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Whose Magic Flute is it, anyway?

By William Gibbons


One of Mozart’s most enduringly popular operas, The Magic Flute has captivated audiences since its premiere in Vienna in 1791. Centered on the struggles of the heroic Prince Tamino, his beloved Pamina, and the wise Sarastro (with help and comic relief from the birdcatcher Papageno) against the Queen of the Night, we know The Magic Flute as a classic tale of the battle between good and evil, or perhaps between enlightenment and ignorance.

Mozart’s Autograph Manuscript of The Magic Flute

But it hasn’t always been that way. Depending on who we ask, and when we ask them, The Magic Flute might be a very different work. In might not involve the same characters, or it might be about a clichéd love triangle. Some of the music might be taken from other Mozart operas, or some of it might not even be by Mozart at all. We tend to assume that audiences in the past saw the “classic” operas just as we see them today, but for many years that was the exception rather than the rule. So how did we get from there to where we are now?

Schikanader in the role of Papageno. This image is from the front page of the original published libretto for the opera.
One way to answer that question is by following an opera in a variety of productions over time, charting the changes it makes along the way and drawing some conclusions about why those changes happen and what they might mean. In other words, by looking at productions of The Magic Flute (for example), we get new insights into the changing mindset that audiences, critics, and theater directors had about “fidelity” or “authenticity” in older music. We might fruitfully look for these types of shifts in any time and place, but I’m personally drawn to the world-renowned opera houses of nineteenth-century Paris.

At that time, it was common to heavily adapt theatrical works to conform to their own dramatic standards, remaking older works into forms that audiences would easily understand and appreciate. As hard to imagine as it might be today, in an age when most theaters go out of their way to be as faithful as possible to the music and text of “classical” works, that tendency extended to Mozart’s works, including The Magic Flute. In fact, it actually wasn’t until the early 20th century, over a century after it was written, that The Magic Flute appeared in anything like its original version in Paris.

The first attempt to bring this work to Parisian audiences was in 1801, a decade after it was composed. Appreciation for Mozart’s music, and for Viennese classicism in general, was on the rise in France, and it seemed an opportune moment to begin exposing French audiences to his theatrical music. The many memorable tunes of The Magic Flute made it an ideal choice, but the plot, by Emanuel Schikaneder—who also owned the theater and played the first Papageno—was a bit more esoteric than the standard fare.

And so Les Mystères d’Isis (“The Mysteries of Isis”) was born. The original text was scrapped, although the new story did borrow a few characters and general concepts. Musically the adapters applied a lighter pen to the work; the point was bringing Mozart’s music to Paris, after all. Still, some music was cut, and some from Mozart’s other operas—still unknown in France at the time—was added in. Even odder, the work also contains some music by Haydn, another master of the Viennese classical tradition.

Title page of Les Mystères d’Isis.

Les Mystères was a modest hit, if not quite a blockbuster, and it was occasionally repeated until 1827. Over the next few decades the French mostly lost interest in The Magic Flute, preferring instead to hear adapted French (and occasionally Italian) versions of Mozart’s other operas, especially Don Giovanni, which was a Parisian favorite for most of the nineteenth century.

It wasn’t until 1865 that The Magic Flute reappeared (now called La Flûte enchantée), in a new version commissioned by the director Léon Carvalho, who was renowned as a “faithful and devoted restorer” of eighteenth-century operas, in one critic’s words. And, true enough, Mozart’s music was treated with obvious respect here—the composer was just too famous by the 1860s for any director to do otherwise. The extra music found in Les Mystères disappeared and the cuts to the score were restored.

Title page of the 1865 French version of The Magic Flute (piano/vocal score). Note that the name of the original librettist (Emanuel Schikaneder) is never mentioned, but the French translators are.

Yet the opera’s text was another matter entirely. Schikaneder’s name was nowhere to be found on the published title page (above), and the plot still had much more in common with nineteenth-century French operas than with his original text. The central drama was a love triangle between Tamino, now a humble fisherman/musician; Pamina, recast as the beautiful and chaste girl next door; and the seductive and magical Queen of the Night. (Echoes of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser are almost certainly intentional…)

Critics and audiences were wowed by this new translation. People unfamiliar with Schikaneder’s text assumed it was “authentic,” and those in the know claimed this “translation” was much better than the original, anyway. This version appeared again in 1875 again to great acclaim, but a third production in 1893 prompted more questions than cheers.

By the 1890s, a number of critics—including many of the most famous composers of the day, like Fauré, Dukas, Saint-Saëns, and Debussy—were calling loudly for more historically informed versions of earlier operas, including Mozart’s. Eventually they found a theater director who was clever or crazy enough to follow their suggestions: Albert Carré.

A front-page picture of Edmond Clément as Tamino in the 1909 Magic Flute production, taken from the French magazine Musica.

In 1909 Carré commissioned a new and highly publicized French translation of The Magic Flute that would bring the work as close as possible to the German original. And he more or less got what he asked for, which was both good and bad for his production. While those in favor of historically informed performances were thrilled, others were much less so. Some of the latter group were genuinely fond of the older version, and others found the original plot to be either ridiculous or simply unintelligible.

But as skeptical as some critics and listeners were about the “faithful” 1909 version, they mostly realized that historically informed performances of Mozart’s operas would soon become the new standard. In just over a century, audiences approached “classic” operas in a totally different way. Before, they had adapted older operas to their tastes; now they had learned to adapt themselves to these older works.

William Gibbons is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Texas Christian University. This blog post is derived from his recent Opera Quarterly article, “(De)Translating Mozart: The Magic Flute in 1909 Paris.” His book on this general topic, Building the Operatic Museum: Eighteenth-Century Opera in Fin-de-siècle Paris, is forthcoming in June 2013.

Since its inception in 1983, The Opera Quarterly has earned the enthusiastic praise of opera lovers and scholars alike for its engagement within the field of opera studies. In 2005, David J. Levin, a dramaturg at various opera houses and critical theorist at the University of Chicago, assumed the executive editorship of The Opera Quarterly, with the goal of extending the journal’s reputation as a rigorous forum for all aspects of opera and operatic production.

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Image credit: all images courtesy of William Gibbons.

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