While Mozart wrote the music Emanuel Schikaneder wrote the libretto. He also took the role of Papageno at the premier. Schikaneder also may have given advice to Mozart concerning the musical setting of his libretto. The dramatist Ignaz Franz Castelli tells the following tale:
The late bass singer Sebastian Meyer told me that Mozart had originally written the duet where Papageno and Papagena first see each other quite differently from the way in which we now hear it. Both originally cried out "Papageno!", "Papagena!" a few times in amazement. But when Schikaneder heard this, he called down in to the orchestra, "Hey, Mozart! That's no good, the music must express greater astonishment. They must both stare dumbly at each other, then Papageno must begin to stammer: 'Pa-papapa-pa-pa'; Papagena must repeat that until both of them finally get the whole name out". Mozart followed the advice, and in this form the duet always had to be repeated.
An interesting story, though not necessarily true.
Mozart wrote the music with the initial cast in mind, as only two of them (The Queen of the Night and Sarastro) were professional singers. The other parts were taken by actors who could sing a bit. Most characters thus had string introductions so they could find their pitch. Mozart conducted the first two performances before falling ill
The opera premiered in Vienna on September 30, 1791.
This was just two years after the start of the French Revolution, before the revolution spun out of control, murdering its own during the Terror (led by Robespierre and Committee of Public Safety) .
Wordsworth later said of that time:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!" (The Prelude, x, 690-4.)
Mozart, of cause was not a revolutionary, but he was a Freemason. Freemasonry, at that time - quite different to its current incarnation - was about brotherhood and the rights of man. The producer of the Opera Australia production was aware of the Masonic connection as the photo below, from a scene in the Melbourne production, shows Masonic imagery in the background.
Another innovation was that the Magic Flute was sung in German.
As Nicholas Yardley wrote in his review:
The audience didn’t stream out of the Melbourne Arts Centre in 2009 crying, “liberty, equality, fraternity,” or “How wonderful it was sung in German rather than Italian.” Think of fairy floss. It melts away to sweet, sticky nothingness in your mouth. That’s how The Magic Flute is to a modern audience. It’s fairy floss. It’s not about enlightenment. It’s like a Marx Brothers musical with Zeppo as Tamino singing love songs, upstaged by Harpo as Pappageno, who on this occasion sings, and sings very well. It mustn’t lecture – it’s a fantasy.
And that is why the Melbourne production works. The opera opens in an enchanted forest and stays enchanted. The difference between then and now is that the cast can sing, and not just a little bit. Director, David Freeman and conductor, Jari Hamalainen are at their best and Andrew Goodwin as Tamino, not only sounds good, but looks the part. The same can be said of Daniel Sumegi as Sarastro. He towers above the others and looks truly regal. Lorina Gore as the coloratura Queen of the Night is spectacularly suspended by wires high above the stage, sharing the space with a huge, golden crescent moon. Sarah Crane as a tearful Pamina and Andrew Moran, as a boastful Pappageno also perform well.
I particularly enjoyed Moran's performance - Pappangeno as an ocker.
The show was visually spectacular, as the photo below shows:
A great addition was the use of an physical theatre group - Legs on the Wall - to play the animals, which can be seen in the photograph.
Below is a slide show of photos from the production:
And, the music is of cause wonderful. Here is one of the famous arias (though not from the Australian performance) ...
Here is a synopsis of the plot:
Tamino, a handsome prince who is lost in a distant land, is pursued by a serpent. He faints from fatigue and three ladies, attendants of the queen appear and kill the serpent. They all fall in love with the prince and each plans to be alone with him. After arguing, they decide that it is best that they all leave together.
Tamino recovers to see before him Papageno, arrayed entirely in the plumage of birds, who sings of his job as a birdcatcher and the fact that he is longing for a wife. (Aria: Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja) Papageno jokes with Tamino but says that he brings the birds that he catches to the Queen of the Night's servants, who give him food and drink in return. Papageno also claims that he has saved Tamino and strangled the serpent with his bare hands. At this moment, the three ladies appear and punish his lie by paying for his birds with a stone instead of food, water instead of wine and placing a padlock over his mouth. They tell Tamino that they were responsible for saving him. He deeply appreciates them and they show to the prince a miniature of a young maiden, Pamina, with whom he falls instantly in love. (Aria: Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön / This image is enchantingly lovely, Like no eye has ever beheld!")
The arrival of the Queen of the Night. Stage set by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) for an 1815 production
The Queen of the Night now appears, demanding that Tamino free her daughter, the original of the picture, from the hands of Sarastro, promising that he can marry Pamina in return. (Recitative and aria: O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn / "Oh, tremble not, my dear son! You are innocent, wise, pious"). The ladies give Tamino a magic flute that can change men's hearts, remove the padlock from Papageno, and present him with a chime of bells to protect him. Papageno accompanies Tamino, and they set forth, guided by three boys. They escape all danger by the use of the magic instruments. (Quintet: Hm hm hm hm)
Scene 2: A room in Sarastro's palace
Pamina is dragged in by Sarastro's servant Monostatos, a Moor, who is persecuting her. (Trio: Du feines Täubchen, nun herein!) Papageno, sent ahead by Tamino to help find Pamina, arrives. Monostatos and Papageno are each terrified by the other's strange appearance and flee the stage. But Papageno soon returns and announces to Pamina that her mother has sent Tamino to her aid. Pamina rejoices to hear that Tamino is in love with her, and then offers sympathy and hope to Papageno, who longs for a Papagena to love. Together they sing an ode to love (Duet: Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen), then depart.
Scene 3: Grove and entrance to the temples
The three boys lead in the prince. As Tamino reaches the temple, he is denied entrance at the Gates of Nature and Reason, by invisible voices singing "Go back!". But when he tries the Gate of Wisdom, a priest appears and gradually convinces him of the noble character of Sarastro. After the priest leaves him, Tamino plays his magic flute in hopes of summoning Pamina and Papageno. The tones of his magical instrument summon first a group of magically tamed beasts, then the sound of Papageno's pipes. Ecstatic at the thought of meeting Pamina, Tamino hurries off.
Papageno appears with Pamina, following the distant sound of Tamino's flute. The two are suddenly apprehended by Monostatos and his slaves. Papageno then works an enchantment on them with his magic bells, and they dance, blissfully and involuntarily, off the stage.
Papageno now hears the approach of Sarastro and his large retinue. He is frightened and asks Pamina what they should say. She replies, "The truth! The truth! Even if it were a crime," and with her words a triumphal march begins (Chorus: Es lebe Sarastro); Sarastro and his followers enter.
Sarastro conducts an impromptu judicial proceeding. Pamina falls at his feet and confesses that she was trying to escape because Monostatos had demanded her love. Sarastro receives her kindly and tells her that he will not force her inclinations, but cannot give her freedom.
Monostatos then enters with Tamino captive. The two lovers see one another for the first time and instantly embrace. The chorus sings "What is the meaning of this?" and they are separated. Monostatos tries to point the finger of blame at Tamino. Sarastro, however, does not believe Monostatos' dastardly trick. He punishes Monostatos for his insolence and leads Tamino and Papageno into the temple of Ordeal.
 Act 2
Scene 4: A grove of palms
The council of priests, headed by Sarastro, enters to the sound of a solemn march. They determine that Tamino shall possess Pamina if he succeeds in passing through the ordeal, as they do not wish to return her to her mother, who has already infected the people with superstition. Sarastro, echoed by his fellow priests, then sings a prayer to the gods Isis and Osiris, asking them to protect Tamino and Pamina and to take them into their heavenly dwelling place should they meet death in the course of their trials. (O Isis und Osiris)
Scene 5: The courtyard of the temple of Ordeal
Tamino and Papageno are led into the temple. Tamino is cautioned that this is his last chance to turn back, but he states that he will undergo every trial to win his Pamina. Papageno is asked if he will also concede to every trial, but he says that he doesn't really want wisdom or to struggle to get it. The priest tells Papageno that Sarastro may have a woman for him if he undergoes the trials, and that she is called Papagena. Papageno says that he wouldn't mind a look at her to be sure, but the priest says that he must keep silent. Papageno finally agrees.
The first test is that Tamino and Papageno shall remain silent under the temptation of women. (Duet, Speaker and Priest) The three ladies appear, and tempt them to speak. (Quintet, Papageno, Tamino, Three Ladies) Tamino and Papageno remain firm, though Tamino must constantly tell Papageno, "Silent!"
Papageno confronts one of the priests and asks why he must undergo tests if Sarastro already has a woman that wants to be his wife. The priest says that it is the only way.
Scene 6: A garden, Pamina asleep
Monostatos approaches and gazes upon Pamina with rapture. (Aria: Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden) When the Queen of the Night appears and gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro (Aria: Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen / "Hell's vengeance boileth in mine heart"), Monostatos retires and listens. He tries to force Pamina's love by using the secret, but is prevented by Sarastro, who allays Pamina's alarm. (Aria: In diesen heil'gen Hallen)
Scene 7: A hall in the temple of Ordeal
Tamino and Papageno must again suffer the test of silence. Papageno can no longer hold his tongue, but Tamino remains firm, even when Pamina speaks to him. Since Tamino refuses to answer, Pamina believes he loves her no longer. (Aria: Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden)
Scene 8: The pyramids
(Chorus) Sarastro parts Pamina and Tamino. (Trio, Sarastro, Pamina, Tamino) Papageno also desires to have his little wife, and sings of this with his magic bells. (Aria, Papageno: Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen). At the first ordeal, an old woman had appeared to him and declared herself his bride. She now again appears and changes herself into the young and pretty Papagena. However, the priests send her away with thunder and lightning. She vanishes, frightened, and Papageno is miserable.
Scene 9: An open country
Tamino and Pamina undergo their final trial; watercolor by Max Slevogt (1868–1932)
The three boys see Pamina attempting to commit suicide because she believes Tamino to be faithless. They prevent her from doing so, and take her to see him.
Scene 10: Rocks with water and a cavern of fire.
Two men in armor lead in Tamino, and in the musical form of a Baroque chorale prelude give him advice, then reassurance that Pamina lives. Sarastro appears and sends Pamina in. Pamina arrives and is overcome with joy to find Tamino, who is now allowed to speak to her. Both pass unscathed through the final ordeal of fire and water with the help of the magic flute, which Pamina tells him was carved by her father from an ancient oak tree. They emerge from their trials to the sound of an offstage chorus singing "Triumph!".
Papageno wishes to take his own life because he can't stop thinking about Papagena, but at the last minute the Three Boys appear and remind him that he should use his magic bells. The bells when played indeed summon Papagena, and the happy couple is united, stuttering at first ("pa … pa … pa") in astonishment. (Duet: Papageno! Papagena!)
The traitorous Monostatos appears with the Queen of the Night and her ladies to destroy the temple (Nur stille, stille), but they are magically cast out into eternal night.
The scene now changes to the entrance of the chief temple, where Sarastro bids the young lovers welcome and unites them. The final chorus sings the praises of Tamino and Pamina in enduring their trials and gives thanks to the gods.