The Magic Flute

Article by Ashutosh Khandekar

For a work that has been celebrated as a product of The Enlightenment, that moral and philosophical ‘engine’ of the Age of Reason, The Magic Flute begins in a far from rational way – in a welter of terror and confusion, in fact.  Who is this exotic Japanese prince that comes dashing onto the stage as the lights go up, and what is he doing in the middle of nowhere with a monstrous serpent on his tail?  As with many things that happen in this opera, there are few obvious explanations.  The questions simply lead to more questions.  Take the mysterious Three Ladies, for example – are they really harbingers of doom, or saving graces?  They serve the dark enchantress, The Queen of the Night, and yet they rescue Tamino from the clutches of death, introduce him to the idea of love by showing him a portrait of Pamina, and present him with the eponymous Magic Flute, the tool that will help him to dispel the powers of darkness and survive the endurance tests ahead of him.  Where is the moral compass of the story?  For our hero and heroine, Tamino and Pamina, the consequence of failing in their trials is death; and yet the clownish Papageno, who fails miserably at every turn, is given everything he wants in spite of his palpable lack of self-control.  

The Magic Flute is, on the surface, a simple musical fairy tale, in which good prevails over evil, but for all the pat certainties of the finale and its celebration of the sun’s victory over night, the opera never really settles for moral absolutes.  Casting light on the work’s origins is far from simple, bound up in a fertile mix of science, philosophy, religion, mysticism and politics that make it a much more complex piece than the idea of Enlightenment alone can explain.  The opera occupies the same sort of mysterious and shifting world as Shakespeare’s The Tempest (written almost two centuries earlier), and its arch protagonist, Sarastro, has the same sort of ambivalent relationship to the magical properties of power as his Shakespearean counterpart, Prospero.

To unravel some of the mysteries of The Magic Flute, first of all, let us take the social and political temperature of Vienna when the opera was premiered at the end of the 18th century.  The city was full of progressive ideas engendered by The Enlightenment and reflected in the activities of various Masonic lodges.  The Austrian emperor, Joseph II, though not a Freemason himself, was favourably disposed towards Masonic ideals – especially those that propounded the idea of the ‘enlightened despot’, the autocrat who exercises power with reason, wisdom and compassion in exchange for the total obeisance of his people to his rule.  Mozart’s own Masonic Lodge, ‘Zur Wohltatigskeit’ (‘For Beneficence’), had undergone a radical reorganisation, following a process of amalgamation of lodges decreed in 1785 by Emperor Joseph, who was under pressure from the Catholic church to curtail the spread of Freemasonry.  Mozart himself had voted with a section in his lodge that rejected the idea that the nature of man in the universe could be understood by reason alone, and sought adherence to a more mystical interpretation of Enlightenment philosophy based on Rosicrucianism.  This esoteric form of Christianity has its roots in strands of Eastern thought, ranging from ancient Egyptian religions to Sufism and the fire-worshipping Zoroastrians.  (In later generations, Rosicrucianism was to influence such creative geniuses as Debussy and W B Yeats.  At a more popular level, and rather garbled in the telling, it forms the basis of much of the mumbo-jumbo of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code).

It is Rosicrucianism, embraced by both Mozart and The Magic Flute’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder that infuses the opera with its love of mystery and hidden meanings.  Masonic symbolism and numerology abounds, from the fanfare of three great chords which introduce the overture, reverberating in the figures of the Three Ladies and the Three Boys, to the various dualities that pervade the opera: sun and moon and their corollaries, light and dark; noble and base; tragic and comic; male and female; life and death.  This is an opera of extreme dualities (made musically audible in the highest shrieks of the Queen of the Night and the lowest rumbles of Sarastro) – and yet it refrains from extreme judgment of any sort: nobody dies in The Magic Flute.  In Sarastro’s temple, with its twin pillars of Reason and Nature, there is no absolute dispensation of justice.  The baddies are charmed into submission by magic bells; wild beasts and life-threatening elements are tamed by the strains of the flute; villains simply disappear in a puff of smoke.

So, should we take all the philosophy, spiritualism and symbolism that seems to surround the creation of The Magic Flute seriously? It is after all, a Singspiel, a popular entertainment, and a near equivalent of what we might today call pantomime.  Mozart was delighted to be writing a work for Schikaneder’s ‘people’s theatre’, the Theater auf der Wieden, rather than for an aristocratic patron, and there is no doubt that both composer and librettist meant the opera to be at least as much light entertainment as ‘Enlightenment entertainment’.  But as Simon Callow, the director of this production, pointed out to me, the word “death” occurs in almost every scene of the opera and remains a threat throughout.  Anxiety and restlessness pervade the work.  At the darkest heart of the work is Pamina’s suicide attempt (charmingly thwarted by three innocent boys) but even before the drama itself begins, the main theme of the overture is neurotic and unsettled.

As always, Mozart had his reasons for this unease. After all, he lived in violently turbulent times.  The death of the emperor Joseph II in 1790, a year before The Magic Flute’s premiere, had robbed Freemasonry of its royal protection.  His brother Leopold, an influential figure in the Hapsburg Empire, succeeded Joseph to the Austrian throne.  A masterful diplomat and sensitive to the political turmoil around him, Leopold II was not as wholehearted a proponent of Enlightenment philosophies as his brother before him.  Wary of the revolutionary upheavals in France and the constant threats from the east, both from the Ottoman empire and more especially in the guise of Catherine the Great of Russia, he was less inclined to favour the sort of ideals of emancipation and free-thinking that the Masons espoused.  (Indeed, by 1797, under a royal decree from Leopold II’s son Francis II, Freemasonry had been outlawed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)

So, whereas in works such as The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, Mozart (together with his firebrand of a librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte) had been able to freely explore the revolutionary tendencies that were sweeping Europe, by the time The Magic Flute came along, the political scene had shifted and a new conservatism had been ushered in.  As prominent Freemasons, Mozart and Schikaneder had to tread carefully.  Mozart was no sabre-rattling revolutionary, but he did have a profound belief in ‘equality, fraternity and liberty’ (there goes that number three again – by no coincidence), and in the emancipation of people from tyranny.  What better way to evade political censure while at the same time implanting your message subliminally to a mass public than to write a popular opera for a newly emerging suburban theatre, that encodes a profound belief system deep within its pantomime antics?

And popular it was.  The Magic Flute was an instant hit, and Vienna’s rising bourgeoisie flocked in their thousands to see it.  Mozart was thrilled at the response, though he did not live to see the 100th performance of the opera in 1792 (he died in December 1791, in the midst of popular acclaim).  Did those early audiences ‘get’ all the symbolism and allegory?  Its vocal complexities and its expressive depths must have marked The Magic Flute as a work apart from the very start.  But beyond that, audiences must have responded to the work’s message about the relationship between the common man and those in authority.  For Simon Callow in this Opera Holland Park production, it is this relationship that lies at the very heart of The Magic Flute, embodied in the figure of Sarastro.

Who then is the great Sarastro?  He has power over light and darkness, he is a father and a judge, a priest and a necromancer, a beneficent ruler and a despot.  He arrives at his temple of peace on a chariot drawn by lions, a magnificent warrior who flashes with rage and nobility but proceeds to sing of temperance and brotherhood.  Full of the contradictions of power, he nevertheless exercises it with measured wisdom.  The Temple of Isis over which Sarastro presides contains a spiritual ‘order’, whose adherents are nameless masses living free from the tyrannies of social division under a benign dictatorship.  Mozart imbues Sarastro with all the qualities of enlightened despotism that were so key to the politics and philosophy of the age, but audiences today aren’t always comfortable with such a scenario.  It all smacks of brainwashing, and all those trials and initiation rites have cult-like overtones.  However, the relationship between a ruler and his people was key not only to Mozart’s political beliefs, but also to his identity as an artist and as a man.  His creative self was, after all, shaped by his father (called Leopold, like the new emperor).  Just as Sarastro puts Tamino through a series of trials in order to prove himself worthy of love, so Leopold Mozart made gruelling demands of his son in order that his musical genius could flower to the full.  Throughout his life, Mozart had an uneasy relationship with authority.  On the one hand, it provided the support and infrastructure that his creativity needed, but on the other, his patrons and masters cramped his style and never really understood the true scope of his greatness. The Magic Flute’s appeal lies not, perhaps, so much in its big ideas and its covert symbols, but rather in its exploration of what makes us human, which must have touched and tickled its first audience.  In Tamino, Sarastro gains the perfect son, the ideal progeny that Mozart never was and indeed few of us will ever be – a man who sticks to the rules, always does what is right and proper, and gets his just deserts.  In Papageno, we have a figure who seems far more like most of us – a fallible soul who is not always on the ball, finds it difficult to shut up when he should, but actually does perfectly alright in the end.

At the end of Shakespeare’s Tempest, Prospero turns to his audience, his magic charms “o’erthrown”, and bids them applaud to release him from the “bands” of his captivity.  It is a classic example of the tables being turned: the great manipulator craving the hand of his captive audience to set him free.  Who is really being held in thrall, Shakespeare seems to be asking us, where does the balance of power lie?  Perhaps there is something of the same question in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  Who in the world is manipulating whom?  This is his last opera, and one in which he speaks most directly to his audience and appeals for balance and tolerance in a world in which the social order is on a knife-edge.

Within a few short years of Mozart’s death, the old world order was blown apart.  A Reign of Terror had brought disgrace on the revolutionary spirit of the age and a new sort of lust for power changed the status quo forever.  It was hardly surprising that The Magic Flute was anathema to the 19th century and usually relegated to a children’s fairy tale told in primary colours.  These days, Mozart’s final stage work has come into its own again.  In an age obsessed with self-improvement and spiritual growth, it speaks of wrestling with ourselves and our own consciences without all the pretentious gobbledygook of today’s self-help manuals.  It offers a vision of an honest spiritual quest without the encumbrance of religious doctrine.  And finally, it ends in a blaze of light – with the insanely optimistic thought that man might just, through a process of self-examination and inner struggle, prevail over every adversity.  Of course salvation can’t be achieved by reason alone – it takes the enchantment of the artist, a touch of magic from the music of the bells and the flute, to pave the way to triumph.

Ashutosh Khandekar is the editor of Opera Now Magazine.