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The Magic Flute in a nutshell

Everything you need to know about Mozart’s The Magic Flute in one place – right here!

What is the story?

The Magic Flute is a fairy tale of darkness, light, and finding your way in the world. It takes the form of a Singspiel, which means it includes singing AND spoken dialogue (a bit like a musical).

The story opens in the middle of the action. Tamino, a prince lost in a foreign land, is being pursued by an enormous monster. He is rescued by three mysterious ladies, who kill the monster and give Tamino a picture of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, with whom he falls instantly in love. They tell him that Pamina has been captured by the powerful and evil Sarastro, and Tamino vows to rescue her.

With the gift of a magic flute and some magic bells, and the assistance of the bird-catcher Papageno (who has become reluctantly involved), Tamino sets off on his quest. However, he soon discovers that nothing, not even Day and Night, is quite as it first appears…

Read full synopsis

Helen Évora, Lorna James and, Amy J. Payne as Three Ladies and Kang Wang as Tamino in The Magic Flute, 2019 © Alastair Muir

Who are the characters?

Pamina – daughter of the Queen of the Night (soprano)
Tamino – a prince (tenor)
Sarastro – Priest of the Sun (bass)
Queen of the Night (high soprano)
Papageno – a bird catcher (baritone)
Papagena (soprano)
Monastatos – servant of Sarastro (tenor)

… plus three ladies (servants of the Queen of the Night), three child spirits, priests of Sarastro, Armed Men, members of Sarastro’s court (played by the Chorus of Opera North) and nine additional children, which underline the themes of childhood, creativity and a new way of thinking, within the piece. This means that at some points there are up to 60 people on stage!

Vuvu Mpofu (Pamina) and Kang Wang (Tamino) in rehearsal © Tom Arber

What is the music like?

Whilst unmistakably classical, The Magic Flute’s arias, duets and ensembles are each unique in style. As well as painting a vivid picture of each character, the music reflects the skills and abilities of the original performers back in 1791.

The rustic character of Papageno has folksong-like arias built of simple melodies, whilst Sarastro’s music is deep, stately and almost hymn-like, reflecting his character as a spiritual leader. The lyrical arias of Tamino are more romantic in style (as befitting a prince) and look forward to the Italian bel canto era, while the music for the Armed Men harks back to the more regimented baroque era with its use of fugues.

Most famously, the Queen of the Night’s Act II aria, sung in rage as she orders daughter Pamina to kill Sarastro, is full of virtuosic vocal fireworks and peppered with rare high Fs. The role was written especially for Mozart’s sister-in-law, who had a stratospheric range! Hear some extracts below from our own cast, chorus and orchestra.

What is this production like?

In this production by director James Brining and designer Colin Richmond, every scene is a visually engaging feast! The set is deceptively simple, with walls that shape-shift and move as the story progresses, creating a feeling of unsettlement and dreaminess. Projections (by Douglas O’Connell) throw some extra magic on proceedings and pull the audience a little more into the fantastical world in which this piece is set.

Inventive costumes blend fantasy and reality, with influences ranging from Dr Who to Black Mirror, but in the end, it’s all about representing the psychology behind each character. For example, the Queen of the Night’s costume is like “an odd mix of queen, scarecrow, plucked bird and 1930s Hollywood glamour gone to seed”, says designer Colin Richmond. This stems from her hatred of birds (which signal the daybreak, when her power is weakest). She therefore has bird-catcher Papageno kill as many as possible, and these dead birds form a part of her robes!

Meanwhile, Sarastro’s world, or cult, is full of uniforms, where everyone wears a variation (depending on their status within that world) of the same thing – as per The Handmaid’s Tale.

View photos

Who was the composer?

The Magic Flute (or Die Zauberflöte in the original German) was written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). The piece was composed for a suburban theatre in Vienna with which Mozart had a close relationship – Freihaus-Theatre auf der Wieden – run by actor and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, who also wrote the libretto.

The opera premiered on 30 September 1791 (just two months before Mozart’s premature death), with the composer conducting and Schikaneder himself as the bird-catcher Papageno. It was an immediate hit with audiences. Having taken Vienna by storm, The Magic Flute’s popularity soon spread throughout all Europe. Today, it remains the third most frequently performed opera worldwide.

Posthumous painting of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Barbara Krafft, 1819

Did you know?

The Magic Flute is full of oppositions (e.g. day against night, man against woman). At a musical level, this is represented by extremes of pitch – the role of Sarastro descends to an unusually low F2 in a few places, whilst the Queen of the Night’s famous aria reaches the dizzying heights of F6, a whole four octaves above!

– As both Mozart and Schikaneder were freemasons, The Magic Flute is said to allude to several masonic symbols and rites, including the repeated use of the number three (three trials, three ladies, three children, three doors to Sarastro’s palace etc.) It is also possible that Sarastro himself was modelled on prominent Viennese Freemason Ignaz von Born.

– As with many of his earlier operas, Mozart composed The Magic Flute’s fizzing overture last! It opens with three majestic chords (the number three again!) in the key of Eb major, which has three flats.

– This is the sixth different production of The Magic Flute in Opera North’s 40-year history, and the first new production since 2003.

Facsimile of Mozart's autograph score to The Magic Flute © Opera North

The Magic Flute is sung in English and lasts approximately 2 hours 45 minutes (including one interval). Join in on social media with #ONMagicFlute.

The Magic Flute opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Friday 27 September 2024. It will tour to Newcastle, Salford, Nottingham and Hull across 2024 and 2025.

A shorter version, The Magic Flute Lite, perfect for families, schools and anyone who’d like to enjoy a shorter version of the opera, opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Thursday 20 February 2025, and will tour to Newcastle, Salford and Nottingham.

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