The Magic Flute Backstory
The Magic Flute, May 14-22, tickets and info
What Happened Before Tamino’s Entrance?
Before the curtain goes up, we should try to imagine the world of The Magic Flute — a world situated between the sun and the moon, where a great saga is already underway. The King of the Night has died, leaving his wife everything except the sun disc, which gives its bearer authority. The King entrusted the sun disc to Sarastro, who is the protector of wisdom and truth. The Queen of the Night and her daughter, Pamina, have been instructed to follow Sarastro’s guidance, but the Queen is intent on seizing the power of the sun disc. Sarastro realizes the Queen’s intentions, and that both kingdoms are on the brink of collapse as day and night — male and female — remain at odds. But the gods Isis and Osiris intervene, instructing Sarastro to abduct Pamina for her own protection. Pamina’s own experience is ambiguous: She desires to return to her mother, yet she is unaware of her father’s dying wishes and her mother’s unquenchable desire for power. And, above all, no one except Sarastro knows that the gods have predestined for a prince to rescue and marry Pamina, therefore reuniting male and female, day and night, and bringing peace to this mythic empire among the stars.
You must be thinking: “Wow. I need to know all of this in order to understand the next three hours?” Well, no, not really. You can certainly sit back and enjoy the incredible music given to us by Mozart, and a brilliant production with its motley array of colors, magic creatures and enchanted musical instruments, and stunning effects. Or you can read a littler further and appreciate more of the secrets hidden in The Magic Flute.
First, you should know that “Die Zauberflöte” is translated as “The Magic Flute” for simplicity’s sake; the German “Zauber,” however, has more nuanced undertones, including associations with prophecy and enchantment. Then there is the incredible number of archaic references to mythology, astrology, Freemasonry, and symbology. Here we’ll cover just three.
The seven-fold sun disc: Without any doubt a symbol of the seven planets, specifically those known best to us because they gave us the names of the days of the week: Saturday is named after Saturn; Sunday is named after Sol (the Sun); Monday is named after Luna (the Moon); and so on. And why? Well, the physics of the universe were not fully understood in 1791, and Mozart and fellow Enlightenment intellectuals would have welcomed an opportunity to present a heliocentric mythology of their own.
The three-fold chord: You’ll hear these three chords at the onset of the overture, and each subsequent appearance heralds a new and significant triangle: three ladies, three boys, three priests. And Tamino will be to remain “steadfast, patient, and silent” during his trials, the three virtues associated with Enlightenment philosophy. Almost everything comes in triplicate in The Magic Flute.
The magic flute: The instrument entrusted to Tamino, and carved by the King of the Night, as Pamina relays, from “the deepest heart of a thousand year old oak, amid thunder, lightning, storm, and rain.” But the simple root has been transmuted by alchemy, and the flute presented to Tamino by the First Lady is made of gold. Then there are the four essential elements required to enable this process: thunder was still believed to emanate from within the earth; lightning was perceived to be fire from the sky; storms were the result of aggravated air, and rain is life-iving water.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute does not reveal any single mythology. Rather, it is a sweeping allegory for the Enlightenment, for the pursuit of wisdom, attired sometimes in Egyptian, other times Greco-Roman, and even Persian robes. The work transcends full comprehension by any one person, for some of its secrets no doubt went with Mozart upon his untimely death at thirty-five. Yet any wandering through its labyrinth is fulfilling, and we can always read ourselves into the work, finding those moments and symbols that resound with us personally.