I thought I'd try something different this week!
Here's a podcast-style Opera Spotlight, talking about one of my favorite operas, The Magic Flute. Let me know in the comments if you prefer this, or a written out version instead! I wanted to make this as easy as possible for you to listen to, so I've uploaded this as an audio file as well as on YouTube. I've included a transcription below, just in case that's what you'd prefer:
Hello beautiful ladies and gents, and welcome to Classically Abby. Today we will be doing an opera spotlight on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or Die Zauberflote. Now, the Magic Flute is actually a Singspiele, which means that the dialogue is spoken. It’s more similar to a modern-day musical! But we’ll call it an opera for ease of understanding. I chose The Magic Flute because it’s a great introduction to opera for children and adults alike. The fairy tale is magical and follows a prince and princess, and the music is truly stunning. Now, The Magic Flute was written right at the end of Mozart’s life, and at this point he had truly mastered his techniques and embraced the things that made him so unique as a composer. If you’ve ever seen the movie Amadeus, you may remember that Mozart had to fight to compose in German – operatic composers of the time for the most part wrote in Italian and French, since German was considered an inelegant language to sing in. Mozart embraced his mother tongue and chose to write a few of his operas in German – this happens to be the most well-known.
As well, the story is filled with Masonic imagery. Mozart was a Mason and the librettist was too. Now, let's get to the crux of the opera – the music. The opera literally spans the vocal range by having Sarastro, a bass, which is the lowest voice type, and the Queen of the Night, a coloratura soprano, the highest voice type, sing at the very edge of their ranges. It’s very impressive to listen to!
We’ll be listening to the 1990 recording of The Magic Flute featuring Kiri Te Kanawa, Cheryl Studer, and Francisco Araiza and conducted by Sir Neville Mariner. I chose this recording for a few reasons. The first is that I grew up on this recording – I used to beg my father to let me listen to it in the car! The second is that the performances by the singers are truly masterful, and the conducting is fantastic. Kiri Te Kanawa is one of the most famous sopranos who ever lived, and for good reason. She sings with a beautiful tone and sensitivity. Sir Neville Mariner is acclaimed for his opera conducting, and he deserves it. The musicality he elicits from the orchestra and the singers is second to none.
So let’s get into the plot and hear some excerpts! To follow along and hear the full recording, head over to my Spotify and follow the Opera Spotlight: The Magic Flute playlist.
We begin with the overture. Mozart’s overtures are some of the most beautiful ever written, and this is no exception. Keep an ear out for the three chords at the beginning of the overture that mimic the masonic initiation ceremony, which begins with a person knocking three times for admittance! Excerpt 1.
The opera opens in the middle of the action. A young prince named Tamino is being chased by a giant serpent and faints in fright. At the moment that the monster is about to eat him, three young women, the attendants of the Queen of the Night, kill the serpent and save his life. After seeing how handsome he is, they each want him for themselves, but the three agree to depart.
When Tamino awakens, he sees what looks like a man-bird! It’s Papageno the bird-catcher, and he despairs that he has yet to find a wife. When Tamino asks if Papageno was the one who killed the serpent, Papageno takes the credit. At that moment, the three young women reappear and chide Papageno for lying. They put a padlock on his mouth, which causes a rather hysterical musical moment as Papageno hums his way through the music, and give Tamino a picture of a young princess named Pamina. Tamino instantly falls in love with her. It is then that he sings his aria, and one of the hardest arias for tenors in the repertoire. It is high and yet must be sung with sensitivity, which is always difficult. But Mozart illustrates the ecstasy of young love so beautifully here. Here it is. Excerpt 2.
It is then that the Queen of the Night appears. She tells Tamino that Pamina, her daughter, has been taken captive by Sarastro, and that if Tamino saves her, he will have Pamina as his wife. Tamino eagerly agrees. The three young women remove the padlock from Papageno, telling him he must not lie, and give the two men gifts to protect them along their travels: a magic flute for Tamino that will turn sorrow to joy, and a set of magic bells for protection.
We then cut to the palace of Sarastro, where Pamina had tried to escape. Monastatos, Sarastro’s minion, is singing creepily to her when Papageno appears. The two men are terrified of each other, and Monastatos runs away, leaving Papageno alone with Pamina. Papageno tells Pamina that he and Tamino are there to rescue her, and that Tamino has fallen in love with her. After Pamina reassures Papageno that he will find a partner as well, they share a duet, which is our next excerpt. The duet tells of the happiness and duty of married life, and is beautiful in its simplicity. Excerpt 3.
In the next scene, Tamino is led by three spirits to Sarastro’s temple, where he is denied entry on the left and right sides, but is allowed in by one of Sarastro’s priests through the middle door. There he learns that Sarastro is not evil - in fact, the Queen of the Night is. Pamina has been rescued from the clutches of her mother, and all will be revealed if Tamino opens his mind and heart.
Meanwhile, Papageno and Pamina are recaptured by Monastatos and his men. Papageno plays his bells, and the men all dance happily away. But Sarastro and his retinue are close by and there’s no way for Pamina and Papageno to escape. Pamina asks Sarastro’s forgiveness and says she ran away because Monastatos was making sexual advances. Sarastro tells her he only wants her to be happy, just as Tamino enters the stage having been captured by Monastatos. Instead of getting the reward he had hoped for, Sarastro sends Monastatos away for his lustful behavior.
He then tells Tamino that in order for him to be worthy of marrying Pamina, he must undergo several trials of wisdom – another reference to Masonic imagery, perhaps?
We have now come to the second act. It begins with a prayer: Sarastro prays to Isis and Osiris, asking them to guide Tamino and Pamina along their trials. I chose this excerpt just to show you how truly low basses voices are! And this aria shows off those deep notes better than anything. Excerpt 4.
Tamino and Papageno are now led into the first trial – the trial of silence. They are tested when the three young attendants of the Queen of the Night reappear and try to make them speak, but Tamino will not budge. Of course, Papageno, ever the comedic relief, gives in and begins speaking with them!
As this happens, Pamina sleeps while Monastatos creeps over her. Just as he’s about to make his move, the Queen of the Night appears. He hides behind a curtain as the Queen of the Night asks Pamina what she’s doing. When Pamina reveals that Tamino is joining Sarastro’s brotherhood, the Queen of the Night is furious. She gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro and threatens to disown her if she doesn’t complete her mission. This is probably the most well-known aria in the opera. Why, you may ask? Because the Queen has to sing so high and so accurately! It’s truly astounding. Excerpt 5.
After the Queen leaves, Monastatos reappears and threatens to tell Sarastro of Pamina’s betrayal unless she gives in to his advances. Sarastro enters in the nick of time and chases Monastatos away – Pamina apologizes to Sarastro for her mother’s behavior and asks him not to take revenge. Sarastro responds by saying that anger and hatred have no place in his temple.
As we return to Tamino and Papageno, they are reminded that they must remain silent. When Papageno complains that he is thirsty, an old lady appears and gives him water. He teasingly asks if she has a boyfriend, and she responds, “Yes. And his name is Papageno!” then disappears. Tamino then plays his magic flute and Pamina appears. Since Pamina doesn’t know that Tamino has been sworn to silence, when Tamino won’t speak to her, she believes he loves her no longer. She then sings this next excerpt. The accompaniment is so sparse and almost sounds like a heartbeat because she’s alone and in pain. Excerpt 6.
Later, the old lady reappears to Papageno. She makes him promise to marry her, and when he does, albeit reticently, she turns into a beautiful young woman. When he tries to embrace her, the priests of Sarastro’s brotherhood hold him back, telling him he’s not yet worthy of her.
Now, do you remember the three spirits who led Tamino to the temple a while back? They return and see Pamina suicidal as she believes that Tamino no longer loves her. They reassure her of his love, and Pamina accompanies Tamino into the final trials of fire and water. By playing his magic flute, the two are protected and pass the trials!
Meanwhile, Pamina is not the only one contemplating suicide! Papageno can’t find his young woman, and he wants to kill himself. Fortunately, the three spirits stop him from accomplishing his goal and bring the young woman to him – a woman who just so happens to be named PapageNA! The two sing this next duet, discussing the hundreds of kids they want to have and how they’ll all be named either Papageno or Papagena. It’s very cute and rather funny, too. Excerpt 7.
But what about the Queen of the Night and Monastatos? Well, they have returned to destroy Sarastro’s temple, and the Queen of the Night has promised Pamina to Monastatos in return for his help. But they are magically destroyed when they try to enter the temple!
As the sun rises, Sarastro declares that light has won over darkness. And that’s the end of the opera!
Now you have some context before going to a production of the Magic Flute! Did you enjoy this podcast-style Opera Spotlight? Have you heard the Magic Flute before? What’s your favorite Mozart Opera? Let me know in the comments on my blog post. You can always follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube at Classically Abby. And thanks for listening!
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As you guys may have known, I sang in a concert last week and had the best time.
One of the arias I sang is called, "Ain't it a pretty night!" by Carlisle Floyd. It's from an opera he composed called Susannah, which was written in 1955. The story is incredibly moving and tragic, and Floyd's use of color, composition, and foreshadowing is truly masterful. In the story, which is based off the Apocryphal story of Susannah and the elders, Susannah, a young woman in a small mountain town in Tennessee, becomes the target of the town's hatred and anger when her youthful beauty attracts attention.
Through the duration of the opera, we see Susannah go from a kind, light-hearted young woman to a woman destroyed by others hate and condemnation for sins she never committed. She sings this right near the beginning of the opera. She went to the town square dance, had a lovely time, and is now enjoying looking at the stars with her friend, Little Bat. She sings of her hopes and dreams, of her love of where she comes from even as she hopes to explore the outside world. That is what makes this aria so striking and so tragic - we, as the audience, knowing that her life will soon be destroyed, see her innocent and happy before all of this destruction comes her way. It's really painful to watch. She sings of her hopes for the future, of her excitement to see the world - and we know that none of it will come to fruition.
It's an interesting aria to sing for this very reason. As the actress, I know what is coming and why this aria is so sad. As the character, I have no idea. It's a fine balancing act, letting the audience know what to expect but not giving that away to the character I'm portraying.
Singing this aria made me think. There's a reason that we don't know what will happen to us in the future. In many ways, it's a gift. We don't know if the things we long for will come true; we don't know if the things we're enjoying now will last. And if we did know the future, we wouldn't be able to bask in our current happiness.
What do you think? Did you like this aria? Let me know in the comments below!
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Hey! I'm Abby, the creator of Classically Abby, a commentary, opera, beauty, and lifestyle brand dedicated to looking at the world from a classic perspective. I'm the first Conservative Influencer and I'm an opera singer with three degrees in performance!