The Magic Flute - Director's Notes and Synopsis cover

The Magic Flute - Director's Notes and Synopsis


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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The Magic Flute - Director's Notes and Synopsis


“The Magic Flute” is Mozart’s final opera and one of his last compositions. It premiered in Vienna in September 1791 and Mozart died a mere two months later. Despite being sick, hungry, broke and altogether miserable, Mozart’s music is some of the most joyous and beautiful he ever wrote.

The piece is technically termed a “singspiel”—meaning that it combines singing and spoken dialogue—and that means that it’s what we today call a musical. While on the surface “The Magic Flute” and its characters can be considered a bit silly, it is actually an endlessly fascinating work of art.

Tamino and Pamina undergo their final trial; watercolor by Max Slevogt (1868–1932)

So many meanings have been attached to this opera: Is it about brotherhood? The meaning of true love? The method for achieving an honorable life?

Some feel the work is a philosophical tract about the Age of Enlightenment, some believe it’s a commentary on the French Revolution, some accuse Mozart of purloining Masonic secret rituals. Others argue that it’s a political diatribe aimed against a conservative Austrian government headed by Maria Theresa. There are also theories that the work is inspired by tarot cards or even by the psychosexual beliefs of Carl Jung. (Obviously, the latter is historically impossible.)

Every one of these is fascinating to research but ultimately one has to tell this story in a way that will speak to modern audiences.

We like the idea of approaching this largely as an adult fairy tale but with real characters experiencing real emotions. And one of the great advantages of producing opera with Pacific Symphony is that the orchestra can be given its rightful place as a character in the piece. It really is perhaps the character of the opera.

Mozart’s amazing writing not only has the orchestra supporting the singers’ emotions, but it oftentimes tells us things that words can’t express. And without giving away too many secrets, the beauty of Segerstrom Concert Hall gives a fantastic jumping off point to offer a feast for the eyes.

The arrival of Sarastro on a chariot pulled by lions, from a 1793 production in Brno. Pamina appears at left, Papageno at right. In the background are the temples of Wisdom, Reason, and Nature.

And when all is said and done, there always is—and always will be—Mozart’s music. A beautiful hall; a world-class orchestra, cast and conductor; this opera; Mozart. What a privilege for every one of us—performers and listeners alike—to be a part of this!


Act I

In a forbidding landscape of trees and mountains, the young prince Tamino is pursued by a serpent and calls for help. His pleas are immediately answered by three magically empowered ladies, who kill the serpent and gather around the prince.

Sizing him up, they are more than pleased with what they see, and bicker over which one of them should stand guard over him while the others report back to their sovereign, the Queen of the Night. Stymied, they decide that all three will return to her together.

French opera singer Lucien Fugère as Papageno, 1890

In their absence, Papageno, the genial bird-catcher, enters and introduces himself with a winning ditty. Accompanying himself on the pitch-pipe hanging about his neck, he explains that he lives by eating, drinking and catching birds for the Queen of the Night.

When Tamino awakens, the blustering Papageno takes credit for killing the serpent lying at their feet, but the three ladies soon return and punish him for his baseless boasting, giving him a stone instead of wine and bread, and clamping his mouth shut with a padlock.

The three ladies show Tamino a miniature portrait of the Queen’s daughter, the princess Pamina, whose beauty so overwhelms him that he falls in love with her. They explain that she has been kidnapped by the tyrant Sarastro, whereupon a thunderclap rends mountains asunder and the Queen of the Night appears.

She tells the prince not to fear: he is the hero she has been waiting for, and if he rescues Pamina from her captor, the princess will be his. In a final quintet, the three ladies remove the shackle from Papageno and supply him and Tamino with aids for their rescue mission: a magic flute for the prince and a silver glockenspiel for the bird-catcher. If they venture forth and obey, their enchanted instruments will protect them.

Meanwhile, at a chamber in Sarastro’s domain, his subjects discuss the princess Pamina’s escape from the clutches of his evil servant Monostatos.

When Monostatos recaptures her, she faints, but then Pagageno appears, and the two blowhards terrify each other in a comedy of cowardice. Papageno recovers and becomes acquainted with Pamina in a tender duet that bridges the differences in their social status: Papageno longs for a spouse, and in the tenderness of her understanding, it’s clear that Pamina does, too.

As Tamino progresses through a grove of three holy temples in Sarastro’s realm, he is guided by three boys who urge him to be steadfast, patient and silent.

Prints by Felix Bracquemond via New York Public Library

Tamino appeals to Reason and Nature in his quest, but a wise figure appears and warns him that though his motives are worthy, his aims are warped by a woman’s tears, which are not to be trusted; he can prevail in his quest only by earning enlightenment.

Despite the gravity of these words and the rigors that await him, Tamino is overjoyed to learn that Pamina is alive, and in playing his magic flute in gratitude, he is greeted by the bells of Papageno’s glockenspiel.

For the first time, he meets Pamina, who has proven herself honest and courageous, but—as Sarastro instructs her—must learn that her mother’s pride has blinded her to the ways of virtue, which she must learn from men. As the act ends amid a masonic chorus, Pamina and Tamino look to a future of love and justice … if they can prevail in the trials that await them.

Act II

In a ceremony of grave solemnity, Sarastro informs his priests that Tamino is to face the ordeals through which he can earn the right to wed Pamina in an enlightened union, vanquishing the forces of the Queen of the Night. The terrified Papageno is also told that facing these ordeals with Tamino is the only way he can earn companionship.

Tamino remains stalwart in the face of Papageno’s interfering gags and cowardly shtick. The Queen’s three ladies attempt further interference as well, but Tamino is unaffected. Pamina, for her part, continues to be bedeviled by the incorrigible Monostatos.

---Diana Damrau - Queen of the Night - Royal Opera House production, conducted by Colin Davis. Video 3:11

Though he is finally vanquished, the Queen reveals her fury in a stratospheric coloratura aria. Renewing her call for vengeance, she threatens both Pamina and Tamino with curses and death if they do not submit to her will. Her ire contrasts starkly with the wise counsel of Sarastro, who in sepulchral tones extols wisdom and love.


In the wake of Sarastro’s nobility, a scene of unexpected tenderness reveals to us that Papageno is more than just a buffoon. He is thirsty… but, more important, he is lonely. A seemingly old, doddering lady brings him water and reveals that she is 18 (not 80) and has a boyfriend whose name is—we can hear it, though Papageno can’t—Papageno!

The three boys again come to Papageno’s aid, bringing wine and food. Tamino plays his flute, bringing Pamina, who at first is overjoyed—though, like Orpheus, the prince must turn silently away from the woman he loves.

---Kathleen Battle Video 4:21

The uncomprehending Pamina expresses her grief in a heartbreaking aria and longs for death; but before she can take her own life, the three boys intercede and reunite her with Tamino.


As Tamino and Pamina face their ordeals of enlightenment together, Papagena’s true identity—that of a lovely girl of 18—is unmasked. Amid general rejoicing, she and her Papageno look ahead to a life of simple domestic contentment, while the triumphant Tamino and Pamina face the higher joys and burdens of human enlightenment in the masonic mold. In Sarastro’s word, they are now menschen: “fully human.”

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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