The Magic Flute is an opera written by Mozart, finished in 1791. At first glance, the plot is quite light-hearted, so much that 19th and 20th century Europeans would take their children to see this opera to “break them in” to high brow entertainment. Yet the masonic symbolism, religious undertones, and audience instruction make for an opera that has surprising depth. Not only that, but opera is the highest pinnacle of western culture art. So read my blog.
The opera follows a young, immature prince, Tamino, and his side-kick bird catcher papagino. The prince is betrothed to find the young princess Pamina by her mother known as the Queen of the Night. To aid them, they are given a magical flute crafted by the Queen’s dead husband. They travel to Egypt to break into the evil king Sarastro’s palace and free Pamina, who is to marry a Moore. Instead, the audience discovers they have been tricked: Sarastro captured Pamina for her own good, and it is the Evil Queen of the Night who is trying to deceive the characters, as well as the audience. The prince and princess must pass through several trials in order to refine themselves and purify their hearts. Papagino must do the same to find a bonny lass to call his own. Will the Queen thwart Sarastro’s design? Will the two young men find their true loves and be worthy of them? I couldn’t tell you; I fell asleep halfway through the play.
But I’m not going to spoil it for you. This truly was a moving German Opera, which, much like a good Matchbox 20 song, was applicable to almost everyone.
(I’d like to address many of the enlightenment elements brought to light enlightenment pun intended) throughout the opera. Enlightenment thinking began to re-script the long-standing lines of class, race, and gender. At the beginning of the play, the stage is shared by the prince as well as a bird catcher. Besides this un-characteristic pairing, Papagino responds to the prince’s rank and status like inquiries of, “who are you? Where do you come from?” with the simple, “I”m a muensche” or “I’m a man. A human”. It was this type of thinking that was rampant during the enlightenment. People became part of a natural morality. Instead of nobility or religion defining them, they were defined as being human. Everything else became ancillary to this. Mozart tried to portray a blurring of aristocracy and peasantry with his two main characters, showing that all people were human before they were prince’s, farmer’s, or merchant’s. In fact, Papageno at first doesn’t even trust the prince, major faux pas before the 18th century.
Mozart also showed women as being equal to the man. To begin, he prevents Pamina from entering into the temple of Isis and Osiris in Sarastro’s kingdom. This would naturally follow european thought before the enlightenment, that the woman was less than the man and subordinate to him. But towards the end of the play, the audience watches as Pamina is allowed to enter the temple, and not just to follow the prince. It is the pairing of the man and woman together, side by side, that allows them to enter into the highest realms of the temple, and well as the highest forms of maturity, thought, and happiness. As well, the two gods represented in the opera, Isis and Osiris, man and woman, were equal and the people prayed to both. This was definitely revolutionary, being dual-theis, as well as both feminine and masculine, and Mozart was on the cutting edge of enlightenment thinking to structure male and female interaction so equally and cause it to be so necessary.
We also see some of the themes of the enlightenment i.e. love or emotion, and it’s opposite, reason. Enlightened thinkers were very concerned with finding a connection between emotion and reason, and it was called wisdom. This is objectified early on in the play, when Tamino, a young, impatient and impulsive man in love, is prevented from entering the temple of wisdom. For one, he has no reason or logic to sedate his passions, thus he hasn’t combined his passion and reason into a higher form of thought. Second, he is alone, and needs a companion to enter the temple.
Love is defined in all four manifestations throughout the opera. Agape, filia, storge, eros are all the forms of love represented. This is a common enlightenment question: how do you define your feelings? What are your feelings and what do they mean? All the characters, Tamino, Pamina, the Moore, Papageno, all somehow define love differently during the opera. It is a way of looking differently at something, not taking it for face value.
The entire play also revolves around Tamino and Papageno in their path to maturity. Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest enlightened thinkers, defined the enlightenment as, “Man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.” He was concerned with people unable to think for themselves since religion, aristocracy, and government did it for them. NOt only did it, but forced people to think the same way. The Enlightenment was about freedom. It positioned man as the interpreter of the universe: an existentialist. (Existentialism became a movement in the 20th century, but I still think it begins with enlighteners thinking for themselves and discovering things by their OWN reason).
Another great element both in the opera and in the enlightenment was the symbolism of light and dark. I for one feel this model quite cliche’, as it has been overused for the last two millennia. But Mozart used it to illustrate the difference between ignorance and maturity, bondage and freedom, evil and good. The queen was: the queen of the NIGHT. When the Moore was about to have his way with Pamina, it was at night. He said, “Moon, hide your face!” Sarastro (reminiscient of Soleil, solarium), was a representation of the sun. He posessed all wisdom, knowledge, and reason. He had tamed his passions, and was forgiving. Why would light and dark be so prevalent in the enlightenment? Religion and its dogmas, in many peoples’ eyes, kept people in bondage, specifically the catholic church. That’s why the reformation was a springboard for new religions and churches, to the beat of over 2,000 protestant churches today in America alone. People had been passing down their traditions of religion, the world, medicine, and any other vignette of life for centuries. For instance in medicine, it was in the 18th century that doctors began to redefine anatomy and the way medicine was practiced, separating themselves from Galenic thought.
Beyond this, I wanted to discuss the separate paths that Tamino and Papageno chose to follow during their quest. At one point, as they are in the temple, the call comes for them to leave. Papageno is too busy eating his fill to want to follow, and he misses it. Later one of the priests of the temple forgives him, but tells him he has reached the highest echelon of his progression. Papageno says he’s happy with that, and there are other people like him, content to stay on the ground and not reach for higher things. I think this symbolizes higher thought and learning. Some people truly desire to understand more about their world, religion, themselves, and so they have to put in the work to achieve it. Papageno was content to eat and drink, live a good life, and find a wife and have kids. The message was either path you choose should be the one right for you, but that by pursuing a higher path, there would be greater rewards. This is symbolized by the “temple marriage” of Tamino and Pamina. It is almost eerie how much LDS temple doctrine is seen in the play. The man and woman enter the temple together, and give eachother several egyptian “tokens”. Many “egyptian” symbols are similar to our own. The couple is told to wear robes, and then they change robes again! In the end, they ascend steps and are married by Sarastro, the “high priest” of the egyptian temple.
I also thought the magic flute was a great way to represent self-expression and individuality. Although the enlightenment is about coming together and being concerned for many, it also is about thinking for yourself. What better way of thinking for yourself than playing an instrument, where you are in control of the melody, the harmony, the dynamic and expression. This is a way of objectifying maturity, or thinking for oneself.
The final message eluded to throughout the opera was the eternality of love and of happiness. Sarastro provided a way for the prince and princess’s love to be eternal. Both had to harness their passions of youth, mature in their love, and become poised and controlled in their actions. Then they would achieve their aims.
I recommend the Magic Flute as a way to coalesce your enlightenment thinking.