So I was watching a production of Mozart’s the Magic Flute, and I was wondering why we don’t see more magic flutes in the popular culture. Wagner’s Ring cycle tapped into a rich vein of magic-ring related lore which led ultimately to Ian McKellen shouting YOU SHALL NOT PASS at a smoky fire-demon with nonfunctional wings, after all. When I consider the magic flute, though, all I get is a half-buried childhood memory of a Smurf movie.
SOME FUN FACTS ABOUT MOZART’S THE MAGIC FLUTE
1) The Queen of Night’s second aria — which is the bit of music from the Magic Flute that you’ll recognize if you recognize any bit of music from the Magic Flute — is not a happy-go-lucky song about the loveliness of flute music or the joy of magic or anything like that. It is a song in which the Queen of Night exhorts her daughter to murder a dude. The translated lyrics are something like “My heart burns with the vengeance of hell! I burn with revenge and despair! If you do not murder Sarastro I am going to use magic to dissolve all familial bonds between us, that is how much I need you to kill this guy for me!” I admit I got clued-in on this when I saw Diana Damuru’s performance from the Met in 2007.
2) So the plot of the Magic Flute starts off pretty promising and gets steadily worse.
There’s this fella. He’s an okay guy, he’s out in the woods hiking cross-country, and, as happens to so many hikers every summer, he’s nearly eaten by a dragon. He’s running from the dragon, trips, bonks his head on a stump, he’s out for the count and the dragon is feeling pretty good about it. But since the opera is not about a dragon but about a guy with a magic flute, spoiler alert, the dragon doesn’t make it. A troupe of sidereal nymphs wander by, the ladies-in-waiting to the Queen of Night. If they had some other errand, it’s not important, because they drop what they’re doing immediately and fight the dragon. Big fight between the dragon and the magic sidereal nymphs. This is all in the first five minutes.
Anyway, after killing the dragon, the nymphs assume they’re going to get sex from the handsome prince (NB I dunno if he is actually a prince). They decide to go tell the Queen of Night about the whole affair, and there’s this amusing bit where one of the nymphs is all, okay, you two go off and tell Her Darkness, I’ll stay here and guard/screw the prince, and then the other two nymphs cotton to her scheme and they each try to co-opt it and be the nymph that gets to stick around and enjoy the postdragon conjugal visit. Eventually the nymphs decide to all three go tell the Queen of Night, then come back and screw the guy en masse.
So when the guy comes to, he’s alone with a dead dragon. Guy’s name is Tamino. Tamino is all, whoa, dead dragon, and then another man wanders into the scene. This other guy, Papageno, appears to be some kind of hideous bird-man, and Tamino wonders what kind of crazy fairy-tale forest he’s accidentally wandered into. Papageno, though, he explains that he’s just in a bird-man costume because it lulls the birds into a false sense of security (Papageno is a professional bird-hunter). But yeah, it’s totally a fairy-tale forest that Tamino has wandered into. Papageno is the Queen of Night’s court pheasant-poacher.
So Tamino is understandably put off by all this. He asks whether Papageno killed the dragon, and Papageno is all sure, you bet, is there reward money, how much money are you going to give me, I demand more money, okay you drive a hard bargain I’ll just take all your money.
Fuck that noise, say the sidereal nymphs, who conveniently reappear and use their nymph-powers to sew Papageno’s mouth shut, or affix a giant magical padlock to it. It’s like the end of Beetlejuice, is what I’m trying to describe here. The nymphs come in and demand their appropriate sexing, no, they don’t, they’ve had a conversation with the Queen of Night offstage and Her Darkness has decided that Tamino can be put to better use than satisfying her sidereal nymph’s lusts.
Specifically, they’ve got a Polaroid of the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, and Her Darkness wants Tamino to take a gander, which he does and is appropriately inflamed with lust, because she’s hot. And he’s all, take me to her, and they’re all, we can’t because nobody has murdered Sarastro yet, and Tamino is all what? See, Pamina was abducted by this sorcerer, Sarastro, a real piece of work who lives in a castle located conveniently next door. If only some easily-led young buck would venture into Sarastro’s castle and murder him and in the process rescue Pamina! Who totally exists!
Enter the Queen of Night, who sings a lovely aria about how all happiness has disappeared on account of her daughter has been abducted and Sarastro is still alive. She and all her nymphs look all sad about how alive Sarastro is. So, naturally, Tamino volunteers to go to Sarastro’s castle and rescue Pamina.
Papageno gets recruited to guide Tamino to Sarastro’s castle, but since he doesn’t know where it is, the Queen of Night also dispatches some spirits of the air (not the same as the nymphs) to guide them. And, for good measure, she has her nymphs present Tamino with the magic flute which magically lifts the hearts of those who hear it, filling them with joy and gladness. Totally the thing to give a guy you’re sending on a suicide mission to murder your hated enemy and also rescue your daughter, way better than a magic sword or a magic handgun.
Papageno doesn’t want to go along with this, but gets bribed with another musical instrument, a tambourine which, I don’t know, it spins straw into gold or something. Maybe someone just cast Nystul’s Magical Aura on it, it doesn’t matter. The point is the traveler and the poacher, armed with a couple of musical instruments, are going on a commando raid of the evil wizard’s castle. Did I mention he’s a wizard? Wizard.
That’s the first half-hour or so, the whole thing is about two and a half hours long but the plot is really front-loaded. Tamino and Papageno make their way to the castle. Papageno gets there first and rescues Pamina from getting tied up and ravaged by a mob of Sarastro’s unruly servants, the leader of which, Monostatos, is called out as a black guy who lusts after white women like Pamina, because Mozart was racist as well as sexist. Sarastro shows up, he’s not so much a wizard as a Freemason, and explains that the Queen of Night only hates him because she’s a silly woman, and invited Tamino and Papageno to abandon their service to her and join the Freemasons instead, which they sign onto. The Queen of Night shows up again and sings about how Sarastro stole her late husband’s magic, which is rightfully the Queen’s, but no one pays her much attention because apparently we’re all supposed to take for granted that women can’t do magic and generally inferior to men, especially Freemason men, who are better than regular men.
Tamino and Papageno undergo a series of ordeals to join the Freemasons. During this hazing Papageno is taunted by, wait for it, Papagena, his one true love, who may as well be wearing a t-shirt that says I AND ALL WOMEN ARE MERELY SYMBOLS FOR THE WISDOM ALL MEN PURSUE, ASK ME HOW. At one point Monostatos and his friends are coming after Papageno, and Papageno shakes his magic tambourine, and then everyone dances instead. At another point Tamino is laboring under a vow of silence, and Pamina comes in (Pamina was thrilled to learn her mother promised her to the first man to come wandering into the fairy woods, by the way, you might think I am being ironic here but no, she’s thrilled that he fell in lust with her based on a Polaroid) to talk to him, and he can’t talk back, and Sarastro laughs at Pamina for being a silly girl and expecting a man to talk to her just because she wants to talk to him, but don’t worry, Tamino will marry/claim ownership of her just as soon as he’s done with his important man/Freemason things.
At the climax Tamino has to take a quick trip to the land of the dead, located in castle’s basement I guess, and Pamina invites herself along on this trip for no clear reason, and getting through the land of the dead involves playing the magic flute for no clear reason other than the opera is nearly over and the magic flute barely got mentioned since it was introduced. The Queen of the Night appears, again, and brandishes a knife in the general direction of Sarastro, but his Freemason Man magic is no match for her air and darkness, everyone sings about how great it is that Tamino is joining the Freemasons, Sarastro marries him to Pamina, which apparently wizards can do, and Papageno doesn’t get to be a full-fledged wizards but he does get Papagena which satisfies him.
So you can see why they call it the Magic Flute. Mozart’s original title Racist Freemasons are Awesome and Women are Intrinsically Inferior was deemed “too wordy” by critics.
But, 1790s bigotry aside, it’s some beautiful music. According to Wikipedia some troupes will rejigger it somewhat to tone down the misogyny and racism.
3) The Queen of Night, who is basically only in two scenes, is nevertheless a well-regarded part on account of the arias she sings are justifiably famous (see #1 above). Mozart wrote the part for his sister-in-law, not because he thought of her as a hellish she-beast from the dark between the stars, but because she could hit the high notes with ease and wanted a part that really showed off her range. Hence that high bit in the middle of the song about how important it is that her daughter stab a guy because the Queen of Night’s so angry she’s about to explode.
Similarly, he wrote the Papageno part with a specific guy in mind, but unlike Mozart’s sister-in-law this dude was not known for his singing ability, he was the 1790s Vienna equivalent of a prop comic. So Papageno’s part involves a lot of hilarious bird suits and mugging for the audience and very little in the way of infamously challenging arias.