Seventeen ninety-one was a terrible year for Mozart personally, but a fabulous year for Western Music.
The list of masterworks he composed during his final months is simply staggering. Some of the high points are Piano Concerto No. 27, String Quintet No. 6, the Clarinet Concerto, the opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, the incomplete Requiem, the little Adagio for Glass Harmonica (not well known but one of Mozart’s most haunting works).
And, of course, The Magic Flute. It was Mozart’s last opera, completed and premiered barely two months before his death on Dec. 5th. He never knew what a worldwide success it was going to be, but he had hints: There were at least 20 performances in the short interval between its premiere and his death, and his supposed arch-rival, Antonio Salieri, praised the opera highly after attending a performance as Mozart’s guest.
By 1800, performances of the opera numbered in the hundreds and, after four decades, The Magic Flute was not only an international success but an intercontinental one. In fact, the opera has never been out of fashion.
The Magic Flute is sometimes called a “people’s opera,” rather than one composed for an elite audience — an idea reinforced by Peter Shaffer’s award-winning play as well as the movie version of Amadeus. There’s at least a grain of truth in this. The Flute premiere on Sept. 30, 1791 was not in a fashionable Viennese opera house but in the suburban Theater auf der Wieden. It’s as if an opera were to premiere in a small theater in Brooklyn or Queens rather than at the Metropolitan Opera. A writer of Mozart’s time associated the Wieden area with the smell of beer and sausages and wrote of “vulgar exchanges” between actors and audiences. Clearly the suburban audiences were out to have a good time.
Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, brought the common people into the opera with the character of Papageno and, to a lesser extent, his feminine counterpart Papagena. A good time is definitely what Papageno is after; forget scary, high-minded tests of character.
But there’s also a more noble side to The Magic Flute, of course. The characters Tamino, Pamina and Sarastro face the Queen of the Night and her minions in a combat of good against evil, with good finally emerging triumphant.
It’s interesting to survey the careers of the original cast of The Magic Flute; a tightly knit and highly versatile group of musicians, several of whom were longtime friends of Mozart and some of whom were related by marriage.
Schikaneder, who created the role of Papageno, was the director of the troupe. He was a librettist, composer, singer, dancer, playwright and actor noted for his performances of Shakespeare’s Hamlet! A longtime friend of Mozart, he wrote a sequel to The Magic Flute (and you can read more about that later in this article).
Benedikt Schack, the original Tamino, was another friend of the composer (Mozart’s father was highly complimentary of his singing). Schack was a composer as well as a singer and flutist (or “flautist, if you prefer, who actually played Tamino’s flute rather than delegating that portion of the score to an orchestral musician). Schack’s wife also appeared onstage in the original production in a small role.
Anna Gottlieb, who created the role of Pamina, was a vocal prodigy. She was only 17 when she sang this demanding role, but even more amazing—she was a mere 12 year-old when she sang Barbarina in the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro.
Franz Xaver Gerl, the dignified Sarastro, was a singer/composer/actor and another close friend of Mozart’s. In his youth, he is thought to have been a pupil of Mozart’s father, Leopold. Gerl’s wife, like Schack’s, also had a role in The Magic Flute as The Third Lady.
Josepha Hofer, the original Queen of the Night, was Mozart’s sister-in-law. Contemporaries said she was most comfortable in a very high tessitura; those listening to the queen’s high notes can have no doubt about that.
Two members of this cast performed a sad duty on the afternoon of December 4, 1791. Schack and Gerl went to Mozart’s apartment and joined the dying composer and Franz Hofer (Josepha’s husband) to sing through the parts of the Requiem that Mozart had been able to complete. It was the composer’s final performance; he passed away during the night.
Now about that sequel: After Mozart’s death, Schikaneder decided to capitalize on the growing popularity of The Magic Flute by writing the text of a followup, Das Labyrinth. He asked a respected composer of the time, Peter von Winter, to write the music. The sequel brings all the familiar characters forward in time and renews the battle between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night (one guess as to who wins this round).
The opera gathered dust in the archives for a couple of centuries, but it’s finally coming off the shelf: Next summer Das Labyrinth (or The Magic Flute, Part 2) will be performed at the world-renowned Salzburg Festival.
Olin Chism is a veteran classical music critic and arts writer serving the North Texas community. He currently reviews for the Star-Telegram and KERA’s Art and Seek blog.