An Evening at the Opera: Reflections on the Magic Flute

The Magic Flute. Photo by Steven Pisano.

What a joy it is to hop on a train to the city with friends on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and go to the opera! Thanks to the Benoliel Arts and Culture Fund, a few of us Templeton students recently had the opportunity to see Opera Philadelphia’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This German opera is in the operatic form of a singspiel— spoken dialogue incorporated with sung arias. This particular production was extraordinary—the singers performed amidst fanciful projections on a screen behind them. Instead of having the singers speak the lines between songs, as in the original opera, the dialogue was shown on the screen, evoking the silent movies of the 1920s. The music, both vocal and orchestral, was phenomenal— soaring, glorious, and whimsical. The imaginative backdrop of animations fit the music, and highlighted its whimsy and playful beauty.

The Magic Flute is a fairy story noted for its strong themes of freemasonry and enlightenment philosophy. Prince Tamino is charged by the mysterious and cruel Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the high priest Sarastro, who has enslaved her. But Tamino, having learned of Sarastro’s high ideals, seeks to join his priestly community. He also falls deeply in love with Pamina, and she with him. Eventually, the two undergo the trials of initiation and triumph. The Queen is conquered and they receive enlightenment. It is undeniably a strange plot for a fairy story.

Despite its bizarre plot and arguably heretical themes, The Magic Flute has much to offer to us as Christians. Christ reveals Himself to us through all earthly beauty. The beauty of the clear, ringing coloratura notes of the Queen of the Night’s aria, the lovely mingling of Papageno’s and Pamina’s voices as they sing their duet, the joyous grandeur of the orchestral overture, all of this reflects in a very real and true way the divine Beauty of God.

However, it is hard to ignore the Masonic elements and enlightenment initiation. How do we enjoy and engage this beauty when it seemingly goes against what we believe? The Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar gives us a helpful framework for thinking about this very problem. He writes, referring to The Magic Flute,

Do we not come from God and return to him, passing through the waters and fires of time, suffering and death? And why should we not permit ourselves to be led through the dissonances of our existence by the Zauberflöte (Magic Flute), a tremendous adumbration of love, light and glory, eternal truth and harmony?…Mozart serves by making audible the triumphal hymn of a prelapsarian and resurrected creation, in which suffering and guilt are not presented as faint memory, as past, but as conquered, absolved, fixed present.1

Thus, Balthasar shows us that in spite of the underlying the Masonic motifs, The Magic Flute has themes of love and suffering and good prevailing over evil. Pamina and Tamino suffer through the terrible trials with each other’s help and for the sake of their love. The evil queen is conquered, and love triumphs. However strange and disturbing some of the themes are, the opera foreshadows the triumph of love, harmony, and good. And it does this through the medium of beauty, a joyous beauty that gives us hope for the Beauty to come.

as quoted in Pope Benedict XVI, Mozart, and the Quest of Beauty. Freer, Mark. Catholic 1 Education Research Center.

Mary Katherine Bucko (’18) is a Templeton scholar studying Music with a concentration in classical voice. Her other academic interests include philosophy, art history, and British literature. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and canoeing, singing Renaissance polyphony, and spending time with her beautiful family.

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