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Theatre / The Magic Flute

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Or, in the original German, Die Zauberflöte.

The last opera Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ever composed (La clemenza di Tito was composed after the Flute was started, but before its completion), right after he was initiated into the Freemasons; the libretto by fellow mason Emanuel Schikaneder is thus rife with that organization's symbolism. The Magic Flute is actually closer to our understanding of a Musical than Opera: it is generally as seen as Lighter and Softer than, say, Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, and deals more with the themes of ignorance versus wisdom and the virtues of love and family rather than the fall of the gods and the end of the world. Also, being a "singspiel," it has dialogue, not just singing. To make a long story short, this was the Mozartian equivalent of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with which it shares a similar level of popularity within its genre.

The action starts with a prince from a foreign land, Tamino, chased onstage by a giant serpent. He faints in the face (teeth) of death, and so does not notice when three Ladies Of War show up to rescue him; the Three Ladies immediately swoon over his good looks and argue over which of them will return to report to their ruler, the Queen of the Night, and which of them will get to stay and (ahem) revive him. Eventually, they make the sensible decision that all three of them return, leaving Tamino alone again. (...Okay, maybe not so sensible.) Tamino awakes in time to meet Papageno, the Queen of the Night's royal bird-catcher, an eccentric fellow frequently costumed in feather-and-beak motifs. He sings a pleasant Sidekick Song about his easy-going philosophy and lack of love life. The Three Ladies now return and show Tamino the portrait of a Princess Classic, Pamina, resulting in Love at First Sight. Then the Queen of the Night herself appears and promises Tamino her daughter Pamina's hand in marriage... IF Tamino can Save the Princess, who has been captured by a guy with the ominous name of Sarastro. The Queen gives Tamino his Magic Flute, Papageno a set of magic bells (both of which have the power to Charm Person when you play them), and tour guides in the form of Three Young Boys, and sends them on their way.

In Sarastro's temple we find Pamina, who is being pursued by a Scary Black Man named Monostatos. Fortunately, Monostatos' bark is worse than his bite, because when Papageno shows up with his absurd costume, it's Monostatos who runs away in terror. He and Pamina link up and begin to exit the temple. Meanwhile, Tamino, Storming the Castle, has gotten hung up at the front door. A servant of Sarastro comes out and convinces Tamino that the Queen of the Night has pulled a switcheroo on him: she's the Big Bad, and Sarastro had Pamina kidnapped for her own safety. This opinion is reinforced when Sarastro himself appears on the scene and chews out Monostatos for his Casanova Wannabe impression. After Pamina has her Love at First Sight moment and re-unites for the first time with Tamino, Sarastro escorts them both into the Temple as the act ends.

Once the Intermission is over, Sarastro declares that Tamino and Papageno will have to undergo some character tests before he can let Pamina marry. Tamino, in the throes of love, agrees; Papageno needs to be bribed with the possibility of a Love Interest of his own — one who happens to be named Papagena. The main test is that both men need to be silent when confronted by women — which, of course, is Played for Drama when one of the women who visits them is Pamina, leaving the chamber with the conclusion that Tamino no longer loves her. Papageno also gets the Squick of his life when a really old woman arrives and declares herself Papagena, his bride-to-be. (Of course, she's secretly a hot young woman in disguise, which just makes Papageno even more paranoid once this is revealed to him.) Finally, Monostatos sings his I-Want-Pamina Song and eventually joins forces with the Queen of the Night. She performs an aria famous for its fantastically high glass-shattering notes in which she threatens to disown Pamina unless she kills Sarastro.

Pamina, bereft of her beloved, decides to kill herself. Fortunately, the Three Young Boys intervene and take her to Tamino, who can now apologize; Pamina is so overjoyed that she doesn't even make him sleep on the couch. Next, Papageno attempts the same thing, only to be saved by the Three Young Boys and united with his no-longer-disguised-as-a-squishy-old-woman Papagena. Finally, the Queen of the Night, Monostatos and the Three Ladies attempt to attack the Temple, only to have their power broken and to be cast into eternal night. But whatever, the bad guys die a lot, and both couples have their Happy Ending as the curtain falls.

The Magic Flute has been made into three movies (as well as numerous filmed stage performances). Trollflöjten (1975), a Swedish translation filmed by Ingmar Bergman, was a semi-surrealist, No Fourth Wall fantasy which shows not only the audience, the stage and the theatre, but how the singers kill time while offstage. It is now part of The Criterion Collection. The Magic Flute (2006), directed by Kenneth Branagh with a new English translation by Stephen Fry, is more traditional, aside from being set during World War I. For more information on these first two films, go here. The third adaptation, directed by Florian Sigl, was released in Germany in 2022; and follows a young student named Tim who is whisked into the world of the opera, where he becomes Prince Tamino and lives out the story alongside the classic characters.

Other adaptations include a Comic Book by P. Craig Russell with an ending that can be best described as trippy, a novelization (Night's Daughter) by Marion Zimmer Bradley, an ABC Weekend Special starring Mark Hamill as Tamino, a version telling the story with Nintendo characters, and Magic Flute Diaries, a film about a performance of The Magic Flute.

The Magic Flute shows examples of:

  • Amazon Brigade: The Queen and her Three Ladies, before Monostatos does his Face–Heel Turn and joins them.
  • Animated Adaptation: There have only been two so far, one from The BBC, the other from ABC.
    • The BBC version is an abridged adaptation made for the Operavox series, a collection of 30 minute animations that retell classic operas (with vocals courtesy of the Welsh National Opera). It's a pretty faithful adaptation, though it does remove the Three Boys along with any reference to suicide. It also adds a new prologue that details the death of Pamina's father, and further establishes the Queen's gripe with Sarastro.
    • The ABC Weekend Special is a more Disneyfied take on the story. Papageno and Papagena are now anthropomorphic birds, the Three Ladies are a trio of fairies, there's a wisecracking crow, and the climax now has Tamino and the Queen engaging in a Final Battle. The Three Boys are also absent in this version. The special is more of a traditional musical than a singspiel, with only five of the songs present (and greatly shortened).
  • Babies Ever After: Papageno and Papagena promise each other than they will have "a little Papageno" and then "a little Papagena" and "another Papageno" and "another Papagena"... etc.
  • Beta Couple: Papageno and Papgena are the comedy romance couple to the lead pair’s more melodramatic function.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Pamina gets put through the wringer because of Tamino’s vow.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Literally. Or as Papageno himself puts it: "Mmh-mmh, mmh-mmh, mmh-mmh-mmh-mmh". Later, more serious version with the ordeal of silence, which verges on Poor Communication Kills.
  • Chewing the Scenery: The Queen of the Night is usually played like this, especially once she gives up the Wounded Gazelle Gambit. Her best-known aria pretty much demands taking a big bite out of the scenery, though.
  • Chick Magnet: Tamino — just watch the three ladies squabbling over him. Pamina then falls for him pretty fast too.
  • Couple Theme Naming: The hero and his love interest are respectively named Tamino and Pamina. The Beta Couple are Papageno and Papagena.
  • Cowardly Sidekick, Lovable Coward: Papageno gets a lot of scaredy bits. It’s also played with when Papageno and Monostatos flee from each other, each believing the other to be the devil (Papageno has never seen a black man before, Monostatos because Papageno's appearance is really outlandish). Papageno actually is the first to recover, in the uncut libretto commenting "There are black birds, why shouldn't there be black men?"
  • Creepy Child: Some adaptations make the three boys into this. It's rather easy to do since they're played by child sopranos and there isn't much context as to who they are other than spirits sent by the Queen of the Night to guide Tamino and Papageno in their quest. It will be ultimately averted though as they aren't Evil All Along like the Queen and her ladies.
  • Damsel in Distress: Subverted with Pamina, in that she’s distressed and the hero is assigned to rescue her — but actually she’s safe from the start.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Sarastro towards Monostatos in the first act.
    Monostatos (after being told he’s to get seventy-seven lashes): Oh, sir! I haven’t expected to be rewarded like this!
    Sarastro: No need to thank me. It’s my duty.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Sarastro isn't just Enlightened; his Enlightenment entitles him and his Order to rule, to kidnap Pamina from her mother, to keep Monostatos as a slave, to decide whether Papageno can get married (the priests tell him he'll never catch Papagena unless he undergoes their trials), force Tamino and Pamina to undergo trials that might kill them (he says if they fail, they will be "given" to Isis and Osiris, and "taste the pleasures of the Gods earlier than we do"), and to wield whatever power casts the Queen into Eternal Night. Lesser beings, whether they are good ones like Papageno or bad ones like Monostatos, have no voice in the State, and this is shown as right and proper.
  • Distressed Dude: Tamino, who enters screaming and swooning (his first line is "Help! Help!") and has to be rescued by the three ladies. He gets better over the course of the opera.
  • Distaff Counterpart: Papagena to Papageno, sometimes right down to the feathery outfit.
  • Evil Matriarch: Guess who? (And in case it got lost in the coloratura display, she's abandoning a blatant opportunity to rescue her daughter, so that she can threaten her with Parental Abandonment if the princess won't kill Sarastro for her.) However, she seems to have been an affectionate mother to Pamina until now — more a matriarch who happened to be evil than mothering in an evil way. Sarastro took Pamina away more because he didn't want her turning out like her mother than because he thought she was going to be directly harmed.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Subverted, in that the guy with the lowest notes (Sarastro) is the good guy, while the gal with the highest notes (the Queen of the Night) is the Big Bad. Definitely played with or invoked in-setting, though: Tamino and Papageno are initially convinced that Sarastro is the Big Bad.
  • Faint in Shock:
    • Tamino faints when chased by a giant snake in the opening scene.
    • Pamina as Monostatos is harassing her, paralleling her love interest Tamino's earlier incident with the snake.
  • Final Love Duet: Papageno and Papagena get one.
  • Fire/Water Juxtaposition: The final test of Tamino and Pamina is to pass through banks of fire and water (though the guardians sing a duet implying all four elements are involved).
  • Genre Shift: The opera begins as an ordinary fairy tale plot, but midway through Tamino's main goal changes dramatically from "save the princess" to "be accepted as one of the Freemasons".
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Well, Wise Wizard Save Us from the Queen (and grant us wisdom).
  • Happily Ever After: Everything works out fine the lead and beta couples (and not for the villains).
  • Horrible Judge of Character: The Queen makes Tamino think Sarastro is an evil tyrant. She’s fairly clever about it, to be fair.
  • Involuntary Dance: Papageno's magic bells have the ability to enchant people, so when he and Pamina are cornered by Monostatos and his Mooks, he uses their music to charm the men into merrily dancing away.
  • Innocent Soprano: Pamina, being a virtuous Damsel in Distress, sings lyric soprano. Her one solo aria "Ach, ich fuhl's" is sung very softly and gently. Inverted with the evil Queen of the Night, who is an even higher soprano and sings the highest note in the show (she hits an F6 four times in the same aria).
  • "I Want" Song: Tamino wants Pamina. Monostatos wants Pamina. Pamina wants to be reassured of Tamino's love. The Queen wants someone to kill Sarastro. And Papageno just really wants to get married. Or at least have a girlfriend.
  • Love Before First Sight: Tamino and Pamina. Tamino only needs to see Pamina's picture to fall in love and Pamina only needs to hear that he loves her and is coming to rescue her.
  • MacGuffin: The Sevenfold Circle of the Sun. To acquire it, The Queen of the Night urges her daughter Pamina to kill Sarastro.
  • Magical Flutist: Naturally, and there are also magic bells involved.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • "Papagei" (related to English "popinjay") is the German word for "parrot".
    • "Monostatos" translates to "Stands Alone."
  • Melismatic Vocals: Par for the genre in coloratura arias, but "Der Hölle Rache" is a shining example.
  • The Omniscient Council of Vagueness: Sarastro and his priests.
  • Patter Song: "Pa-pa-pa-papagena." It's one tongue twister of a song, with the characters constantly singing "Pa-pa-pa-pa-papageno" and "Pa-pa-pa-pa-papagena" in rapid succession.
  • Reverse Relationship Reveal: The Queen of the Night promises Tamino her daughter Pamina's hand in marriage if he rescues her from the evil Sarastro. It's revealed later that the Queen is the Big Bad, and Sarastro is one of Pamina's benevolent rescuers.
  • Scary Black Man: Monostatos is meant to be this, with a side of Where da White Women At?.
  • Setting Update: The opera is supposed to take place in ancient Egypt, but apart from the Egyptian god references, the libretto is open enough to be adapted into any setting, thanks to its fairytale elements. Past productions have placed the story in medieval times, the classical period, a 1920s hotel, a classroom, a futuristic sci-fi world, and even an old black-and-white movie, just to name a few.
  • Song of Prayer: The chorus "O Isis and Osiris", in which Sarastro and the priests pray for Tamino and Pamina to succeed in their trials or, if they die on the way, to be granted a good afterlife.
  • Standard Hero Reward: The Queen of Night promises Pamina's hand in marriage to Tamino in exchange for him rescuing her from Sarastro.
  • Talking Is a Free Action: Well, singing is. Papageno and Pamina sing an entire aria about how they must hurry to escape Sarastro's palace, and Tamino and Papageno later sing about how good they are at staying silent.
  • Villain Song:
    • Again, "Der Hölle Rache" ("Hell's Vengeance"). In this famous aria, the Queen of the Night furiously urges Pamina to kill Sarastro with a dagger, or else she'll disown her forever. It's at this moment where we learn that the Queen is the true Big Bad.
    • "Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden" ("All feel the joys of love") is one for Monostatos. As he watches Pamina sleep, he bemoans about not being loved by anyone because of his skin color (or in more updated productions, his ugliness). As he approaches the sleeping girl to steal a kiss, the Queen arrives to scare him off.
    • "Nur stille, stille" ("Just quiet, quiet") is the final one for the villains. The Queen, the ladies, and Monostatos sneak into the temple to attack Sarastro themselves. Their plan backfires massively when The Power of the Sun depowers them, casting them into "eternal night".
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: How the Queen of the Night manages to convince Tamino that Sarastro is a villain, and that she is a poor grieving mother (Though, in fact, she is a poor grieving mother whose husband has died, whose daughter has been kidnapped, and is finding herself powerless).