Schikaneder was both an actor and a producer in Vienna for a playhouse that traditionally catered to "lowbrow" audiences (Loomis 2). Mozart's brand of comedy was just the thing for Schikaneder's theater. But "lowbrow" was merely one aspect of Mozart's comedic ventures: they could be equally stunning, poised, high-minded, honest, and full of common sense at the same time. Like the man, they resembled a mystery that could not be summed up with any one category or label: they were nothing less than unique and stellar expressions of a culture that emerged out of the Baroque and into a highly uncertain future. Mozart's Magic Flute would prove to be more than just "low comedy" -- it would be a magical tour de force (with one of the most famous arias of all-time) and a compelling reminder of the enchanting power of musical melody and the harmony between melody and nature, man and woman, king and subject, and head and heart when all are united in the same quest to achieve the Good. That, more than anything, is what The Magic Flute is about.
Like Mozart, Schikaneder was a Freemason -- and since he not only starred as the comedic bird-catcher Papageno but also wrote the libretto for the opera it is no surprise to find the work filled with Masonic references. Yet, the mysticism of the piece and its ultimate humanity have as much of a root in the religious climate of the time (Mozart himself was a Catholic) and the humanity with which the composer's worldview had been formed. Never haughty, proud or arrogant, The Magic Flute is grand and genteel, calm and energetic, humble and inspired. The whole work resonates with unity despite the numerous plots, subplots and themes. Beginning with a foundation intended for a "lowbrow" audience, Mozart and Schikaneder deftly maneuver upwards toward the Heavens, beginning right with the overture, which commences with the three solemn chords that announce the arrival of a seeming king: the king is Mozart and his staff is the Magic Flute.
The action centers on Tamino and Papageno, the former a brave and wandering prince and the latter a lowly, lying, and ridiculous bird-catcher. The opera begins in medio res with Tamino being pursued by a giant serpent, which Three Ladies miraculously overpower. The Ladies hilariously become enraptured by Tamino but are able to drag themselves away to report his presence in the kingdom to their mistress the Queen of the Night. The Queen draws Tamino into her confidence and convinces him to rescue her daughter from the clutches of Sarastro, whom she paints as an evil mastermind. Papageno is chosen to accompany him, and the duo is assisted by three seeming nymphs, a magic flute, and a box containing magic bells.
The significance of the magic flute and the magic bells is telling: both produce an effect that can be described as perfectly melodious and harmonious. Tamino's flute brings hearts together and tames nature. Papageno's magic bells subdue the wicked and dance them right off stage. The magical power of both is nothing short of what Mozart himself believed to be a quality of music: an overpowering force that could guide, calm, and unite as well as subdue, deceive, and reveal. The Queen of the Night's aria serves as an example of the latter.
Likewise, the opera is a work of pure symmetry. For example, the despair of Pamina is mirrored in the despair of Papageno, although the motives in both cases are different. Unrequited love is the cause of Pamina's distress (at least, she thinks her love is unrequited -- in reality she is merely being tested). Lack of fulfillment is the cause of Papageno's anguish. He refuses to undergo the same rigorous testing as Tamino, instead trading true love for a nice glass of wine. The wine refreshes only momentarily and Tamino is left with the folly of what he has done. As he is about to hang himself the three sprites remind him of his magic bells, which he plays and which summons Papagena to his side. The idea of grace, a medieval holdover that Mozart would have whole-heartedly accepted as part and parcel of his Catholicism, is as important to the plot and structure of The Magic Flute as the Masonic ritual is to the proving of Tamino's worth as a suitor. The magic nature of the bells and flute is a symbol for the kind of grace that makes things live.
Thus, with his final opera, Mozart takes two opposing threads in history (Freemasonry was condemned by the Vatican in Mozart's time -- all secret societies were), and weaves them into a coherent and perfectly symmetrical story that not only produces laughs but also achieves a kind of joyful pathos that convinces the listener of the greatness of music. Sarastro himself becomes a benevolent force in the world -- a Masonic sort of high priest, whose vision for mankind is one of peace, love and tranquility. The Magic Flute is, in a way, a classical prelude to Woodstock -- with virtue, of course, fueling the drive to Good (rather than LSD). As in Don Giovanni, evil is punished (the Queen of the Night is banished and her slave is driven away with her) and virtue is rewarded. The lovers are united and children in the forecast for the bird-catcher and his bride. Simplicity is never derided, but rather (Schikaneder and Mozart understood their audience well) is honored and treated with affection.
In conclusion, Mozart was a composer whose mature operas reveal both the man and his times: in them Mozart pulled together both comedy and drama, various aspects of culture (such as religion and contemporary arts) as well as "lowbrow" entertainment. Mozart towered above his contemporaries and set the bar for all operatic composers after him -- yet he never appeared to look down his nose at the common man (for whom, after all The Magic Flute, his final work, was composed). Indeed, Mozart could, through his operas, identify with the common man -- and yet invest him with a simple dignity, enlighten him as to a higher way, and reward the good in the virtuous.
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