Discover the history of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte
Premiered just months before Mozart’s death, Die Zauberflöte (1791) in many ways represents a new departure for the composer. Catching the spirit of revolution in the air (the French Revolution had begun just two years earlier) Mozart turned his attention for the first time from court opera to popular opera, writing this singspiel (‘sung-play’) for a new and much broader audience.
Together with La clemenza di Tito (1791), Die Zauberflöte (1791) is one of Mozart’s final operas, dating from the last year of Mozart’s life. The contrast between the two –
Clemenza an old-fashioned opera seria, exploring lofty ideals, Die Zauberflöte a light-hearted, pantomime of a singspiel – is marked, but both represent different stylistic alternatives to Mozart’s other mature operas.
Die Zauberflöte was Mozart’s first opera for a popular audience. Both his previous German operas – Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Der Schauspieldirektor – were written for the court. The impetus to compose it grew out of Mozart’s growing association with Emanuel Schikanader’s theatre troupe, resident company at Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden. Impresario Schikanader himself wrote the libretto and sang the role of Papageno at the premiere, helping shape a new style of opera that not only appealed to a wider audience, but also combines actors and singers of different genres and skill levels into a coherent whole.
Both Mozart and Schikanader were Freemasons, and the plot of Die Zauberflote is steeped in Masonic symbolism, ideals and imagery. Sarastro and his order embody all the values of the Masons – principles based on wisdom, reason and nature – while the Queen of the Night is seen by many to represent the Empress Marie Theresa who was strongly anti-Masonic and whose Catholic faith they viewed as little more than superstition. While the Masons traditionally excluded women, Mozart’s opera contemplates a more progressive order in which women (symbolised by Pamina) are also tested and welcomed if found worthy.
Die Zauberflöte was premiered on 30 September, 1791 in Vienna, not at one of the town’s main opera theatres but in the suburbs in the Theater auf der Wieden – home to a seat-selling mixture of pantomime, straight theatre and singspiel. The aim was to reach a broader, more popular audience than in a conventional opera house.
The opera was an immediate success, drawing new and larger-than-ever audiences to the Theater auf der Wieden, and was performances during the 1790s reached into the hundreds. Mozart himself wrote to his sister that the opera was becoming ‘more and more esteemed’.
From 1792 the opera began to be performed at opera houses across Europe, and today remains one of the most frequently performed operas in the canon.