Reconsidering The Magic Flute

Mozart's The Magic Flute is a puzzling opera. Its mood is sometimes childish, sometimes utterly solemn. The Queen of the Night is a sympathetic character who has been wronged by Sarastro when we meet her in the first act. In the second act, the situation seems reversed: Sarastro sings of wisdom, and the Queen of the Night tries vainly to persuade her daughter to commit murder. When the Queen is defeated by Sarastro at the end, the music is Mozart at his most triumphant, and the audience rejoices in the happy ending.

In my opinion, however, the ending is far from happy. I see Sarastro as a consistently villainous character, and I believe the Queen's attempt to kill him is can be understood as an attempt to save her daughter from being brainwashed by the leader of a cult.

The audience sees Sarastro and the Queen through the eyes of Tamino, who is united with his beloved Pamina at the end. As for Tamino, he sees the Queen as an innocent victim when he learns that her daughter has been kidnapped by Sarastro. He goes off to rescue Pamina, but soon changes his mind about who is good and who is bad. What causes him to alter his opinion? One of Sarastro's flunkies (Sarastro is surrounded by yes-men) says to him: "Ein Weib hat also dich berückt? Ein Weib tut wenig, plaudert viel" (So a woman beguiled you? A woman does little, chatters a lot). Tamino, who has good intentions but is rather stupid, cannot see the fallacy of argument by appeal to prejudice. He falls for this sexist line and decides to join Sarastro's cult, the Temple of Wisdom.

Pamina, in the meantime, is being held prisoner. Sarastro has put her in the care of his faithful servant Monostatos, who "verlangte Liebe" (demanded love). Pamina attempts to escape and return to her mother, the Queen of the Night. Monostatos recaptures her and brings her back to Sarastro. Despite Pamina's pleas, Sarastro will not let her go. Yet Monostatos, who thwarted her attempt to flee, is sentenced to 77 lashes. Thus does Sarastro reward obedience.

This brief scene shows us just how evil Sarastro is. If he punishes Monostatos for bringing back Pamina, why must he keep her in captivity? If he disapproves of Monostatos's amorous advances, how can he put a helpless girl back into the care of this lecherous servant? Easily. He justifies it by saying that the Queen of the Night is "ein stolzes Weib" (a proud woman).

In an earlier scene, the Queen disciplines her servant, Papageno. He is punished for telling a lie by having his mouth padlocked. The punishment is very brief but effective. Papageno will never lie again. The contrast between the Queen and Sarastro is enormous. The Queen imposes a light penalty for a real offense; Monostatos, on the other hand, suffers a cruel punishment for doing precisely what Sarastro wanted done.

Let us get back to Tamino. In order to join the Temple of Wisdom, he will have to pass the test of silence. The test is singularly inappropriate. Wisdom is the result of knowledge, questioning, and discussion. Only through argument can our views be subject to scrutiny. Silence is the enemy of wisdom; it is a virtue only in a totalitarian regime like Sarastro's. Tamino, then, must be silent when Pamina is brought to him. She mistakes his silence for rejection and attempts suicide. Sarastro, who organized this cruel test, does nothing to aid Pamina, who is not even being tested. Instead she is saved by the Genii, who are spirits sent by the Queen of the Night to guide Tamino. The Genii, like the magic bells and the magic flute that gives the opera its name, are gifts of the Queen. They are forces for good throughout the opera. In fact, when Pamina and Tamino undergo the tests of fire and water, devised by Sarastro, they are protected by the flute, the instrument of the Queen.

The Queen, to be sure, has her villainous moment. When she learns that Tamino, her daughter's beloved, has joined Sarastro, she becomes desperate. She gives Pamina a dagger and tells her to kill Sarastro. The Queen has been driven mad by the hopelessness of her situation. Her action is futile: Pamina will not be able to commit the murder.

It is at this point that the Queen sings her glorious aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" (The wrath of Hell boils in my heart). The music is so wonderful that we know the Queen's rage must be justified. Sarastro's music, to be sure, is also wonderful. Mozart didn't write bad music. It is therefore quite significant that there is no music at all, except for some trumpet blasts, during the tedious scene where Sarastro announces Tamino's wish to join the Temple. Similarly, there is only dialogue when Tamino and Papageno are asked if they wish to take the tests (Papageno sensibly declines). Mozart was just not inspired to compose music for these sequences.

Did Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder. know what they were doing? Did they fail to see that Sarastro was a tyrant? Did they agree with the sexism, gross even by 18th-century standards, expressed by Sarastro and his toadies? I do not know. Pamina and Tamino are together at the end of the opera, and to that extent the opera ends happily. They will live under a dictatorship, but their love will make their problems irrelevant. Pamina will forget her mother, who is destroyed despite Sarastro's claim that vengeance is unknown in his realm.

Whatever Mozart's intentions, audiences have always sided with Sarastro. In Ingmar Bergman's movie version of the opera, the singer who plays the Queen is shown smoking under a no-smoking sign during the intermission. Bergman, like most of us, has misjudged the Queen. The time has come for her to be recognized as the tragic heroine she really is.


This essay appeared in the May 1981 issue of Ovation