A Classic Tale

Classic Arts Features   A Classic Tale
Paul Thomason explores Mozart's monumental fairy tale, The Magic Flute.

"In Die Zauberfl‹te, the listener must struggle to understand: or, perhaps, better, to set aside: the plot for the sake of the music," writes historian Peter Gay in Mozart, his delightful small biography of the composer. "The story is hopelessly convoluted and self-contradictory.... The music carries it all, even though the incongruous conduct of Mozart's cast of characters and the flat humanitarian preachments make great demands on his ability to shift from one style of vocal writing to another."

Professor Gay's view of The Magic Flute is far from rare, even if it is a little surprising that someone who has written so brilliantly about the period of the Enlightenment would so miss the point of Mozart's opera. But at first glance it does seem to be rather incongruous that after writing The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and CosÐ fan tutte with Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart would turn to such overtly popular fare as The Magic Flute. The three operas he wrote with Da Ponte are among the greatest operas ever written, and one can hardly be blamed for wishing the two men had continued their astonishing collaboration.

Instead Mozart teamed up with his old friend Emanuel Schikaneder, the actor and manager of a theatrical troupe that was presenting plays and operas in a distinctly low-brow theater on the edges of Vienna. Schikaneder had written the libretto for a singspiel: literally a "song play," an opera with spoken dialogue: called The Magic Flute in which he would play the comic lead, and he invited Mozart to supply the music. Today we remember Schikaneder only from The Magic Flute and his role as the first Papageno. But he was much more than a comic actor. Schikaneder was a skilled Shakespearean actor as well. He was regarded as the best Hamlet of his day, and widely admired as Iago, Macbeth, and Richard III, among other Shakespearean roles. As head of his own acting troupe he always presented classic plays by Shakespeare, as well as German classicists, along with the more overtly popular works.

And it is Schikaneder's constant mix of Shakespeare with singspiel that gives us the clue to understanding why The Magic Flute is not a regrettable slip on Mozart's part, but is, in fact, one of the greatest German operas ever written: and one that can remind us today of our humanity and the obligation of brotherhood to all.

The Magic Flute "summarizes in a final synthesis all that the composer wanted to say once again: and for the last time: about mankind: about life itself in the dramatic unity of comedy and tragedy," writes Janos Liebner in Mozart on the Stage. And he goes on to point out the astonishing parallels between Mozart's last opera and The Tempest, which was the last play solely credited to Shakespeare. "There exists a deep conceptional, spiritual, dramaturgical, and genre blood-relationship between the two," says Liebner. "They are both adventurous, romantic fairy tales with naÇve magic and childish stage tricks, carrying: in peerless poetry: wisdom and ethics in the ornate, symbolic manner of the fairy tale medium, and bearing exquisite understanding of humanity."

In a fairy tale the characters are not realistic, three-dimensional human beings, they are types. So Tamino and Pamina in The Magic Flute are not three-dimensional characters like Susannah and Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro, any more than the Prince and Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale are as complex as Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. But the advantage a fairy tale has over a more "realistic" story is that we can often identify more easily with its characters and their plight. Like a good friend who is dealing with the same problems that we face, a fairy tale, like The Magic Flute, allows us to see life more objectively and to learn from the experiences of its characters.

"The fairy tale is therapeutic because [the reader] finds his own solutions, through contemplating what the story seems to imply about him and his inner conflicts at this moment in life," writes Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment. "The figures and events of fairy tales ... personify and illustrate inner conflicts, but they suggest ever so subtly how these conflicts may be solved, and what the next steps in the development toward a higher humanity might be."

The Magic Flute is a fairy tale about Prince Tamino's initiation into manhood, told from his point of view. Once we realize the story is unfolding through Tamino's eyes, there is no contradiction in the plot. In fact it all makes perfect sense.

When Tamino is rescued from the serpent by the Three Ladies who serve the Queen of the Night, naturally he accepts their view of life. He is in a strange country and needs guidance. When the Queen tells Tamino that Sarastro is evil, Tamino accepts her word for it. But as the story progresses he is presented with other points of view that he must evaluate to determine what is really true. It is the same journey each of us must make in life: at first accepting the only view of life we know, what we are taught as children. But as we grow up, we run into opposing points of view that we have to deal with in our struggle to mature.

Like any fairy tale prince, Tamino has his comic sidekick, Papageno. We might wish we were always as noble and truehearted as Tamino is in his quest for truth, but most of us: if we're honest: find a lot of Papageno in us. He cares nothing for the high-minded concerns of Sarastro and the priests. When he is told he will never know the joys of being a member of the consecrated band initiated into the mysteries of the Temple, Papageno replies blithely, "To me the most heavenly delight at this moment would be a good glass of wine." But Papageno, too, learns from his experiences during The Magic Flute. When he is caught lying about killing the serpent and saving Tamino he is punished, and then never lies again, even though he steadfastly refuses to undergo the trials and initiation that Tamino does.

It is interesting that it is Papageno, not Tamino, with whom Pamina sings the great duet "Bei M‹nnern, welche Liebe f‹hlen." In a musical score filled with gem after gem, the astonishing beauty and simplicity of this piece ("We want to enjoy love; it is through love alone that we live") almost always brings tears to the eyes of listeners. It would make a great deal of sense to have the sentiment sung by the young lovers Pamina and Tamino, but in true fairy-tale fashion, Schikaneder and Mozart are infinitely more profound. By having Pamina and Papageno sing the duet they deftly underscore the fact that love is not something reserved for the high-minded or the nobility. Rather, love ennobles every human being, as Mozart also shows in the way he wrote the musical line for Papageno, who, in this one instance, follows Pamina's vocal line rather than his usual way of singing.

Is it any wonder that George Bernard Shaw wrote, "I am highly susceptible to the force of all religious music, no matter to what Church it belongs; but the music of my own Church: for which I may be allowed, like other people, to have a partiality: is to be found in Die Zauberfl‹te and [Beethoven's] Ninth Symphony."

Far from being "hopelessly convoluted and self-contradictory," the story of The Magic Flute is the story of each human being, told with astonishing insights and affection by two very wise masters, Schikaneder and Mozart. As such, it is a marvelously fitting end to Mozart's life work.

Paul Thomason is a frequent contributor to Playbill.

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