MSC 3003 - Music in the Classic Period

Tuesdays and Thursdays 2:30-3:45 in Room 4-190

The Magic Flute (Part II)

We are back with Act II of Die Zauberflöte, broken into segments like before.

I should acknowledge that we are watching the production from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. Our Queen of the Night is Diana Damrau.

Act II drags on for a while but comes to a pretty satisfying ending.

Back to Act One

Open Exercise #9 in a new tab

In the last segment we talked about how this is all an allegory about the Freemasons, and an example of the popular German genre called a Singspiel. Let's take a moment to consider some of the more problematic aspects of the work this time around.


The sexism in the libretto is almost so obvious that it doesn't require much discussion. The Freemasons were an all-male organization, and the opera suggests that men are superior to women at almost every turn. Criticism of the Queen of the Night is almost always expressed as a generalization about her entire gender, and Pamina's role in the action is always strictly controlled and limited.

I suppose the best counterargument is that the Queen gets to be the best character, and she has the best music. As we'll see in her big scene (which I've numbered 17), her beef with Sarastro is actually quite legitimate. Why wouldn't she inherit the Sevenfold Circle of the Sun from her husband? It's kind of fun to imagine an anarcho-feminist reboot in which she raids the Temple of Wisdom and destroys it.

Monostatos and Racism

The other big issue with the work is its racism, in the character of Monostatos. Originally, Monostatos was described in the libretto as "the wicked Moor." Moors were, of course, people of African descent who traveled across the Mediterranean and conquered parts of Spain, Portugal, and Sicily. In this work we once again see the 18th-century Europeans' obsession with other cultures that they've interacted with.

I think it's safe to say that Monostatos's role as the most selfish, foolish, and oversexed character in the opera is a negative stereotype. The original libretto also had a lot of explicit references to his skin color.

Two examples: In Act One, when Papageno and Monostatos bump into each other for the first time, the joke is that each one is disturbed by the other's appearance. (Papageno is actually supposed to look a little more like a bird, and it is implied that he is some kind of hybrid bird person. But I digress.)

Afterwards, Papageno originally joked "Am I not a fool to have been so frightened? There are certainly black birds in the world, so why not black men as well?"

In this act we'll see Monostatos's big moment, when he tries to initiate a sexual encounter with Pamina. This aria also used to be way more racist! A page from shows a clip from an old production and a translation of the original text. Monostatos laments that "ein Schwarzer" (a Black person) is "ugly" and declares that "white is beautiful."

The current production cleans all of this up. Monostatos is just a weird-looking guy, and the words to his aria are almost completely rewritten. (This is true in the German, as well, they aren't just writing nicer subtitles.)

There is debate in the opera world as to whether this is appropriate. This essay in the Guardian argues that "fixing" the racist element in a production just whitewashes Mozart and conceals what the opera is really like.

For me personally, I'm not persuaded by this. Whenever artistic decisions are made based on contemporary sensibilities about race, gender, sexuality et cetera somebody always objects. I don't see how leaving it in is better than taking it out. The racism is not essential to the plot, and you can always talk about the original conception of Monostatos in related media like the concert program, in reviews, or in a college music class.

The sexism, on the other hand, seems to be part of the opera's DNA. That would probably be impossible to address without rewriting the whole thing.

So should we even be listening to this?

The experience of this work is going to be different for everyone. I think it's possible to laugh at how misguided The Magic Flute gets and enjoy the parts with good music. But of course that's easy for *me* to say.

It's ironic that Schikaneder and Mozart thought that they were celebrating a new age of enlightenment, but they ended up depicting the Freemasons as a bunch of sexist, authoritarian dorks.

Act II

As I mentioned, Act II drags for a while, with a bunch of Masonic mumbo-jumbo, but it has some good parts. I'll keep numbering scenes where I left off.

13. March of the Priests

Gentle, woodwind-led music gives us an overture to the second act.

This is not very essential.

14. Getting ready for the trials

Sarastro speaks to the assembled priests, and they vote on whether to initiate Tamino. We hear the three chords from the overture, again. He explains more about his motivation for kidnapping Pamina.

Then Sarastro sings a plea to Isis and Osiris to protect their new charges.

This is not very essential, though if you were going to listen to one of Sarastro's slow and ponderous bass arias this would be the prettiest one.

15. Trials begin for Tamino and Papageno

The priests apparently have a hard time coming up with interesting trials - most of the time Tamino and Papageno are asked to stand around and stay silent, and Papageno fails.

Here Papageno clowns around, the priests issue a stern warning that failure means death, and the Three Ladies appear and torture the men a little bit.

This is not very essential.

16. Monostatos

All right, this is Monostatos's big moment. Even without the racism it's still creepy. Was supposed to be funny.

This is somewhat essential if you want to "get" Monostatos.

17. The Queen of the Night

OK PEOPLE, HERE WE GO. The Queen appears and tells her daughter to murder Sarastro. She sings her famous high notes. If we aren't listening to this I don't know what we are doing here.

Also, as I mentioned above, she explains the origins of her dispute with Sarastro in the talking part.

This is essential.

18. Post-Queen dithering with Monostatos, Sarastro

The Queen leaves and Monostatos swoops back in, trying to make a deal with Pamina. Sarastro appears and Monostatos gets told, again. Sarastro sings yet another ponderous bass aria.

This part is inessential.

19. More silence trials

Back to the silence thing. One thing they have been talking about for the entire act is that the Priests also have a mate picked out for Pagageno, and if he'll just shut up and behave he can meet her. (This is Papagena.)

During these trials Papegena tends to suddenly appear, in disguise, and harass Papageno.

Also the Three Boys appear and offer encouragement.

This is not very essential.

20. Pamina, "Ach, Ich fühl's"

Pamina shows up and the men honor their vow of silence.

Pamina is distraught and sings an aria that is filled with grief. Mozart has a talent for writing soprano arias that seem to convey genuine emotion. In Le Nozze the Countess's big moment is Dove Sono, and this is the highlight for Pamina, here.

This is essential.

21. Masonic Chorus

More slow music about Isis and Osiris, light piercing the darkness, and so on. Inessential.

22. The Farewell Trio

Here Tamino is being sent off to a new, more dangerous phase of trials? I don't know. Pamina is let into the temple and she, Tamino and Sarastro sing a trio.

This is inessential.

23. Papageno on his own

This leaves Papageno by himself. A priest comes out and speaks to him somewhat patronizingly. He sings another signature aria, "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" about how he really wants a wife, and he plays the magic glockenspeil.

This is an aria that I mentioned in class, a long time ago. I thought one of Mozart's very first piano compositions was basically the same tune.

Papagena reappears, in disguise. In what can only be described as an "interesting choice" on the part of the director, she pulls down his pants and jumps on top of him.

This is somewhat essential for the aria.

24. Pamina and the Three Boys

This is a weird scene. I guess it is supposed to be the highlight for the Three Boys. Pamina is distraught and contemplating suicide, and the Three Boys hover around her and talk her out of it.

Pamina just talked to Tamino like 10 minutes ago, so this seems pretty illogical.

This is somewhat essential.

25. Tamino and Pamina do the trials

In a surprise twist, Pamina is allowed to undergo the final two trials alongside Tamino. He busts out the flute again and walks them through fire and water.

In the first few minutes of this sequence, two temple guards sing in a gnarly and ominous fugue that some people really like. Overall this 13-minute sequence is the end of the opera for our main couple.

This is essential.

26. Papageno despairs

Having been separated from Papagena just when things were getting good, Papageno loses hope.

Now *he* threatens suicide. In a funny bit of audience interaction he asks people to vote on whether he should do it. (As far as I can tell he has to conclude that no one cares, since I've never seen an alternate outcome. Maybe there are alternate words he can sing, like "no, I'm going to do it anyway..")

The Three Boys appear and tell him not to do it. That's their job. They remind him that he has a magic glockenspiel and he uses it.

This is not very essential.

27. Papageno and Papagena

It worked! Papageno and Papagena sing a silly duet. This makes even more sense if they are both dressed up as bird-people, because it seems like they are speaking their own language.


28. A final desperate raid on the Temple

The Queen, her Ladies, and Monostatos all try to sneak in to the Temple of Wisdom and get their revenge. The music is once again pretty awesome, here.

But, Sarastro walks in and repels them with his magic Sarastro power. The end!

This is essential.

OK! Time for Exercise #9

Exercise #9 asks you 11 questions, including historical questions, plot points, picture questions (you look at the scene and tell me what it is), and listening questions.

Open Exercise #9 in a new tab

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