This week we are going to watch excerpts from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). I'll roll it out in two installments, and the second one will have an exercise with it.
After a string of operas composed in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart developed plans for something quite different with his buddy Emanuel Schikaneder. This work is in German, and rather than being a class satire revolving around sexual conflict it takes place in a fantasy world with monsters and magic.
In Mozart's time theater and opera in Vienna seems to have primarily taken place in two very different venues. The Burgtheater in the heart of Vienna presented lots of Italian operas, including Mozart's Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte. Schikaneder ran the Theatre auf der Wieden on the outskirts of town, which specialized in more accessible fare.
Die Zauberflöte is a German variant of opera called a Singspiel. The term literally means something like "singing play" and it was typically less highbrow than Italian opera. It featured crowd-pleasing plots with lots of adventure, simple tunes, and no recitatives. In between the arias the characters just use a normal speaking voice.
(Thus the duality between Italian opera and Singspiels feels a little like the duality between opera and Broadway musicals now.)
Mozart's two major Singspiels, Die Entführung... (that Turkish opera we talked about) and Die Zauberflöte would be the great commercial successes in his lifetime. It seems that Germans quite naturally preferred somewhat silly works in their own language over the complex tensions and intrigues of a Da Ponte opera.
Zauberflöte premiered just two months before Mozart's death in 1791. People argue that its commercial success certainly would have turned Mozart's career around and helped him repay his debts.
Schikaneder wrote this libretto in collaboration with Mozart, and he played the comic role of Papageno. It would perhaps be the high point of his career. Later, when the company moved to new digs at the Theater auf der Wein he installed a statue of Papageno over the entrance.
Both Mozart and Schikaneder were Freemasons, a sort of social club and secular religion that was devoted to Enlightenment ideals. We read about how Mozart's Masonic connections helped smooth his entry into the Viennese music scene.
Of course the Enlightenment was a little more than just a new enthusiasm for the power of logic and reason - it was also sometimes anti-authoritarian and critical of institutions like the Catholic church and the monarchy. The church and government thus viewed the Freemasons as potentially dangerous and would made various moves to control and suppress them.
While the characters and plot of Die Zauberflöte are all fantastical nonsense on the surface, the libretto is considered an allegory about Freemasonry. We'll hear characters spout off about truth, honesty, reason, discipline and manliness, all Masonic ideals, and the score features a few Masonic gestures here and there. Ultimately the argument of the opera is "don't judge a book by its cover, there's sometimes more to things than you realize."
Rather than having me try to edit this down and make it shorter, let's try a different format. I've broken the entire first act into scenes, and I'll try to give you some sense of how essential I think each bit is. You can click around and go at your own pace. Total time is 68 minutes.
(Also, don't forget that you can expand these clips to fullscreen for a better viewing experience.)
This is your typical Mozart opera overture in sonata form. The three slow and somber chords (in full orch at the beginning, in the winds at 3:33) are a Masonic thing, and our exposition presents a fun fugal texture, which is perhaps supposed to invoke an atmosphere of high-minded intellectual sophistication.
This is somewhat essential because it's just good music.
II. Opening scene
Our hero Tamino is fighting a giant snake. The Three Ladies enter and save him with their magic. They intend to go back to their boss, the Queen of the Night, and report on what has happened, but first they squabble about who gets to stay behind with the handsome Prince Tamino.
This is essential at first, because you should never pass up a chance to see a giant snake. The antics of the three ladies are inessential but entertaining.
III. Introducing Papageno
Papageno, the bird man, enters and talks to Tamino. At the end the Three Ladies return and are mean to Papageno.
This is essential because Papageno is one of the best characters, second only to the Queen of the Night, and this aria defines who he is.
IV. Tamino falls in love with the portrait
The Ladies show Tamino a locket with a picture of Pamina, and they give him his mission. She's been captured by an evil wizard named Sarastro, they say, and he should rescue her. Tamino falls in love with Pamina based on her picture, as one does.
This is not very essential because the music is sappy and this plot point is dumb.
V. The Queen of the Night
The Queen shows up to seal the deal with Tamino. If he rescues Pamina, he can marry her! We hear a lot of the Queen's trademark vocal pyrotechnics.
This is somewhat essential because the Queen is awesome.
VI. Papageno's lock + all of the gimmicks
Papageno returns with the padlock on his mouth and sings a funny duet with Tamino. Then the Ladies come back and they roll out all of the magical gimmicks of the opera - a magic flute, a magic glockenspiel, and a trio of boy sopranos who will accompany the duo on their mission.
This is essential.
VII. Pamina and Monostatos
Now we will meet Pamina for the first time. She is being held captive by Sarastro's evil henchman, Monostatos. Then, Papageno somehow just wanders in. Papageno informs Pamina about the whole rescue sitch and they team up.
This is not very essential I guess, even though you are meeting these characters for the first time.
VIII. Pamina and Papageno, duet about marriage
Papageno starts whining about how he would like to get married, and Pamina sings a soothing duet with him about the beauty of marriage.
This is inessential.
IX. At the Temple of Wisdom
Tamino makes it to Sarastro's fortress, the Temple of Wisdom. The Three Boys appear and lecture him about manliness. Tamino gets inside and meets a representative of the Temple. There's lots of Freemasonry going on in this scene! The man questions all of Tamino's assumptions and gets kind of sexist about it.
This scene is somewhat essential if you want to understand the Freemason propaganda aspect of the opera.
X. Clues that Pamina is alive
Tamino is ejected from the Temple and he despairs. Voices give him clues that Pamina is alive, and he regains hope. He busts out the magic flute and starts playing. Animals from the forest all gather around.
This is not very essential unless you want to watch it ironically. Tamino's flute playing is laaaaaame.
XI. Pamina and Papageno on the run
Meanwhile, it looks like Pamina and Papageno are going to escape. They are cornered by Monostatos and his goons, and Papageno plays the magic glockenspiel.
This is essential because it is very funny and charming.
XII. Enter Sarastro
Sarastro shows up and takes over everything. Pamina talks about the importance of honesty and admits that she was trying to escape. Monostatos is punished. Tamino and Pamina see each other face to face for the first time. Sarastro explains his policies re: Queens of the Night and kidnapping, which don't really make any sense.
It sounds like a lot happens but this is actually not very essential.
That's the end of Act One.