Symbolism, Themes, and Criticisms
by Luke Howard
It’s not easy to tease out the symbolism and themes of The Magic Flute in their entirety because they will resonate differently with each viewer. They are interconnected, complex, and dependent on context and individual experience for their interpretations. But some overarching themes do rise easily to the surface, including numerology, Masonic symbolism, and the praise of higher virtues. And along, the way, The Magic Flute has attracted some notable criticism as well.
Some of the symbolism invoked in The Magic Flute is overt, especially the use of the number three as a Masonic symbol independent of its Christian interpretation. There are, for instance, the groupings of the Three Genii, Three Ladies, and three flats in the key (E-flat) of the opera, and other references to multiples of three with direct numerological significance to Freemasory. A knocking rhythm, three times in succession, is an integral part of Masonic ritual, and it must have surprised Viennese Masons in the first audiences to hear, in the middle of the overture, a three-fold repetition of three chords. (The rhythm of this passage was peculiar to the ritual of the Vienna lodge.)
The issue of Sein vs. Schein, which would normally be a positive theme in an operatic plot line, has also led to some critiques of The Magic Flute and charges of racism and misogyny. The comments of the priests and Sarastro about the weakness of women, and the character of Monostatos (who is dark-skinned) might lead some to perceive underlying biases in the characterizations. From the audience’s point of view, these might be part of the test between reality and appearance. Is this what the priests actually believe, or are the positing the commonly held assumptions of the day precisely so they can be challenged and rejected by Mozart, through Tamino? Do Mozart and Schikaneder present a despicable dark-skinned character not as a representation of their own racial prejudices, but as a stereotype they can then contest?
Most of the claims of misogyny in the opera surround the Queen of the Night (sometimes thought to be a parody of the Empress Maria Theresa, who was vehemently opposed to Freemasonry). The portrayal of the Queen of the Night and the Three Ladies is then generalized to refer to all women. So how does Mozart challenge it? In one of the most endearing duets from the opera we hear the words “Mann und Weib, Weib und Mann, Reichen an di Gottheit an” (“Husband and Wife, Wife and Husband, Reach up to and attain godhood.”)
That this duet is sung by the “everyman” Papageno and the “princess” Pamina shows that the sentiment cuts across social hierarchies and applies to all. Neither man nor woman is superior to the other.
Significantly, it is Pamina who leads Tamino into the temple, not the other way around. They are initiated into the mysteries of the female god Isis (not the male Osiris). Together, Pamina and Tamino form a god-couple, modeled after Isis and Osiris. In this regard, the name of Monostatos (meaning, “stands alone”) is significant, since he has none of the traits that will qualify him for the kind of godhood that Tamino and Pamina inherit. The Magic Flute suggests it is man and woman together, not man alone, that qualify for the highest level of godhood.
Just like the claims of sexism, the racism in the opera at first seems to reinforce racial stereotypes before subtly undermining them. The dark-skinned Monostatos plays the race card himself when Pamina rejects his advances, asking her “Is it my black skin that repulses you?” The “everyman” character of Papageno is also at first frightened by the dark skin. But Papageno very quickly comes to terms with it. Even Sarastro makes it clear that what is despicable about Monostatos is his character and his actions, not the color of his skin. In fact, he shows Monostatos more mercy than he deserves, and has already given him more authority within the temple than Monostatos’s character warrants.
Just as the Queen of the Night is not evil because of her gender, Monostatos is not evil because of his skin color. This is made explicit in the staging and costuming for this production. By using tattoos to darken Monostato’s skin, the designer has shown that Monostatos has brought his despicableness upon himself, not inherited it. The design notes for this production include the following observation: “Culture determines status, not some absolute pre-ordained hierarchy. Monostatos once thrived in another society where his complete body-markings were a sign a prestige and honor. Having been defeated, his outer appearance now identifies him as someone to be loathed and detested. In a vain attempt to distract from his indelible tatuage, he dresses in all sorts of colorful indigenous fabrics. Ultimately, his “blackness” is not something that he was born with, but something that he acquired in life, and he cannot find peace.”
Why make the character of Monostatos dark-skinned in the first place, then? Perhaps it was precisely to challenge the initial racist assumptions that people of the day would have made. One of Mozart’s Masonic lodge brothers in Vienna was a black African, and it is very unlikely the composer would’ve gone out of his way to perpetuate racist stereotypes in a deeply Masonic opera when a lodge brother was dark-skinned. Rather than making Monostatos merely a villain, he can be a villain who also teaches the audience that they should judge character on behavior, not skin color.
Sarastro, thought by some commentators to be misogynistic, is not the evil villain the Queen made him out to be in Act I. But neither is he the model we are invited to follow. He is the last in a long line of the celibate priests—a good man, but with character flaws. He is an imperfect leader, one who (like Thomas Jefferson) owned slaves and made mistakes. He admits to kidnapping Pamina (not usually acceptable behavior), but it was to save her from the destructive influence of her mother and allow her to reach her highest potential—he used a bad means to a good end. But he will be replaced by the god-couple of Tamino and Pamina, ushering in a new enlightened generation. What Mozart says with Sarastro and the priests (all of whom are, like Monostatos, apparently unmarried) is that the brotherhood of Freemasonry as it stood then was a good institution, but it was not the ideal, and we should strive for a better way. Even Papageno, the “everyman,” has a wife at the end of the opera, presumably granting him potential to exceed Sarastro in power, should he so choose.
Viewing the story of The Magic Flute as a parable about separating appearance from reality, truth from innuendo, and wisdom from bigotry and falsehood, will help almost every aspect of the story make sense. It is not really a Masonic opera as such. It is rather a moral opera that uses Masonic emblems and symbols in the process of telling a story about achieving the highest potential within us. But the end of the story, with both man and woman raised to godhood together, was radical even for 18th-century Viennese Masons. And for the rest of that first audience, it must have seemed like nothing more than a curious flight of fancy.
Dr. Howard began his formal music studies in Sydney, Australia, where he received the Bachelor of Music Education degree with an emphasis in piano. He then earned a Master of Arts in Musicology from BYU in 1994, and a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Michigan in 1997. Dr. Howard has previously served on the music faculties at Minnesota State University Moorhead and the University of Missouri Kansas City. In 2002, he joined the faculty of the School of Music at Brigham Young University where he teaches music history and Western cultural history.