I promise I won’t pick classical music every Wednesday, but I thought I would start out with my favorite opera, The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) was composed last, it was first performed on September 6, 1791, while The Magic Flute was premiered on September 30 of the same year, making it the last opera of Mozart’s tragically short life. Mozart died in December of the same year.
The libretto for The Magic Flute was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, whose theater company was first to perform the work. Schikaneder, who was a well-known comedic actor in Vienna, played the role of Papageno. Mozart’s sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, played the Queen of the Night, a role that was written specifically for her magnificent voice and exceptional range.
The story of The Magic Flute is styled as a fairy tale; however there are parts of the story that are not very suitable for children. Although magical animals frolic in the forest and little angel children fly down from heaven (usually in a hot-air balloon), there are darker qualities to the story as well. The heroine, Pamina, is encouraged by her mother to assassinate the king, Sarastro. When she is led to believe that the prince no longer loves her, Pamina attempts (or at least considers) suicide. And the story is chock-full of references to the Freemasons and their mystical ceremonies. Both Mozart and Schikaneder were members of a Masonic Lodge, and the opera celebrates the Enlightenment ideals upon which the Freemasons were founded.
In my days at UT-D, I took a class called “Mozart and the German Enlightenment.” It was a very interesting class, in which we read some German writers from that time period, like Schiller and Goethe, and studied most of Mozart’s operas. The major paper I wrote for that class was about The Magic Flute, and my thesis was that this opera proved that Mozart was not a misogynist, as some have claimed. At the end of the opera, both Pamina AND Tamino (princess and prince) go through the trials required to become members of the king’s court, and these trials have frequently been compared to the rites of the Masonic order. I felt that Mozart’s inclusion of the female character in this ritual was significant, even though women would not have been allowed to gain membership in a Masonic lodge.
Another thing that makes this opera unusual is that the audience is initially led to believe that the Queen of the Night is the protagonist. She enters the story by looking for a hero to rescue her daughter from Sarastro, the sun king. She seems sympathetic and genuinely distressed that her daughter has been kidnapped. In the second act, however, we discover that Sarastro leads a group of scholars and philosophers and that the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, is staying in the castle voluntarily. When the Queen commands her daughter to kill the king, we discover her true, wicked nature.
Der Hölle Rache / Diana Damrau
This aria, one of the most famous in all of opera, is sung by the Queen as she seeks to enlist her daughter in her terrible assassination scheme. Although the opera was written in German, this version has English subtitles. The performer is Diana Damrau, one of the best sopranos to ever take on the role. The Queen’s part was written for the highest of soprano voices, and is very difficult to sing. During parts of the song, the Queen uses her voice to try to cast a spell on her daughter. Unfortunately, in these subtitles there are “eehhhrrr” words listed during those times. But it was Mozart’s intention, I believe, that no specific words were meant to be understood during those passages.
By the way, this opera is different in yet another way. While most operas are sung completely from beginning to end, this opera was in a style known as “singspiel” – a style where spoken words exist side-by-side with the sung parts. Nowadays, we would call that a “musical!” This type of performance was very popular and intended for the masses, as well as the elite. I hope you will listen to the clip linked above and enjoy this amazing performance.