs, and by the middle of the century it was no longer so intellectually respectable.  In Austria and Germany, however, the rise of the club did not happen, and freemasonry continued as a vital forum, although highly ritualized in its externals, to bring intellectuals, writers, composers and even their patrons together.

There is no question that Mozart took masonry seriously, but he was not dotty about it. Mozart remained a devout Roman Catholic, even though the Pope had denounced ‘the craft’ in 1738, but brotherhood and freedom of association were of intense personal importance to him.  There is another reason, I think, why he found the idea of a Masonic opera so congenial: his love of numerical and musical puzzles and jokes.  The music of the Flute abounds with triple rhythms and chords that echo Masonic symbolism, as does the plot, with its repetitions of patterns of three.

Above all, however, amid the symbolism and the hocus-pocus, it is the deep humanity fo the Flute that shines through.  It does so though the profoundly moving music at a level we can hardly decipher.  It also does so in the unforgettable character of Papageno.  It is his voice that sings the first big individual aria.  Effectively, it is his enchanting duet with Papagena that is the last high point of the opera, for the final ‘seeing-off’ of the forces of darkness provides only a conventional theatrical coda.

For a modern parallel to the complex experience of the Flute, perhaps we should turn again to the world of film – and to Star Wars.  Star Wars is not on the same plane as the Magic Flute, of course, but its audiences, amid all the fantasy absurdity, special effects, sound and fury, are dimly aware of having been made conscious of deeper themes, even of genuine moral questions, of essential human choices between right and wrong – to say nothing of ‘the force’.

Robin Simon is Editor of Apollo Magazine, and Art Critic of The Daily Mail.  He writes a monthly column for Tatler.  He has written on opera for The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and Opera Now and has also broadcast on Radio 3 and 4.