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The Magic Flute

Background Information

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The Magic Flute (German Die Zauberflöte, K. 620) is an opera in two acts composed in 1791 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. The work is in the form of a Singspiel, a popular form that included both singing and spoken dialogue.

Premiere and reception

The opera was premiered in Vienna on September 30, 1791, at the suburban Freihaus-Theatre auf der Wieden. Mozart conducted the orchestra, Schikaneder himself played Papageno, while the role of the Queen of the Night was sung by Mozart's sister-in-law Josepha Hofer.

Of the reception of the opera, Mozart scholar Maynard Solomon writes:

"Although there were no reviews of the first performances, it was immediately evident that Mozart and Schikaneder had achieved a great success, the opera drawing immense crowds and reaching hundreds of performances during the 1790s.

The success of The Magic Flute lifted the spirits of its composer, who had fallen ill while in Prague a few weeks before. Solomon continues:

"Mozart's delight is reflected in his last three letters, written to Constanze, who with her sister Sophie was spending the second week of October in Baden. 'I have this moment returned from the opera, which was as full as ever,' he wrote on 7 October, listing the numbers that had to be encored. 'But what always gives me the most pleasure is the silent approval! You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed.' ... He went to hear his opera almost every night, taking along [friends and] relatives."

The opera celebrated its 100th performance in November 1792. Mozart did not have the pleasure of witnessing this milestone, having died of his illness on December 5, 1791.

Since its premiere "The Magic Flute" has always been one of the most beloved works in the operatic repertoire, and is presently the tenth most frequently performed opera in North America.


Emanuel Schikaneder, librettist of Die Zauberflöte, shown performing in the role of Papageno. The object on his back is a birdcage; see below.

The opera was the culmination of a period of increasing involvement by Mozart with Schikaneder's theatrical troupe, which since 1789 had been the resident company at the Theatre auf der Wieden. Mozart was a close friend of one of the singer-composers of the troupe, tenor Benedikt Schack (the first Tamino), and had contributed to the compositions of the troupe, which were often collaboratively written. Mozart's participation increased with his contributions to the 1790 collaborative opera Der Stein der Weisen ("The Philosopher's Stone"), including the duet ("Nun liebes Weibchen," K. 625/592a) and perhaps other passages. Like The Magic Flute, Der Stein der Weisen was a fairy-tale opera and can be considered a kind of precursor; it employed much the same cast in similar roles.

The Magic Flute is noted for its prominent Masonic elements; both Schikaneder and Mozart were Masons and lodge brothers. The opera is also influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, and can be regarded as an allegory advocating enlightened absolutism. The Queen of the Night represents a dangerous form of obscurantism, whereas her antagonist Sarastro symbolises the reasonable sovereign who rules with paternalistic wisdom and enlightened insight.

Mozart evidently wrote keeping in mind the skills of the singers intended for the premiere, which included both virtuosi and ordinary comic actors, asked to sing for the occasion. Thus, the vocal lines for Papageno and Monostatos are often stated first in the strings so the singer can find his pitch, and are frequently doubled by instruments. In contrast, Mozart's sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, who premiered the role of the Queen of the Night, evidently needed no such help: this role is famous for its difficulty. In ensembles, Mozart skillfully combined voices of different ability levels.

A particularly demanding aria is " Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" ("The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart"), often referred to as the "Queen of the Night" aria. It reaches a high F6 (see Scientific pitch notation), rare in opera. At the low end, the part of Sarastro includes a conspicuous F in a few locations.

While the female roles in the opera are assigned to different voice types, the playbill for the premiere performance referred to all of the female singers as "sopranos". The casting of the roles relies on the actual pitch range of the part.


Playbill for the premiere, September 30, 1791
Role Voice type Premiere Cast, September 30, 1791
(Conductor: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
Tamino tenor Benedikt Schack
Papageno baritone Emanuel Schikaneder
Pamina soprano Anna Gottlieb
The Queen of the Night coloratura soprano Josepha Hofer
Sarastro bass Franz Xaver Gerl
Three ladies 2 sopranos and a mezzo-soprano Mlle Klöpfer, Mlle Hofmann, Mme Elisab[e]th Schack
Monostatos tenor Johann Joseph Nouseul
Three Boys (or genii) treble , alto and mezzo-soprano Anna Schikaneder; Anselm Handelgruber; Franz Anton Maurer
Speaker of the temple bass Herr Winter
Two priests tenor and bass Johann Michael Kistler, Urban Schikaneder
Papagena soprano Barbara Gerl
Two armored men tenor and bass Johann Michael Kistler, Herr Moll
Priests, women, people, slaves - chorus

The names of the performers at the premiere are taken from a preserved playbill for this performance (at right), which does not give full names; "Mme" = Madame, Mrs., "Mlle" = Mademoiselle, Miss, "Herr" = Mr.

These singers perform with an orchestra consisting of two flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets (originally basset horns), two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, three trombones (alto, tenor, and bass), and strings. The work also requires a four-part chorus for several numbers (notably the finales of each act); and a glockenspiel to perform the music of Papageno's magic bells.


Overview: Sarastro, the wise priest of Isis and Osiris, has taken Pamina to the temple for the purpose of releasing her from the influence of her mother, the Queen of the Night. The queen induces the young Prince Tamino to go in search of her daughter and free her from the power of Sarastro; Tamino accomplishes his end, but becomes the disciple of Sarastro, whose mildness and wisdom he has learned to admire. The prince and the princess are united.

Act I

Tamino, a handsome prince who is lost in a distant land, is pursued by a serpent. He faints from fatigue and three ladies, attendants of the queen, in black robes, appear and kill the serpent. They all fall in love with the prince and each plans to be alone with him. After arguing, they decide that it is best if they all leave together.

Tamino recovers to see before him Papageno, arrayed entirely in the plumage of birds, who sings (Aria: "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja") of his job as a birdcatcher and the fact that he is longing for a wife. Tamino approaches Papageno and asks who he is. Papageno jokes with Tamino but says that he brings the birds that he catches to the Queen of the Night's servants, who give him food and drink in return. Tamino thinks that Papageno has saved him from the serpent and Papageno claims that he has strangled the serpent with his bare hands. At this moment, the three ladies appear and punish his lie by paying for his birds with a stone instead of food and water instead of wine, and placing a padlock over his mouth. They tell Tamino that they were responsible for saving him. He deeply appreciates them and they show to the prince a miniature of a young maiden, Pamina, with whom he falls instantly in love. (Aria: Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön)

The arrival of the Queen of the Night. Stage set by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) for an 1815 production

The Queen of the Night now appears, demanding that Tamino free her daughter, the original of the picture, from the hands of Sarastro, promising that he can marry Pamina in return. (Recitative and aria: " O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn"). The ladies give Tamino a magic flute that can change men's hearts, remove the padlock from Papageno and present him with a chime of bells to protect him. Papageno accompanies Tamino, and they set forth, guided by three boys. They escape all danger by the use of the magic instruments. (Quintet: Hm hm hm hm)

Change of scene (this scene forms Act II when the opera is divided into three acts): A room in Sarastro's palace.

Pamina is dragged in by Sarastro's servant Monostatos, a Moor, who is persecuting her (Trio: Du feines Täubchen, nun herein!). Papageno, sent ahead by Tamino to help find Pamina, arrives. Monostatos and Papageno are each terrified by the other's strange appearance and flee the stage. But Papageno soon returns and announces to Pamina that her mother has sent Tamino to her aid. Pamina rejoices to hear that Tamino is in love with her, and then offers sympathy and hope to Papageno, who longs for a Papagena to love. Together they sing an ode to love (Duet: "Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen"), then depart.

Change of scene: Grove and entrance to the temples.

The three boys lead in the prince. As Tamino reaches the temple, he is denied entrance at the Gates of Nature and Reason, by invisible voices singing "Go back!". But when he tries the Gate of Wisdom, a priest appears and gradually convinces him of the noble character of Sarastro. After the priest leaves him, Tamino plays his magic flute in hopes of summoning Pamina and Papageno. The tones of his magical instrument summon first a group of magically tamed beasts, then the sound of Papageno's pipes. Ecstatic at the thought of meeting Pamina, Tamino hurries off.

Papageno appears with Pamina, following the distant sound of Tamino's flute. The two are suddenly apprehended by Monostatos and his slaves. Papageno then works an enchantment on them with his magic bells, and they dance, blissfully and involuntarily, off the stage.

Papageno now hears the approach of Sarastro and his large retinue. He is frightened and asks Pamina what they should say. She replies, "The truth! The truth! Even if it were a crime," and with her words a triumphal march begins (Chorus: "Es lebe Sarastro"); Sarastro and his followers enter.

Sarastro conducts an impromptu judicial proceeding. Pamina falls at his feet and confesses that she was trying to escape because Monostatos had demanded her love. Sarastro receives her kindly and tells her that he will not force her inclinations, but cannot give her freedom.

Monostatos then enters with Tamino captive. The two lovers see one another for the first time and instantly embrace. The chorus sings "What is this meaning of this?" and they are separated. Monostatos tries to point the finger of blame at Tamino. Sarastro, however, does not believe Monostatos' dastardly trick. He punishes Monostatos for his insolence and leads Tamino and Papageno into the temple of Ordeal.

Act II

A grove of palms.

The council of priests, headed by Sarastro, enters to the sound of a solemn march. They determine that Tamino shall possess Pamina if he succeeds in passing through the ordeal, as they do not wish to return her to her mother, who has already infected the people with superstition. Sarastro, echoed by his fellow priests, then sings a prayer to the gods Isis and Osiris, asking them to protect Tamino and Pamina and to take them into their heavenly dwelling place should they meet death in the course of their trials. ("O Isis und Osiris")

Change of scene: The courtyard of the temple of Ordeal.

Tamino and Papageno are led into the temple. Tamino is cautioned that this is his last chance to turn back, but he states that he will undergo every trial to win his Pamina. Papageno is asked if he will also concede to every trial, but he says that he doesn't really want wisdom or to struggle to get it. The priest tells Papageno that Sarastro may have a woman for him if he undergoes the trials, and that she is called Papagena. Papageno says that he wouldn't mind a look at her to be sure, but the priest says that he must keep silent. Papageno finally agrees.

The first test is that Tamino and Papageno shall remain silent under the temptation of women. (Duet, Speaker and Priest) The three ladies appear, and tempt them to speak. (Quintet, Papageno, Tamino, Three Ladies) Tamino and Papageno remain firm, though Tamino must constantly tell Papageno, "Still!"

Papageno confronts one of the priests and asks why he must undergo tests if Sarastro already has a woman that wants to be his wife. The priest says that it is the only way.

Change of scene: A garden. Pamina asleep.

Monostatos approaches and gazes upon Pamina with rapture. (Aria, Monostatos: "Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden") When the Queen of the Night appears and gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro (Aria, Queen of the Night: " Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen"), Monostatos retires and listens. He tries to force Pamina's love by using the secret, but is prevented by Sarastro, who allays Pamina's alarm. (Aria, Sarastro: "In diesen heil'gen Hallen")

Change of scene: A hall in the temple of Ordeal.

Tamino and Papageno must again suffer the test of silence. Papageno can no longer hold his tongue, but Tamino remains firm, even when Pamina speaks to him. Since Tamino refuses to answer, Pamina believes he loves her no longer. (Aria, Pamina: "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden")

Change of scene (sometimes used as Act III): The pyramids.

(Chorus) Sarastro parts Pamina and Tamino. (Trio, Sarastro, Pamina, Tamino) Papageno also desires to have his little wife, and sings of this with his magic bells. (Aria, Papageno: "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen"). At the first ordeal, an old woman had appeared to him and declared herself his bride. She now again appears and changes herself into the young and pretty Papagena. However, the priests send her away with thunder and lightning. She vanishes, frightened, and Papageno is miserable.

Change of scene: An open country.

The three boys see Pamina attempting to commit suicide because she believes Tamino to be faithless. They prevent her from doing so, and take her to see him.

Tamino and Pamina undergo their final trial; watercolor by Max Slevogt (1868-1932)

Change of scene: Rocks with water and a cavern of fire.

Two men in armor lead in Tamino, and in the musical form of a Baroque chorale prelude give him advice, then reassurance that Pamina lives. Sarastro appears and sends Pamina in. Pamina arrives and is overcome with joy to find Tamino, who is now allowed to speak to her. Both pass unscathed through the final ordeal of fire and water with the help of the magic flute, which Pamina tells him was carved by her father from an ancient oak tree. They emerge from their trials to the sound of an offstage chorus singing "Triumph!".

Papageno wishes to take his own life because he can't stop thinking about Papagena, but at the last minute the Three Boys appear and remind him that he should use his magic bells. The bells when played indeed summon Papagena, and the happy couple is united, stuttering at first ("pa ... pa ... pa") in astonishment. (Duet: "Papageno! Papagena!")

The traitorous Monostatos appears with the Queen of the Night and her ladies to destroy the temple ("Nur stille, stille"), but they are magically cast out into eternal night.

The scene now changes to the entrance of the chief temple, where Sarastro bids the young lovers welcome and unites them. The final chorus sings the praises of Tamino and Pamina in enduring their trials and gives thanks to the gods.

Noted arias

  • " O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn" (Oh, tremble not, my beloved son) - The Queen of the Night in Act I, Scene I
  • "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja" (The birdcatcher am I) - Papageno in Act I, Scene I
  • " Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön" (This image is enchantingly beautiful) - Tamino in Act I, Scene I
  • "O wenn ich doch" - Tamino in Act I, Scene III
  • '"Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton" (How strong is thy magic tone) - Tamino in the Finale of Act I
  • "O Isis und Osiris" (O Isis and Osiris) - Sarastro in Act II, Scene I
  • "Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden" (All feel the joys of love) - Monostatos in Act II, Scene III
  • " Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" (The vengeance of Hell boils within my heart) - The Queen of the Night in Act II, Scene III
  • "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" (Within these sacred halls) - Sarastro in Act II, Scene III
  • "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden" (Ah, I feel it, it is gone) - Pamina in Act II, Scene IV
  • "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" (A girl or a woman) - Papageno in Act II, Scene V

Works inspired by The Magic Flute


  • Trollflöjten, an acclaimed film version made by Ingmar Bergman in 1975
  • The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, a 1983 children's movie (originally released in 1976) loosely based on "The Magic Flute"
  • The Magic Flute, a 2006 film version set during World War I, directed by Kenneth Branagh.


  • John Updike, A children's book based on The Magic Flute, 1962.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley, Night's Daughter, a novel based on The Magic Flute, 1985. It sets the story in an Atlantis-like world with human-animal hybrid creatures. Bradley enthusiastically agrees with Bergman that Sarastro is Pamina's father.
  • Barbara Trapido, Temples of Delight, 1990. A novel which, though set in contemporary England, takes its structure very loosely from The Magic Flute. Characters in the novel are analogous to Pamina, Tamino, Papageno and Sarastro although the novel strays heavily from the original plot with the 'Pamina' character ultimately rejecting 'Tamino' in favour of a romantic relationship with 'Sarastro'.
  • Cameron Dokey, Sunlight and Shadow, (part of the Once Upon A Time series), 2004, a retelling of The Magic Flute for teen readers; Dokey's novel also states that Sarastro is Pamina's father.


  • Arctic Magic Flute is an English-language adaptation of the opera, set in rural Alaska.
  • Pamina Devi is the Cambodian classical dance adaptation of The Magic Flute. However, it is not entirely based on the same plot and includes elements foreign to the original.
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