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Dan Rigazzi Talks About The Magic Flute

Caitie Quick – February 23, 2015

Once upon a time, a prince woke to find himself lost in an enchanted forest in a strange land. He had no idea how he had arrived in such a place, nor how he would ever return home. The forest was dark and full of mysterious sounds. He was alone and afraid.

So begins The Magic Flute, one of Mozart’s last works, which premiered in Vienna in September of 1791, three months before Mozart’s untimely death. The Magic Flute is the last operatic masterpiece of the 18th century and is often considered a bridge between the age of reason and the romantic period. When we think of the 18th century, we can’t help but think of the enlightenment values that inspired our founding fathers.

It was an age of scientific thinking and new ideas about what it means to be human. But just as our own scientific age has spawned an entire fantasy genre we know as science fiction, the 18th century had its own fantastical stories filled with magical lands, wizards, sorceresses, magic lamps, genies trapped in bottles, and captive maidens. Mozart enjoyed attending popular plays and theatrical spectacles based on fairy tales as well as books like A Thousand and One Nights. In fact, there is a contemporary account of his wife, Constanze, reading him Aladdin’s Lamp and Cinderella the night before the Don Giovanni premiere.

The actor, impresario, playwright and librettist, Emmanuel Schikaneder, based the libretto for The Magic Flute on a popular fairy tale collection called Dschinnistan, by Wieland, Einsiedel and Liebeskind. All the main elements of The Magic Flute can be found in the stories in this collection: a group of wise old men instructing a headstrong youth, the trials of fire and water, the magic spirits who guide the hero, the sorceress queen with the captive daughter, and the wizard who at first appears to be evil and then turns out to be good. Even act two’s magic feast appears in this collection of stories.

There were a number of other sources for Schikaneder’s libretto, including a fantastical story called Sethos, as well as the initiation rituals of the Freemasons, of which he and Mozart were both members.

Over the last 200 years, much has been made of the Masonic allusions in the opera. There is even a reading of the piece, dating from the 19th century, that sees The Magic Flute as a complex allegory about the persecution of Freemasons in mid-eighteenth century Vienna. In a recent book called Magic Flutes & Enchanted Forests, David J. Buch debunks this notion and places the piece, where I think it belongs, in the theatrical tradition of “the marvelous.” The plays of Calderón de la Barca, the operas of Gluck, numerous popular spectacles and contemporary fairy tale collections all reach their culmination in Mozart and Schikaneder’s masterpiece.

This production of The Magic Flute was inspired by the painter René Magritte, a 20th century master of “the marvelous.” His work is filled with portals—doorways, picture frames, windows, even the human eye—which lead the viewer from everyday reality into the fantastical world of our dreams. And what is a fairy tale, if not a dream refashioned into an iconic account of the human experience? We are dazzled by their surprising and magical plot turns, while at the same time we recognize our own struggles in the tribulations of fairy tale heroes and heroines fighting for their place in the world. Who among us is not the hero of our own life; slaying dragons, passing through arduous trials, all to find our true love and remake the world in our own image? This is the enduring power of the fairy tale and of The Magic Flute, one of the most beloved works in the operatic repertoire.