Mozart's Masonic Mystery: 'The Magic Flute'

Mozart's opera is in two acts, set in an unspecified time and place. As ACT ONE opens, we see a young prince, Tamino, running for his life from a terrifying serpent. He's rescued by three ladies who serve the local ruler -- the Queen of the Night. They go off to tell their Queen about the young stranger they've encountered.

Tamino falls asleep, and wakes up to meet Papageno -- a funny-looking man dressed in colorful feathers and playing the panpipes. Papageno says he's the Queen's bird catcher. The two characters have virtually nothing in common. When Papageno simply describes himself as "a man," Tamino is skeptical. Still, the two quickly develop a bond.

After Tamino and Papageno finish sizing each other up, the ladies return and show Tamino a picture of Pamina, the Queen of the Night's daughter. Tamino takes one look and falls in love. But Pamina has been captured by Sarastro, the Queen's arch enemy, who is described as an evil fiend. When the Queen of the Night arrives in person, with her signature clap of thunder, she asks Tamino to rescue her daughter. She gives him a flute with magic powers, and sends Papageno along to help, with a magic instrument of his own -- a set of chimes.

The scene changes to the realm of Sarastro, where Pamina is being held. She's alone with the treacherous Monostatos, who seems intent on raping her. Just then, Papageno wanders in. He and Monostatos scare each other half to death, and Monostatos runs off. Papageno leaves with Pamina, to look for Tamino.

Meanwhile, three mysterious young boys have guided Tamino to a temple with three doors. One of them, marked "Wisdom," opens to reveal the Temple of the Orator. Tamino asks about Pamina, and the Orator tells him that she's still alive. But to find her, Tamino must first join the temple's holy order. Tamino plays his magic flute, and in response he hears Papageno's panpipes. Papageno appears with Pamina, and they're both running from Monostatos. He's about to catch them when the mighty Sarastro appears. He reprimands Monostatos for his evil designs on Pamina, and Monastatos slinks off. Sarastro then offers Pamina and Tamino the chance to be together. But first, he says, they must endure rituals of purification, and they're led into the temple.

ACT TWO begins near a temple that's surrounded by palm trees. After a brief processional, Sarastro and his priests say that Tamino will be permitted to undergo the trials required to join their brotherhood. He will then be allowed to marry Pamina. Papageno also wants a wife, and may also undergo the trials, though he's more than a bit reluctant.

Meanwhile, Pamina endures trials of her own. She again has to escape the rapacious Monostatos. She must also refuse her own mother's order that, to restore their family's power, she must murder Sarastro. (This command from the Queen of the Night is delivered in one of Mozart's most famous arias -- complete with four high F-naturals that seem to defy gravity, not to mention vocal chords.) To top it off, Pamina is falsely led to believe that Tamino has rejected her. At one point she's on the brink of suicide, but is rescued by the three boys.

By the end of the opera, both Pamina and Tamino have faced trials of fire and water, and have survived them together. Papageno finally earns a wife -- his female namesake, Papagena. She turns out to be a real peach, though she first appears to Papageno as a wrinkled hag who claims to be only "eighteen years and two minutes" old. The Queen of the Night and her minions make a desperate attempt to bring down Sarastro's temple, but they're defeated amidst frightening storms and the Queen vanishes into darkness.

As the opera ends, Sarastro's mysterious but apparently benevolent order has prevailed, granting all power to beauty and wisdom.