Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' Mozart's The Magic Flute has been delighting children of all ages ever since its smash premiere more than 200 years back, with a story that seems made for kids but still leaves grown-ups with plenty to contemplate. The Washington National Opera's fanciful production is a brilliant way to ring in the operatic New Year.
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Washington National Opera on World of Opera -- 'The Magic Flute'

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Mozart's 'The Magic Flute'

Mozart's 'The Magic Flute'

From the Washington National Opera

Washington National Opera on World of Opera -- 'The Magic Flute'

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  • Andrea Rost ........... Pamina
  • Michael Schade ....... Tamino
  • Rod Gilfry ............ Papageno
  • Amanda Pabyan ........ Queen of the Night
  • Barbara Quintiliani .......... 1st Lady
  • Keri Alkema .................... 2nd Lady
  • Ann McMahon Quintero ... 3rd Lady
  • Kwanghchul Youn ............ Sarastro
  • Robert Baker .............. Monostatos
  • Kyle Ketelson .................. Orator
  • Amanda Squitieri ........ Papagena
  • Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Heinz Fricke, conductor

Baritone Rod Gilfry plays Papageno, the fanciful "birdman" of Mozart's The Magic Flute, at the Washington National Opera. Ken Howard hide caption

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Ken Howard

For many people, opera has a reputation for featuring highfalutin, historical characters, prancing around in farfetched, complicated stories that are nearly impossible to understand without a guidebook of some kind. At first glance — and maybe even at second and third glances — Mozart's The Magic Flute seems a perfect case in point.

The Magic Flute is set in an unknown location, at an unknown time, and features unfamiliar rituals with unknown meanings. It has a bunch of characters who don't seem to know exactly who they are, where they're going, or what they're going to do when they get there — not to mention a couple who fall madly in love before they've even met! And while the opera at seems at first to be a clear-cut story of good versus evil, before long it gets confoundingly difficult to tell which is which!

In short, the whole affair seems crazy, confusing, haphazard and often just downright silly. But in that respect, it's also a lot like life — and maybe that's why it's been one of Mozart's most popular works, despite its foibles, for more than 200 years.

To call the story of The Magic Flute perplexing would be an understatement, and many have put it more strongly. Certainly, Mozart's music is glorious. But the libretto has been harshly criticized. More seriously, the whole opera has been denounced as misogynistic — and not without some reason. The opera is plainly a product of a far different time than our own — and its attitudes often are not egalitarian. For example, when the hero Tamino undergoes his trials, he's repeatedly warned never to trust the word of a woman. Yet his lover Pamina endures trials of her own and, if anything, she proves stronger than Tamino. Without her, he might not have survived. So, the drama puts her on equal footing with the "hero" — something almost unheard of in Mozart's time.

Further, while the meddlesome Queen of the Night does represent evil, opposing the priestly Sarastro's portrayal of good, the opera's changing perspectives on who is serving what ends are a long way from cut-and-dry. Like all of Mozart's great operas, this one's messages are far too complex to be analyzed in simple, black-and-white terms.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a fanciful production by the Washington National Opera, starring Michael Schade and Andrea Rost as Tamino and Pamina, and Rod Gilfry as the loveable birdman, Papageno.

The Story of 'The Magic Flute'

Pamina and Tamino (Andrea Rost and Michael Schade) find themselves together at last, but not before a series of ritual trials, and real tribulations. Ken Howard hide caption

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Ken Howard

ACT ONE: After the familiar overture, we find a young prince, Tamino, running for his life from a deadly 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, and Tamino meets Papageno — a man playing pan-pipes and dressed in feathers. He says he's the queen's bird catcher.

The ladies return and show Tamino a picture of the queen's daughter, Pamina. Tamino takes one look and immediately falls in love. But Pamina has been captured by Sarastro, the queen's arch enemy, who is described as an evil fiend. The Queen of the Night arrives with her signature clap of thunder, asking 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 evil moor, Monastatos, 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. Papageno complains that while Tamino is about to be united with the love of his life, Papageno has no lover of his own.

Meanwhile, three mysterious young boys, working for the Queen of the Night, have guided Tamino to a temple with three doors. One of them, marked "Wisdom," opens to reveal the Temple Orator. Tamino asks about Pamina, and the Orator tells him that she's 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 pan pipes. Papageno appears with Pamina, and they are both running from Monostatos. He's about to catch them when the mighty Sarastro appears and reprimands Monostatos for his evil designs on Pamina. Sarastro offers Pamina and Tamino the chance to be together. But first, he says, they must undergo rituals of purification, and they are led into the temple.

ACT TWO: During the complex course of the second act's nine scenes Tamino undergoes his series of ritual trials — tests of fire, water, air and earth — and 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 set matters straight and restore their family's power, she must murder Sarastro. (This command from the Queen of the Night is delivered in what may be Mozart's most famous aria — 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 — twice. The second time she nearly commits suicide.

By the end of the opera, Pamina and Tamino have survived their trials together. Papageno earns a wife — his female namesake, Papagena — and the Queen of the Night has vanished into darkness. As the opera ends, Sarastro's mysterious but apparently benevolent Order has prevailed, granting all power to beauty and wisdom.