Die Zauberflöte (or The Magic Flute) was written by Mozart as a commission by the impressario at a theater in Vienna in 1790-91 and was the last and (at the time anyway) most successful of his dramatic works.

It's set against a very masonic background. Both Mozart and his employer were active Masons, and the opera probably was an attempt to glorify the masonic movement, whose image has suffered a few blows at the time. Much of the actual story consists of a masonic initiation rite and some eyebrows have been risen over the amount of detail that is revealed. The masonic rites are usually kept pretty secret, but apparently Mozart had permission from higher up in his lodge to include this much detail. In any case Mozart was honoured by the Masons after his death in 1791 and the opera was a huge success for several years.

Tamino is a prince who enters the land (the world?) ruled by the Queen of the Night. He is attacked and defeated by a serpent, but three Ladies attendant on the Queen come to his rescue. After they're gone the cowardly bird-catcher Papageno comes on the scene and claims the credit. The Ladies return and punish Papageno with a padlock.

The Queen of the Night appears, and sends the two of them on a quest for the princess Pamina, her beautiful daughter, who has been kidnapped by Sarastro. She gives Tamino a magic flute, and Papageno some bells.

On arriving at the three Temples, of Wisdom, of Reason, and of Nature, where the brutish gaoler Monostatos is holding Pamina, Tamino is told by the Speaker of the Temple that it is actually the Queen of the Night who is evil, and Sarastro, the Priest of the Sun, is the chief servant of the light.

Tamino and Pamina meet and fall in love, but Sarastro orders him and Papageno to undergo an initiation. So ends Act One. The magic flute got used at some point here but quite frankly pulling a scary face would have done just as well. It's not as central to the plot as the title suggests.

Tamino undergoes his ordeals (terrifying ones like patting his tummy while he circles his head, saying "The Leith Police Dismisseth Us", that sort of thing -- don't expect the The Magic Flute to require a change of underwear and a week of sleeping with the light on), but Papageno almost fails the one about shutting up for five minutes.

One of Tamino's ordeals is to be silent in the presence of Pamina. She despairs, plus her mother ordered her to kill him (she ordered her to kill Sarastro as well, thanks Mum), but love triumphs. Papageno's only incentive is that he might find a Papagena at the end of it: but in fact all he's offered is an ugly old woman. But surprise! It's Papagena after all, and they coo pa - pa - pa - pa to each other.

Faced with such invincible courage, the Queen of the Night is defeated and the good guys live happily ever after.

Die Zauberflöte was premièred on 30 September 1791 at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. The libretto was by Emmanuel Schikaneder.

Goethe once worked on, but did not complete, a libretto for a sequel. A modern retelling of the story as a fantasy novel is Night's Daughter by Marion Zimmer Bradley. There was another singspiel called Die Zauberzither, oder Caspar der Fagottist by Wenzel Müller, which also premièred in Vienna, on 8 June 1791, using essentially the same story. (A Fagottist is a bassoonist. Why, what did you think?)

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