The Magic Flute - Program Notes cover

The Magic Flute - Program Notes


One of Mozart’s most popular operas, The Magic Flute is a fairy tale about love telling the story of Tamino and Papageno, a prince and bird catcher tasked by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the confinements of a mysterious high priest. Prepare yourself for an evening filled with magic, comedy and some of opera’s greatest arias!
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Preview Talk

The arrival of the Queen of the Night. Stage set by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for an 1815 production

Preview Talk

Preview Talk with Alan Chapman!





Singspiel in Two Acts

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), K. 620 Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder

Act I


Act II


Tamino - John Tessier, tenor

Papageno - Hadleigh Adams, baritone

Pamina - Tess Altiveros, soprano

Queen of the Night - Kathryn Lewek, soprano

Sarastro - Evan Boyer, bass

Three Ladies -Amy Shoremount-Obra, soprano

Deborah Nansteel, mezzo-soprano

Julia Benzinger, mezzo-soprano

Monastatos - Julius Ahn, tenor

Child Spirits - Members of the Southern California Children’s Chorus* Papagena - Bridgette Gan, soprano

Speaker of the Temple, Priest, Armed Guard, Slave - Colin Ramsey, bass

Priest, Armed Guard, Slave - David Guzman, tenor

Technical Team

Robin Walsh, puppet designer

Kathy Pryzgoda, lighting designer

Katie Wilson, costume designer

Ora Jewell-Busche, wig and makeup designer

The Magic Flute (“Die Zauberflöte”)

The Magic Flute (“Die Zauberflöte”)


Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (both doubling basset horn), 2 bassoons; 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones; timpani; keyboard glockenspiel; strings


If Mozart’s operas had been the only works to survive him, they alone would have been enough to assure his place among the greatest composers of all time. The same could be said about the works he composed just in 1791, the last year of his life—a period of seemingly impossible inspiration and productivity.

The two operas he composed in that year are utter opposites: La clemenza di Tito, an opera seria that is solemn and exalted in tone, with moral lessons about personal, religious and political loyalty; and The Magic Flute, a fairy tale of profound, sublime simplicity.

Though Mozart actually finished The Magic Flute before La clemenza di Tito, the former actually premiered later—in September. If operas were Mozart’s children, this one was his last-born, and the one he called his favorite.

While Mozart excelled in every musical form he attempted, operas really were like his children. Yet this was the one musical genre that even his father Leopold felt the young prodigy should not attempt too soon. True, by age 18 he was writing acknowledged masterpieces such as the Haffner Serenade and the Piano Concerto No. 8. But there is a crucial difference between opera and non-narrative forms of music such as symphonies and concertos: Opera is theater.

If Mozart’s proficiency in musical forms and styles in childhood was unprecedented in Western music, it did not necessarily follow that he was equally gifted in opera, which is essentially a theatrical form.

Happily, Mozart was equally gifted in opera—not only one of opera’s transcendent geniuses, but also obsessed with opera as a form. His father, who closely monitored and controlled Wolfgang’s musical development, wrote in 1764—when the young composer was 8 years old—that he “constantly has an opera running in his head, which he wants to perform in Salzburg with all sorts of young people.” And his attraction to opera never left him.

In the late 1760s and mid-1770s Mozart was already experimenting with operatic composition. His first opera was La finta semplice, an opera buffa he composed at age 12. The more serious operas Mitridate (1770) and Lucio Silla (1772) followed. Throughout these years, his eagerness to try out operatic forms was insatiable.

In 1777, three years after composing the more ambitious La finta giardiniera, he was still in this mode, telling his father “I have only to hear people discuss an opera, I have only to be in a theater, to hear tuning-up—Oh! I am quite beside myself right away!”

Anonymous portrait of the child Mozart, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni; painted in 1763 on commission from Leopold Mozart

The following year, his feelings had hardly subsided. “Don’t forget my wish to write operas,” he wrote to Leopold. “I envy everybody who is writing one. I could actually weep with vexation when I hear or see an aria.” The cultural historian Peter Gay has described this period as one of “youthful impetuosity,” when Mozart would set almost any text to music.

Mozart’s sheer productivity and the intensity of his fascination with opera put him on a very steep learning curve. La finta semplice was formulaic in its approach to the stock jokes of an opera buffa libretto; Mitridate and Lucio Silla hewed equally close to the strict conventions of opera seria, with its classical settings and elevated morality.

But the designated libretto for La finta giardiniera, full of madcap absurdity, gave the young composer a chance to tackle something meatier. It was a commission from the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian III, who desired an opera buffa for the Munich carnival season of 1774–75.

Mozart, his father and everyone else associated with the commission understood the prescribed story for what it was: a pleasant potboiler. But the plot’s intricacies and sheer length afforded the young composer a framework upon which to hang an abundance of music, including many arias expressing every conceivable mood.

It’s clear that Mozart rose to the challenge of this first major operatic assignment: He began composing the opera in Salzburg in the fall of 1774, leaving for Munich under his father’s supervision in December to meet the cast and production team.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, ca. 1763

Preparations went well, and his sister Nannerl followed just before the turn of the year—one of the few times she was able to join her father and brother on one of their professional excursions. Staying through the New Year, she was able to attend the opera’s premiere with Leopold and Wolfgang on January 13, 1775.

It was a highly successful event, as Wolfgang wrote to his mother:

Thank God! My opera was staged yesterday … and was such a success that I cannot possibly describe … the tumultuous applause. To begin with, the entire theater was so packed that a great many people had to be turned away. After each aria there was great applause and shouts of “Viva maestro.” … At the end of the opera, during the pause when there is usually quiet until the ballet begins, people kept on shouting “bravo” and clapping. No sooner did the applause die down than it would start up again.

In Mozart years, the gap between this teenage success and his most familiar operatic masterpieces is vast: from age 18, when he won his first ovations for La finta giardiniera, to The Marriage of Figaro, his first collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, when he was almost 30.

Don Giovanni followed the next year, in 1787; and Così fan tutte preceded The Magic Flute by just a year, in 1790. By this time, Mozart imbued the music of his operas with Shakespearean dramatic expressiveness and psychological sensitivity. They are ravishingly beautiful yet profoundly insightful.

Because of the sublime simplicity of The Magic Flute, we don’t always associate such grown-up adjectives with it. This is, after all, a fairy tale. But it is as profoundly mature as the wisest among us, and as meaningful as our hearts allow. Set in an indeterminate fantasy-realm—it could be Egypt by way of an HGTV decorator—the story bears superficial trappings of masonic ritual, which fascinated Mozart for reasons both social and philosophical.

But its lessons are older and newer than that, following the archetypal journey of the young Orphic hero who must leave home, face danger and learn crucial life lessons.

Our hero, the prince Tamino, follows in the footsteps of Beowulf, Peer Gynt and David Copperfied to learn, in Dickens’ words, that “The best steel must go through the fire.” And his bride, the princess Pamina, is a true heroine—always truthful and never shrinking from danger. Remarkably, unlike Tamino, she never asks for help. Together they learn to face life courageously, respecting the sacred bond of matrimony and the power of truth.

Though much has been written about The Magic Flute, the facts surrounding its creation are hazy. Still, we can surmise much from Mozart’s relationship with Emanuel Schikaneder, the man who first played Papageno and who wrote the opera’s libretto.

Schikaneder circa 1784

Schikaneder appears to have been formidably ambitious. Both entrepreneur and performer, the Bavarian Schikaneder was the leader of a 34-member theater troupe that he brought to Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, Austria in 1780.

Mozart would relocate to Vienna the following year, but in the meantime, he and his family regularly attended Schikaneder’s performances, and the two became friends. When Schikaneder transferred operations to Vienna, working as an actor and impresario there, Mozart was an established figure in the city’s cultural scene. And having presented Mozart’s comic opera The Abduction from the Seraglio there, Schikaneder had firsthand knowledge of the composer’s theatrical flair.

In the spring of 1791, when Mozart began composing The Magic Flute, he had renewed his friendship with Schikaneder and they had been socializing regularly since the previous year.

Mozart had always felt burdened by the need to cultivate commissions, especially large ones such as operas. But this circumstance was something quite different, with Schikaneder—a savvy impresario—hoping to cultivate a theatrical success that could benefit both him and Mozart.

Imagine having Mozart set the secondary character of Papageno to music for you! Anecdotes suggest Schikaneder was a gifted comic actor and baritone, and that he successfully pressured Mozart to expand the Papageno’s role in the opera.

Wherever the truth lies, the result is one of the Western theater’s great comic creations.

Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.

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