Mozart Meets The Masons: 'The Magic Flute'

From the Aix-en-Provence Festival

Take a quick look at the latest fiction bestseller list, and you'll find a familiar author topping the charts. It's Dan Brown with his latest blockbuster novel, The Lost Symbol — a grimly portentous book with an interesting connection to Mozart's shrewdly playful opera, The Magic Flute.

THE HIT SINGLE

Mozart gave the Queen of the Night one of the most treacherous arias in all of opera: "Der Hoelle Rache" — "Hell's Revenge." It's heard in Act Two, as the Queen (soprano Anna-Kristiina Kaapola) is asking her daughter Pamina to murder Sarastro, and includes four, famously stratsopheric, high F-naturals.

When the Queen of the Night finishes her furious aria, Sarastro (bass Markos Fink) follows it with a musical and dramatic mirror image, singing "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" — "In these holy halls." It's a restful number, featuring some of the opera's lowest notes.

Daniel Schmutzhard and Sunhae Im in 'The Magic Flute' i i

Papageno (Daniel Schmutzhard) is less than thrilled at his first encounter with Papagena (Sunhae Im), his future wife. Elizabeth Carecchio hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Carecchio
Daniel Schmutzhard and Sunhae Im in 'The Magic Flute'

Papageno (Daniel Schmutzhard) is less than thrilled at his first encounter with Papagena (Sunhae Im), his future wife.

Elizabeth Carecchio

The Lost Symbol features the same, somewhat unlikely central character as Brown's previous bestseller, The Da Vinci Code — the heroic symbologist Robert Langdon. In the earlier book, Langdon was found decoding timeless legends of the Knights Templar. In the new novel, he's again tracking the age-old mysteries of an ancient order. This time, it's the Freemasons — a fraternity famous for secret rites and rituals, which in the novel threaten to bring down the entire U.S. government.

Of course, writing about Masonic ceremonies can be a little bit dicey. The only people familiar with them are Masons — and they're all sworn to secrecy. So the rest of us are kept guessing as to how much actual fact might be present in Dan Brown's fiction.

Opera lovers have long been in the same position when it comes to The Magic Flute. Both Mozart and the opera's librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were devoted Freemasons, at a time when the Masonic order was frowned upon by the authorities and mistrusted by the public. Its meetings were mysterious to outsiders and the order was believed to be connected to the principles of the Enlightenment, so established political leaders were a little nervous about it. The emperor of Austria even restricted the number of Masonic lodges allowed to operate in the country.

So, while Mozart's drama fell into the general category of "magic opera" — works based on folk tales, with plenty of stunts, scene changes and spectacular stage effects — it was also a political statement in disguise. Mozart and Schikaneder crammed all kinds of veiled Masonic symbolism into The Magic Flute, and people have been trying to figure the whole thing out for more than 200 years. (Maybe, in his next novel, Brown could have Robert Langdon decode the opera for us?)

Still, while there has been plenty of speculation about Masonic allegory in Mozart's opera, one of its messages seems fairly clear. The story introduces a mysterious brotherhood, supposedly headed by an evil man. But by opera's end, the brotherhood turns out to be benign, and the leader seems like a pretty decent fellow. Perhaps that was Mozart's way of saying that Freemasonry may not be the ominous force some folks think it is.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Mozart's The Magic Flute in a buoyant performance from the 2009 Aix-en-Provence Festival. It features conductor Rene Jacobs and the Academy of Ancient Music, along with tenor Daniel Behle as Tamino and soprano Anna-Kristiina Kaapola in the famously high-flying role of the Queen of the Night.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'The Magic Flute'

Anna-Kristiina Kaapola

In Act Two, the Queen of the Night (soprano Anna Kristiina Kaapola) lets fly with one of Mozart's most treacherous arias, "Der Hoelle Rache" — "Hell's Revenge." Elizabeth Carecchio hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Carecchio

Mozart's opera is in two acts, set in an unspecified time and place. As ACT ONE opens, we see a young prince, Tamino, running for his life from a terrifying serpent. He's rescued by three ladies who serve the local ruler — the Queen of the Night. They go off to tell the Queen about the young stranger they've encountered.

Who's Who?

  • Marlis Petersen .......... Pamina
  • Daniel Behle .............. Tamino
  • Anna-Kristiina Kaapola ..... Queen of the Night
  • Daniel Schmutzhard ..... Papageno
  • Marcos Fink .............. Sarastro
  • Sunhae Im ................. Papagena
  • Kurt Azesberger .... Monostatos
  • Academy of Ancient Music
  • Rene Jacobs, conductor

Tamino falls asleep, and wakes up to meet Papageno — a funny-looking man dressed in colorful feathers and playing the panpipes. Papageno says he's the Queen's bird catcher. The two characters have virtually nothing in common. When Papageno simply describes himself as "a man," Tamino is skeptical. Still, the two quickly develop a bond.

After Tamino and Papageno finish sizing each other up, the ladies return and show Tamino a picture of Pamina, the Queen of the Night's daughter. Tamino takes one look and falls in love. But Pamina has been captured by Sarastro, the Queen's arch enemy, who is described as an evil fiend. When the Queen of the Night arrives in person, with her signature clap of thunder, she asks Tamino to rescue her daughter. She gives him a flute with magic powers, and sends Papageno along to help, with a magic instrument of his own — a set of chimes.

The scene changes to the realm of Sarastro, where Pamina is being held. She's alone with the treacherous Monostatos, who seems intent on raping her. Just then, Papageno wanders in. He and Monostatos scare each other half to death, and Monostatos runs off. Papageno leaves with Pamina, to look for Tamino.

Meanwhile, three mysterious young boys have guided Tamino to a temple with three doors. One of them, marked "Wisdom," opens to reveal the Temple of the Orator. Tamino asks about Pamina, and the Orator tells him that she's still alive. But to find her, Tamino must first join the temple's holy order.

Tamino plays his magic flute, and in response he hears Papageno's panpipes. Papageno appears with Pamina, and they're both running from Monostatos. He's about to catch them when the mighty Sarastro appears. He reprimands Monostatos for his evil designs on Pamina, and Monastatos slinks off. Sarastro then offers Pamina and Tamino the chance to be together. But first, he says, they must endure rituals of purification, and they're led into the temple.

ACT TWO begins near a temple that's surrounded by palm trees. After a brief processional, Sarastro and his priests say that Tamino will be permitted to undergo the trials required to join their brotherhood. He will then be allowed to marry Pamina. Papageno also wants a wife, and may also undergo the trials, though he's more than a bit reluctant.

Meanwhile, Pamina endures trials of her own. She again has to escape the rapacious Monostatos. She must also refuse her own mother's order that, to restore their family's power, she must murder Sarastro. (This command from the Queen of the Night is delivered in one of Mozart's most famous arias — complete with four high F-naturals that seem to defy gravity, not to mention vocal chords.) To top it off, Pamina is falsely led to believe that Tamino has rejected her. At one point she's on the brink of suicide, but is rescued by the three boys.

By the end of the opera, both Pamina and Tamino have faced trials of fire and water, and have survived them together. Papageno finally earns a wife — his female namesake, Papagena. She turns out to be a real peach, though she first appears to Papageno as a wrinkled hag who claims to be only "eighteen years and two minutes" old. The Queen of the Night and her ladies make a desperate attempt to bring down Sarastro's temple, but they're defeated amidst frightening storms and the Queen vanishes into darkness.

As the opera ends, Sarastro's mysterious but apparently benevolent order has prevailed, granting all power to beauty and wisdom.

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