The Magic Flute was one of Mozart’s great last works and one of the most enduring pieces in the operatic repertoire. Since its premiere in 1791, The Magic Flute’s popularity never seems to diminish. Mozart’s musical contribution has never been described as anything other than sublime. However, Schikaneder’s libretto has often been attacked as nonsensical and self-contradictory. Below is a recordin of Dies Bildnis by yours truly, posted as part of the #Quarantenor series:

Die Bildnis from Mozart’s The Magic Flute

The central plot of the opera, greatly summarized, is as follows:

A Summary of The Magic Flute’s Plot

Three mystical ladies, servants of the Star-Flaming Queen of the Night, rescue Prince Tamino from a rampaging dragon. The ladies give Tamino a portrait bearing the likeness of the Queen’s daughter, Pamina. They tell him she was kidnapped by ‘an evil genius’ named Sarastro. The Queen then enlists Tamino’s aid in rescuing her daughter and assigns the hapless bird-man Papageno as his companion. She gives the duo the titular magic flute and silver bells. Their respective properties are the abilities to change the hearts and minds of those who hear their music.

Storming The Fortress

Tamino and Papageno split up, the prince taking the front entrance while the bird-man seeks another way in. Immediately, Sarastro’s Speaker, an apparently learned man, confronts Tamino. He informs the prince that he is mistaken and all is not as it seems. He claims the Queen has lied to him and that Sarastro is, in fact, a noble man with noble reasons for his actions.

The opera then shifts gears from a heroic rescue into a mystical initiation. Tamino joins Sarastro’s order and partakes in the trials of its mysteries. This all occurs while the Queen turns full villain. She tries to murder Sarastro and lead Tamino astray by any means possible. Sarastro has designed Pamina to be Tamino’s bride and, in both of them, create the embodiment of his philosophy’s ideals. Sarastro allows her to to join Tamino in the mystical tests only after she has been suitably purified. The opera ends with the couple triumphant. Sarastro anoints them as his successors, while the Queen of the Night and her followers shatter and become cast into perpetual night.

The Magic Flute’s Sub-Plots

There is also a running subplot of Papageno’s total disinterest in spiritual enlightenment. He seeks instead to dedicate his life to wine, women and song, and the hopes of finding himself a bird-woman like him. He finally encounters such a bride in one of the most delightful duets in existence. There is also a group of three boys, variously referred to as genies, spirits, or simply boys. At the start of the opera they aid the three ladies, but later also work in Sarastro’s interest.

The Magic Flute’s Contradiction

The apparent contradictory nature of the libretto has puzzled many for centuries and many explanations have sprouted from this fertile ground. The Queen of the Night’s apparent about-face is the central point upon which the incongruence rests. One popular legend holds that Schikaneder’s colleague and rival, Martinelli, had recently produced a magic opera of his own (Der Fagottist oder die Zauberzither, “The Bassoonist, or The Magic Zither”) using the same source upon which Schikaneder was drawing (Liebeskind’s tale Lulu oder die Zauberflöte). Schikaneder set about to do a re-tooling of the libretto to avoid accusations of plagiarism. However, Mozart had already composed a portion of the first act using the original material.

Tuuli Takala as The Magic Flute's Queen of the Night (Tristram Kenton)
Tuuli Takala as Queen of the Night from Die Zauberflote by Mozart @ Royal Opera House.
Directed by David McVicar. Conducted by Leo Hussain. (Opening 01-11-19) by Tristram Kenton

Jacques Chailley in “The Magic Flute Unveiled” suggests that there are too many holes in this story. The largest of which being that Schikaneder was not a man afraid of plagiarism. His theater had experienced a financial windfall that resulted from the success of Oberon, an opera that blatantly and shamelessly plagiarized. There is very little evidence that supports this theory. It is highly likely that it found favor with many historians and musicologists because it was a plausible, and handy, solution to the problem of the libretto.

A Masonic Influence/Perspective

Most likely is that there were many revisions to the Magic Flute’s libretto and that the final version carries traces of them. It is also very probable that Mozart was an active participant in the dramatic direction. Although many historians will mention that Mozart and Schikaneder were Masonic brothers, many fail to consider that Schikaneder was no longer a member of a lodge by the time the Magic Flute was in its early creative stages. Expelled from his lodge due to his libertine ways, he was never officially re-admitted back into the order. Mozart, on the other hand, remained a confirmed member of the brotherhood until his death. There he observed the ‘Benevolence’ lodge by Ignaz von Born, a prominent freemason and mineralogist.

The general character of Born seems to have greatly informed the characterization of Sarastro. While Mozart had direct contact with Born, there was no such rapport between Born and Schikaneder. This shows us that, although Schikaneder is credited as the librettist for The Magic Flute, Mozart’s own authorial contributions did much to shape the plot. This idea is especially interesting if we consider the dueling tones of the opera. Papageno’s down-to-earth lowbrow humor (which was a specialty of Schikaneder’s) contrasting sharply with the solemn and philosophical episodes featuring the initiation of the prince. It certainly does suggest two authors working in tandem.

Hidden Explanations

How, then, do we reconcile the Queen’s turning? The Queen of the Night’s characterization in Act I paints her close to the benevolent ‘radiant fairy’ who sends the prince on a quest in Liebeskind’s Lulu. But then she takes a sharp and dramatic turn into a villainous territory in Act II! The answer is, of course, in the text of the opera itself as well as some basic knowledge of Masonic beliefs. Performances often omit a section of dialogue in Act II to cut down on time. It is shamefully illuminating in this regard. The Queen of the Night says to her daughter, Pamina:

Your father, who was the Master here, voluntarily cast off the sevenfold shield of the sun in favor of the Initiates of Isis. Another now bears the powerful medallion upon his breast: Sarastro. Shortly before your father’s death, I reproached him about this matter. Then he said to me severely: ‘Woman, I am to die soon; all the treasures that were my private property I leave to you, to you and your daughter.’

‘And the solar circle, which encompasses the universe and penetrates it with its rays, to whom do you leave that?’ I asked sharply.

‘Let it belong to the Initiates,’ was his reply, ‘Sarastro will be the manly guardian, as I myself have been up to this day. Ask me not one word more. These matters are not accessible to your woman’s spirit. Your duty is to submit yourself completely, and your daughter also, to the directions of these Wise Men.’

Queen of the Night; The Magic Flute, Act II

The Role Of Women

In traditional 18th century Masonic thought, there is a definite delineation between the powers of men and women. The attainment of True Wisdom is open only to men. The role of women in the Masonic cosmogony, as the Queen’s husband admonishes her, is to submit fully to the guidance of wise men. True understanding was impossible to them otherwise. The Queen of the night, from the interpretation of a Masonic framework, is a rebellious and prideful spirit who is chafing against a divinely-ordained hierarchy. She presumes to rule as a man would and is clearly of the belief that the sevenfold shield of the sun is hers to claim. This is the path to perdition for women, in Masonic thought.

Observe that Pamina is only considered suitable to be Tamino’s wife-to-be once she has been broken into submission. She must endure emotional cruelty, deemed necessary for her purification. Paradoxically, women are only worthy of men insofar as they are inferior to them. Spirits who refuse to break and submit, such as the Queen, only disturb and impede the perceived Masonic order.

Traditionally Reconciling The Magic Flute’s Incongruencies

With this in mind, the perceived shift in The Magic Flute’s Act II is perfectly self-explanatory. The Queen’s initial gracefulness and benevolence in her first appearance is because she is beguiling Tamino to do her bidding. She wants him to (hopefully) both rescue Pamina and strike Sarastro down. The guileless prince fails his mission spectacularly. He not only fails to achieve either goal but also joins Sarastro’s monastic order!

As Act II dawns, it is clear to the Queen that acting indirectly has failed. So she seeks to enroll her daughter into the murder plot… but Pamina, who is the opera’s Masonic ideal woman, refuses. This leaves the Queen no other option but to attempt a direct assault against the temple itself. An act of such hubris (to a Masonic mind) coming from a woman only has one suitable outcome: self-destruction. In this framework, we see that it is not the Queen’s character that shifts. Rather in the whole of her arc, she moves from a certain hopeful optimism to sheer desperation. This desperation forces her to drop all pretense. She was never truly benevolent, the opera suggests. Her aspirations are self-destructive.

Of course, that is the Masonic reading of the opera- and one that Mozart himself, no doubt, intended. Nevertheless, there are certain elements in the opera itself that allow for a far more different reading, particularly from a more contemporaneous perspective.

A Humanist Perspective

Let us operate outside of any Masonic ideological framework and analyze the nature of events as they are presented to us by The Magic Flute’s plot. The careful observer may notice that some elements run sharply athwart the conventional interpretation. Perhaps Sarastro is not the enlightened benevolent ruler and the Queen of the Night the embodiment of irrationality and superstition. Are things really true to the order the opera’s setting begs us to assume?

Sarastro, Slavedriver

Although Sarastro receives his name from Zoroaster, the ancient Iranian prophet, the portrayal of his character and his ideals are meant to echo those of the humanist of the Enlightenment. Why then, does a man intended to be an example of this archetype possess slaves? It is true that many men of the enlightenment were extremely racist, and many of them owned slaves. However, it is not a mistake that men such as Marie Jean Antonie Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, who were considered to be individuals fully embodying the principles of the Enlightenment, were staunchly against the practice. Condorcet was famously a strong abolitionist, a proponent of religious tolerance, legal and educational reform, and, in true visionary fashion, a proponent of equal rights for women in all aspects of society (suffrage included). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this of Condorcet’s contributions:

Gender equality was not the only controversial cause espoused by Condorcet: Even before publicly addressing the woman question, he argued vociferously for the humanity and rights of enslaved Africans and proposed the abolition of slavery in France’s overseas colonies. His 1781 work Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres [Reflections on Black Slavery] helped incite the abolitionist movement in France, which came together in early 1788 in the newly created Société des Amis des Noirs, of which Condorcet became president in January 1789: a counter-lobby to the influential pro-planter Club Massiac.”

The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Condorcet so fully embraced the rational application of his principles that he, unknowingly, articulated arguments that, today, would still put him at the vanguard of many contemporary movements: “He considered neither sodomy nor suicide as crimes because they ‘do not violate the rights of any other man’, unlike rape, which ‘violates the property which everyone has in her person.'”

A Contemporary Retrospective of The Magic Flute’s Meaning

How does, then, the archetypal Sarastro measure up against the flesh-and-blood Condorcet?

The Indifferent Sarastro

The ‘humanist’ Sarastro has very little regard for his slaves. Indeed, he relegates the management thereof to his henchman Monostatos, a man of incredible cruelty and violence. Sarastro remains unperturbed by Monostatos’ violence, famous as he is for his liberal usage of the whip. Sarastro does not seem to object to the slavemaster’s methods at all.

That is until he makes the mistake of falling in love with Pamina and, as she euphemistically puts it, “demanded love of her.” It is at this point that Sarastro condemns Monostatos. He receives a whipping of seventy-seven lashes followed by banishment. We do not know if Monostatos has ever attempted to force himself upon others in the past. However, the impression is that the only reason Sarastro reacts the way he does is because he has designs for Pamina. Thus, he does not regard her as being worthy of being equal to men. In this regard, Sarastro the symbol falls extremely short of Condorcet, the man, in almost all important respects.

The Queen As She Is

The Queen of the Night, by contrast, keeps no slaves. Instead, she willingly engages in commerce with those who live under her protection. She trades with the bird-man Papageno for songbirds for her palace using food and wine. In lieu of a violent and vicious Monostatos, she is instead served dutifully and faithfully by her three ladies. These women are formidable in their own right, capable of slaying dragons with ease. This is where they come across Prince Tamino, by saving him. They thus either possess powers through initiation or share in their mistress’ power in some fashion. All of these are transgressive actions in the Masonic view.

The three ladies, as envoys of the Queen, rescue endangered travelers (such as Tamino). They also are the executors of her justice: such as when they punish Papageno for telling a lie. The give him rocks and a mouth padlock to lock his lips instead of the usual feast. When the punishment is lifted, Papageno swears he will never tell a lie again. Monostatos is not so favorably changed by his encounter with Sarastro’s brand of justice. In fact he turns against him.

Sarastro’s Machinations

Sarastro commands great power and a place of importance. But it must be emphasized that the power that he wields, namely that of the sevenfold shield of the sun, was extracted from the King by methods of what appears to be a deathbed conversion. Very specific terms were laid out: namely, the total submission of the Queen and her daughter to the initiates of Sarastro’s temple. In essence, the total elimination of the remaining regent in favor of a theocratic order, at the head of which is, of course, Sarastro.

The Queen’s actions are perfectly understandable in the light of the former paragraph. We come upon her as a deposed monarch whose kingdom has been usurped from her by the head of a cult. Her own daughter was subsequently taken from her by the aforementioned head cultist, in order that he might raise her to be unlike her mother. In other words, to be compliant and non-defiant.

The Queen’s Plight

Limited in her power to act as she is by Sarastro’s possession of the sevenfold shield, we have little reason to consider her entreaties to Tamino as being anything but completely sincere in her motherly grief. This is a grief that is callously dismissed by one of Sarastro’s speakers when confronted by Tamino: “So, a woman has beguiled you? A woman does little, chatters a great deal. You, young man, believe the wagging tongues?” It takes a particularly sadistic outlook in order to rationalize a kidnapping by pretending that the other party has no claim to feeling hurt.

In The Magic Flute’s Act II, the Queen’s actions are desperate. But we must remember that it is at this point that she has exhausted all other possibilities to rescue her daughter. Following Tamino’s betrayal and defection to the brotherhood, she seeks to recruit Pamina into the plot to kill Sarastro. This is the act of someone who is aware that even if she escapes today with Pamina, Sarastro’s immense power will simply allow him to kidnap her again and she will be powerless to stop him. She says as much in her Act I aria to Tamino:

"I had to see her stolen from me, 
“Ah help!” was all she said; 
but her pleading was in vain, 
for my aid was too feeble."

A Brainwashed Couple

Pamina’s refusal to act is the last straw for her. Perceiving betrayal on all fronts, The Queen could be said to slip into murderous madness (in her famous Der Hölle Rache aria). She has, after all, risked her life to speak to her daughter. She has snuck into a place where she is utterly powerless and vulnerable: Sarastro’s fortress. It becomes clear to her that she has no hope for the future unless Sarastro himself, the architect of her misfortune, should die.

Her last act of defiance comes at the end of the opera when, with the aid of Monostatos, she sneaks into the Temple with her ladies for the last time in an attempt to murder Sarastro. It is possible that she knows that this is a futile action. She has been wronged, diminished, dismissed, and deprived, and yet the only betrayal she has in her power to avoid is that of her own self. She would rather die fighting than submit.

A Queen Of Desperation

The attack is executed, and the Queen and her ladies have their powers (and themselves) shattered. It is implied that this is by the power of the sevenfold shield of the sun. Therefore it is a conscious ac of Sarastro. They vanish, as the libretto says, “plunged into eternal night”. Sarastro’s final action towards the Queen and her ladies helps to underline with a bold, red marker the altisonant hypocrisies with which Sarastro reassures Pamina regarding her mother’s fate in an earlier scene:

"Within these sacred portals revenge is unknown,
and if a man has fallen, love guides him to his duty.
Then, with a friend's hand, he walks, glad and joyful
into a better land.
Within these sacred walls, where man loves fellow man,
no traitor can lurk, because enemies are forgiven."

Two Magic Flutes

At the end of the day, there are two Magic Flutes. One is The Magic Flute’s Masonic morality fable as envisioned by Mozart and Schikaneder, focused through a Masonic frame. As long as one remains narrowly within that 18th-century Masonic viewpoint, the fable accomplishes its purpose. But only for as long as one willfully suppresses knowledge of the Enlightenment ideals. Ideals in which the opera’s central figure Sarastro is allegedly rooted. However, the other and far more interesting The Magic Flute’s themes are revealed by breaking out of the restrictive hold of Masonry. Fully acknowledging the full scope of the principles of the Enlightenment without making any allowances or blind spots for pet creeds lends the opera much more nuanced impact.

A Tragic Heroine

The opera reveals The Magic Flute’s Queen as a tragic heroine who is cast in the role of the antagonist solely because the narrative as told seeks to favor the usurper and authoritarian Sarastro. However, the narrative manipulations of the Masonic framework cannot truly assert this impression. The fable that is being woven is immediately undone by a close examination of the actions that the opera itself gives us. It is almost as if, just as she diligently punished Papageno’s indiscrete lies, the Queen of the Night will not brook a lie to be told within her kingdom.