The greatest fairy tales deliver a message of love, and Mozart’s opera extravaganza, “The Magic Flute” (German: Die Zauberflöte), is no exception. It is one of the most performed and most beloved operas ever written. It sweeps us into a fantasy realm of mirth, magic and love.
Now playing at Seattle Opera through May 21st, “The Magic Flute” is the last opera Austrian composer Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart completed before his mysterious death at the age of 35 on December 5, 1791.
Mozart was going through a rough patch, both financially and health-wise. He was something of a spendthrift and he suffered from depression. His friend Emanuel Schikaneder, a highly regarded producer, actor, singer, and composer, stepped in to suggest a singspiel (a form of German light opera, typically with spoken dialogue, popular especially in the late 18th century).
Mozart composed the music, while Schikaneder wrote the libretto and performed the role of Papageno as well. The opera opened in Vienna on September 30, 1791, just three months before Mozart’s death. The result ranged from buffoonery to high solemnity–from childish faerie to sublime human aspiration. FYI: Mozart actually composed the opening overture last.
“The Magic Flute’ tells the tale of Tamino, a handsome prince and his comical sidekick, a cowardly but good-natured bird catcher, Papageno, more interested in finding a wife than seeking adventure. The two of them are given enchanted musical instruments (a the magic flute and magic bells), tasked with rescuing Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night from the Queen’s enemy, the high priest Sarastro.
Undergoing trials of virtue, discretion, and charity, they realize that all may not be as it seems in this magical land. The Queen is not as nice as she seems, while the villain Monostatos is just as bad as he seems. One thing leads to another. What seems good is actually evil; and what seems evil is actually good. Tamino, Papageno and the Princess Pamina must all trust in the power of music to lead them through the dark and dangerous adventures ahead. Along the way, Papageno finally finds a wife, Papagena, disguised as an old woman.
Two of the greatest arias in “The Magic Flute” as well as in the coloratura repertoire are sung by The Queen of the Night (not to be confused with Whitney Houston’s single of the same title in “The Bodyguard”).
A child progeny and genius, Mozart started composing at age five, and performing for the royalty of Europe at age six. By the end of his short life, he had created over 600 compositions. He could listen to music just once, then go home and write it down without any mistakes. In 1787, then 16-year-old Beethoven came to Vienna to study with Mozart.
Mozart’s operas include lots of decorative notes, often sung very quickly, when he lived in Salzburg, the emperor is said to have remarked of his music: “Too beautiful for our ears, my dear Mozart, and vastly too many notes!” To which Mozart supposedly replied, “Just as many as are necessary, your majesty!”
This is readily apparent in the Queen of the Night’s two arias in “The Magic Flute,” which require vocal acrobatics. Both Act One’s “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” (Oh, tremble not, my dear son) and Act 2’s raging “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart) have several high F-naturals, roughly two and a half octaves above middle C on a piano, a feat rare in opera.
Other highlights include Tamino’s heart-melting aria, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön,” Pamina’s lament, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” Papageno-Papagena’s duet, “Pa Pa Pa!,” and Sarastro’s aria, “In diesen heilgen Hallen.”
“The Magic Flute,” has something for everyone–diversity of the style of music and spectacle, and an understanding of human heart with all of its foibles. Mozart was a Freemason for the last seven years of his life, and incorporated its philosophy of enlightenment, and the search and discovery of eternal truths. Thus, “The Magic Flute” is a remarkable combination of musical and dramatic styles, from the earthly to the otherworldly.
If you’ve seen the film, “Amadeus,” you’ve seen a snippet of “The Magic Flute.” And if this is your first time seeing the opera, you may recognize some of its music from various films, including “Wrong Places” (2000), “Amadeus” (1984), “Face/Off” (1997), “The General’s Daughter” (1999), “Miss Congeniality” (2000), “Operation Dumbo Drop,” (1995), and Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Patrons will see new performers as well as familiar ones. Chris Alexander directs, while conductor Julia Jones is making her SO debut, as is choreographer Kathryn Van Meter. Tenors Andrew Stenson and Andrew Bills alternate in the role of Tamino, and sopranos Lauren Snouffer and Amanda Forsythe alternate as Pamina. Soprano Amanda Opuszynski sings the role of Papagena, while baritones John Moore and Craig Verm (his SO debut) alternate as Papageno. Also making their SO debuts are coloratura Christina Poulitsi as the Queen of the Night, bass Ante Jerkunica as Sarastro, and tenor Rodell Rosel as Monostatos.
Over two centuries later, Mozart remains one of classical music’s giants. His fairytale opera, “The Magic Flute,” blends myth, magic, and glorious music to deliver its affirming message: Love conquers all. There were not too many notes; there were just as many as necessary. And you don’t want to miss it.
“The Magic Flute” runs May 6,7,10, 13, 14. 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21st at McCall Hall. Age five and above will enjoy this opera. It is sung in German with English subtitles and runs three hours, with one intermission. Tickets start at $25. 206.389.7676 or firstname.lastname@example.org or the box office at 1020 John Street, general hours M-F 9am-3pm, weekday performance days 9am-5pm, Saturday performance days