The Magic Flute was the happiest experience Mozart ever had in the opera house. It was a hit almost from the beginning. There is some indication that the first-night audience was chilly, although not all commentators accept that. But the evidence shows that, for the second or third performances, audience members had to show up four hours early to secure their seats, so great was the demand for admittance. The work became a popular success, with many of its songs whistled about the streets, and Mozart was able to share the success with his family, taking them to see the opera often.
Mozart's distinguished colleague Antonio Salieri saw it as Mozart's guest and called it an "operone," a huge opera. Like many of the more sophisticated audience members (including, in later years, Ludwig van Beethoven), Salieri was struck by the range of the piece. It includes marches and grand ensembles, huge scenic effects, serious scenes of ritual as well as comic elements, memorably organized around the bird catcher, Papageno.
Unfortunately, Mozart was soon to die under mysterious circumstances (although not, contrary to popular belief, by Salieri's hand; the most recent speculation suggests Mozart actually died from trichinosis, developed after eating undercooked pork). But given that in the years before The Magic Flute the composer's luck had seemed to run out, he was able to end his short life feeling a success. On his deathbed, watch in hand, Mozart went through the recent performances in his mind.
The Magic Flute wasn't the only prominent achievement of that great final year of 1791. Mozart also wrote the opera seria La Clemenza di Tito, the great clarinet concerto, the last piano concerto (K. 595 in B-flat major), and a great deal of dance music. His creativity was in flood and it seems as though Emanuel Schikaneder, his longtime friend, admirer, and, on this project, librettist, was determined to tap into it.
There has always been a lot of confusion around the authorship credit for The Magic Flute. When the work became a success a member of Schikaneder's company, Carl Ludwig Giesecke, claimed to have written large parts of the libretto. There is no verification for his claims though, and someone named Peter Cantes, who also made a claim, seems at best to have been a remote and casual contributor. Nowadays it is thought that Schikaneder alone wrote the words to Mozart's final masterpiece for the stage.
The two had met years before in Salzburg when Schikaneder was appearing with his own troupe. He made friends with Mozart's father and was welcomed into the Mozart home. He and Wolfgang were soon buddies‹bowling, playing at archery, and fooling about with music (Schikaneder had training as a violinist). Later, Schikaneder produced some of Mozart's earlier operas in the various theater companies he ran.
Like Mozart he went through a bad period only to wind up a success in Vienna where he was the city's most popular actor-manager. His large company, which included singers, actors, musicians, and a composer with access to a 35-piece orchestra, gave very well attended performances in a one-thousand-seat theater, which was huge for the time.
Schikaneder enjoyed a great reputation in Germany and Austria. He was a famous Hamlet, so successful that his performances always ran long because audiences kept demanding he repeat his scenes. In Vienna he created a clown part that made him a sensation, "Dummer Anton" or "Stupid Tony," and wrote a number of plays to feature the role. He alternated these with what were called "Zauberoper"‹magic plays. These were rescue dramas with splendid scenic effects and music. It was Schikaneder who seems to have had the idea of combining comedy, rescue drama, mysticism, and ceremonial pomp into a "German Opera," which was how Mozart listed The Magic Flute in his catalog; the program called it a "Grosse Oper"‹a grand opera.
Schikaneder used various sources for the piece. A play he had performed called Oberon was one; a story by Christoph Martin Wieland, called Lulu, or The Magic Flute is another. (Lulu was actually the name of the hero, a prince who has use of an enchanted instrument.) Papagei is the German word for Parrot. Schikaneder seems to have come up with Papageno partly from the comic squire in Oberon, and partly from the commedia dell'arte characters he played‹in classical commedia the men often wore bird-masks. There was also, very importantly, a French novel called Sethos by Jean Terrasson.
Terrasson was a Mason and his novel was actually Masonic propaganda of a sort. He provided Schikaneder and Mozart with a lot of the Masonic imagery that permeates The Magic Flute.
Mozart and Schikaneder were both Masons, Mozart a sincere and well connected one. The libretto, which was printed to coincide with the premiere, has a frontispiece by Ignaz Alberti, a member of Mozart's Masonic Lodge. All of the images engraved were important for the Masons. And someone flipping through the libretto would have found that the last lines included the words "Wisdom, Beauty, and Strength," ritual words that were part of the esoteric Masonic ceremony known as the St. John.
Musically, Mozart followed through. The number three had huge, unmistakable significance for Masons. Stopping, then knocking three times, for instance, was part of their ritual. The opera is in E-flat, which has three flats. In the middle of the overture the music stops and recommences very slowly with three times three chords in a knocking rhythm. The cast of characters includes a trio of boys and a trio of ladies. Tamino's progress is given a Masonic emphasis: he starts out as a worthy outsider and becomes an initiate. The entire end of the opera shows brilliant light emerging from deepest darkness, which was an integral part of the St. John ceremony.
All of these Masonic symbols and more were supposed to be secret, although it's unlikely that Mozart and Schikaneder would have proceeded without permission from their lodge.
Their precise reason for incorporating the symbols can never be known. But the Masons in Vienna were in huge trouble. They had been linked by the government with the French Revolution and were under secret pressure from the police. There was a concern that the beliefs of the Masons were being falsified by spies and inimical propaganda.
Mozart and his fellow Masons may have wanted to put into popular form their Masonic beliefs in brotherhood, freedom, and equality. They used a fanciful story to insist that Masons were above politics and intrigue, that their truths were eternal.
There have been portraits of Mozart suggesting he was a frivolous man, and in some respects he may have been. But he was also deeply concerned with the future of humanity, the importance of being in the world, and equality for men no matter the condition of their birth. It seems typical of the best side of this composer that even in this comedy, his connection with the sublime is given such a strong and eloquent voice.
Albert Innaurato is a playwright who writes frequently about the arts.