Media Room

The Magic Flute – Program Notes by Martin Pearlman

April 7, 2016

Back in 1989, Boston Baroque gave the first American performances of The Magic Flute on period instruments. Only a few years earlier, we had given the American period-instrument premiere of Don Giovanni. These two productions were so well received that we were encouraged to do more Mozart operas and more operas in general. Now, after these many years, we are happy to have the chance to return to this wonderful work with such a fine cast of soloists and with an orchestra and chorus that have grown over the decades.


In the last months of his life, Mozart received major commissions for several very different works. During the summer of 1791 came a mysterious, anonymous commission to compose a Requiem. Also during the summer, he was engaged to write an Italian opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, for the upcoming coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia. And in a very different vein, he was commissioned to write a Singspiel, a lighter opera in German with spoken dialogue. This last work, which was commissioned by the Theater auf der Wieden in suburban Vienna, was Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

Mozart had met Emanuel Schikaneder, the director of the theater, some 10 years earlier, when the actor’s company came to Salzburg, but he later also came to know him as a fellow mason in Vienna, a connection that proved to be significant for this opera. As an actor, Schikaneder was celebrated for his portrayal of Hamlet, but he was also a talented comic actor and theater director. In the few years immediately before The Magic Flute, he had produced three other “magic operas,” which, like Mozart’s, drew on German fairy tales, as well as on pseudo-oriental tales by Wieland and others.

Among Boston Baroque’s discography are world-premiere recordings of two of Schikaneder’s earlier “magic” operas: The Philosopher’s Stone (Der Stein der Weisen) and The Beneficent Dervish (Der wohltätige Derwisch). The stories of these Singspiels — particularly The Philosopher’s Stone — as well as the characters in them have remarkable parallels to The Magic Flute. Schikaneder himself and members of his company not only sang but also composed surprisingly good arias for their own roles in these operas, and their work clearly influenced Mozart, teaching him about the strengths of these singers, when he wrote music for the same actors playing similar roles in The Magic Flute.

The premiere of The Magic Flute took place on September 30, 1791, some three weeks after the opening of his other commissioned opera, La clemenza di Tito. Mozart conducted the first performances from the keyboard, with Schikaneder playing the role of Papageno. Mozart’s friend, Benedikt Schack, played Tamino and, being a trained flutist, Schack also played Tamino’s flute music himself. Schikaneder, however, mimed his playing of Papageno’s magic glockenspiel, as Mozart amusingly tells his wife in a letter:

“During Papageno’s aria with the Glockenspiel I went behind the scenes, as I felt a sort of impulse today to play it myself. Well, just for fun, at the point where Schikaneder has a pause, I played an arpeggio. He was startled, looked behind the wings and saw me. When he had his next pause, I played no arpeggio This time he stopped and refused to go on. I guessed what he was thinking and again played a chord He then struck the Glockenspiel and said ‘Shut up.’ Whereupon everyone laughed. I am inclined to think that this joke taught many of the audience for the first time that Papageno does not play the instrument himself.”

Among the female roles, Josepha Hofer, Mozart’s sister-in-law, sang the Queen of the Night, and the 17-year-old Anna Gottlieb sang Pamina.

The opera was a triumph and received over 100 performances in a little over a year, but tragically, Mozart did not live to follow its progress. Toward the end of November, he became seriously ill, and on December 5, he died at the age of 36. Schikaneder continued to perform this grandest and most successful of his company’s operas, giving more than 200 performances of it over the next decade. It became equally successful in other European cities. The great poet Goethe, who was inspired to write a sequel — a project which he unfortunately did not complete — wrote that its popularity was unprecedented: “No man will admit that he has not seen it. . . There has never been such a spectacle here before.”


The libretto

Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto has been both highly praised and severely criticized. It has been considered a confused story by many. “Yet,” as the poet W. H. Auden has written, “its very confusions, perhaps, give this libretto a fascination . . .” The magic in this opera and its focus on esoteric knowledge have led a number of scholars to draw parallels between The Magic Flute and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The struggle between light and dark, day and night, is here represented by the enlightened Sarastro and the evil Queen of the Night, but it has often been remarked that our understanding — and Tamino’s understanding — of which side is in the right changes between the first act and the second. Other inconsistencies have been pointed out, as well, but Schikaneder’s telling of the story nonetheless continues to charm audiences after more than two centuries.

Beyond drawing on fairy tale sources, Schikaneder drew heavily on masonic literature and ideas, and it is clear from his letters that Mozart too took the masonic symbolism seriously. The notions of human brotherhood, the ritual trials by fire and water, the child of nature (Papageno) vs. the initiates into the truth, the invocation of Egyptian gods, even the emphasis on the number 3 — 3 ladies, 3 boys, 3 slaves, the “masonic key” of 3 flats — all reflect the world of masonry. And the struggle between ignorance (darkness) and knowledge (light) also reflects the wider world of the European Enlightenment. But 18th-century enlightenment is not necessarily the same as that of the 21st century. Thus it is often pointed out that misogyny and racism play a role in this opera, as they did in the 18th century itself, with the Queen and her ladies, along with the wicked Moor, being destroyed and cast down into eternal night (gestürzet in ewige Nacht), while Sarastro and his brotherhood triumph in light, beauty and wisdom.

The music

Mozart’s music for The Magic Flute is in many ways unlike anything else in his oeuvre. Much of the music has a folk-like simplicity that is true to the story but does not sacrifice depth. Low farce is combined with high drama, simple music with more sophisticated arias written for true opera singers, sometimes all within the same ensemble. For Papageno there is a folk style, for the Queen there are high, virtuosic arias, for Sarastro more serious, bass music, and for Tamino, who had a “beautiful voice” according to Mozart’s father, there is more lyrical writing. The wide range of styles is appropriate to each of the characters in the opera, but it also reflects the kind of music that the same actors sang — and, in some cases, wrote for themselves — in Schikaneder’s earlier magic operas. The finales of the two acts, on the other hand, are grander than anything that the company had produced up to that point. They are full-length opera finales with complex music and action.

As in his other operas, Mozart’s orchestra, which was nearly the same size as what we are using tonight, was intimately involved in the drama. The three Eb chords that begin the overture set a serious tone at the outset, and they recur later as symbols in the rituals of the brotherhood; but here in the overture they give way to a lighter Allegro. The sonority of trombones and basset horns (lower range clarinets) lend weight and seriousness to the ceremonies of Sarastro’s priests.

The glockenspiel, which accompanies Papageno, raises special problems, particularly so for a period-instrument orchestra. The traditional orchestral glockenspiel is a high-pitched percussion instrument with metal bars played by mallets. However, Mozart has written his part for a glockenspiel that is operated by a keyboard, so that one can play traditional two-handed music. Such instruments are rare, and opera companies often substitute a celesta. But to find a keyboard glockenspiel that is tuned to the low pitch that Boston Baroque uses for Mozart — A430, or a quarter-step low — has been impossible until very recently. However, an instrument maker in England has now built one instrument specifically for performing The Magic Flute at low pitch. That is the instrument that we are importing for our performances this weekend.

The dialogue

Characteristically for a Singspiel, this opera has spoken dialogue between its musical numbers. To speak that dialogue in the original German before an English-speaking audience would seem rather puritanical and unnecessary, especially since Schikaneder is not Shakespeare. Even in Mozart’s time, it would have been spoken in the language of the audience. On the other hand, Mozart’s arias were designed for and sound best with their German texts. Today they are familiar in that form, and, in this age of supertitles, it is not difficult for an audience to follow them in translation. In our performance, therefore, the dialogue is spoken in English, while Mozart’s music is sung in the original German. Switching from English into German seems no more abrupt or unrealistic than switching at the same moment from speaking to singing, and it has worked well for us in Singspiel productions in the past.

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