This piece first appeared as a blog post on The Glimmerglass Festival’s website for the 2021 season, “Glimmerglass on the Grass.” Read it there.
A long time ago, in an opera far, far away…
What do Star Wars and The Magic Flute have in common? They are both archetypal “hero’s journeys” or “monomyths.” In these stories, the protagonist leaves home to go on an epic quest in a world unknown. They face challenges that lead to an ultimate battle. Emerging victorious and transformed, the hero returns home with a new worldview. You might have studied this in your high school English class with the Odyssey. (If this doesn’t ring a bell, consider the bildungsroman, a specific type of hero’s journey focused on the character’s coming of age. Think The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.)
In The Magic Flute, we start with Tamino – our Luke – already on his quest for Enlightenment. Like Luke, Tamino knows there’s something more out there in the galaxy. The ideals of the Enlightenment are the ways of the Jedi of the 1700s; truth, reason, logic, and science will help Tamino reach a higher level of self-realization, of oneness with The Force.
Of course, Tamino can’t complete this quest alone. Every hero’s journey needs a comedic sidekick. This character is a foil to the protagonist. He enhances the hero’s noble qualities and represents the common man at risk should the hero not succeed. Enter the beloved bird-catcher Papageno. Papageno’s only quest in life is to find a wife and a snack. Against his will, he is partnered with Tamino to help him reach his destiny.
We can compare Papageno to C-3PO or R2-D2, for they both provide comedy and allow the viewer to enter the world of the story. C-3PO asks clarifying questions and remarks on the action (usually in shock) so that the viewer knows how to feel about different events. In our production, Papageno is more analogous to Jar Jar Binks – a little daft.
So, with Papageno in tow, what stands in Tamino’s way? Tamino thinks it’s Sarastro, who kidnapped his destined lover, Princess Pamina. That’s what the Queen of the Night wants him to believe. She tries to entice Tamino to defeat Sarastro and save her daughter Pamina. In exchange, the Queen promises Pamina’s hand in marriage.
Plot twist: It’s actually the Queen of the Night who is the Anakin/Vader of this story. Once good, the Queen of the Night has succumbed to the Dark Side. Sure, Sarastro kidnapped Pamina, but only to protect her from her evil mother. The audience learns this at the same time as Tamino and Papageno, putting the “drama” in dramatic irony.
Sarastro helps Tamino distinguish between light and dark, as Yoda teaches Luke. Before Tamino and Luke can face their foes, they must both face trials that challenge their skills and their commitment to the light side. Only after completing this “training” are they equipped to save the world and reap their rewards. Sarastro saves Tamino from the powers of darkness, Tamino saves Pamina from the Queen, and Papageno is rewarded with a wife of his own. With darkness now vanquished, everyone basks in the glow of Enlightenment. Cue the dancing Ewoks.
If Star Wars isn’t your fandom, you can find the hero’s journey in many other books and movies. The hero’s journey is a common narrative trope (though maybe without Mozart and Schikaneder’s plot twist). Compare the plot elements of Flute with The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, The Wizard of Oz, or even Rocky or The Emperor’s New Groove . You can take a hero’s journey in a boxing ring in Philadelphia or in a galaxy far, far away.
(Ready for your own hero’s journey? Play as Tamino in The Flute, a mobile game based on the first scene of the opera. Take down dragons and other creatures on your quest to save Princess Pamina. You can download the game for iOS or Android.)
You Staged The Magic Flute How?!
Think the Star Wars parallels are a stretch? Think again. The Norwegian National Opera set their 2015 production of Flute squarely in George Lucas’s universe, and the production photos will make your jaw drop. Texas State University and Biola University have also taken an intergalactic approach to the opera.
Other fun and wild spins on The Magic Flute include Pacific Opera Project’s Nintendo-inspired production with Tamino as Link and Pamina as Zelda. (Don’t worry, Mario and Peach are also on stage as Papageno and Papagena.) Get a taste of “SuperFlute” with this clip, then settle in to watch the whole production with commentary from Artistic Director Josh Shaw.
Theatre technicians will love the projections in this production from Komische Oper Berlin and British arts company 1927. Staged against a giant blank wall, the opera comes to life through projected animations that combine the aesthetics of black-and-white silent films with 1930s German Expressionism. It first premiered in Berlin in 2012 and has since been staged by opera companies around the world over the last decade.
The Magic Flute has also been adapted for film. The classic is Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish-language made-for-TV movie, a light-hearted departure from his typical dark, psychological subject matter. Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 direction sets The Magic Flute in a town of rubble during World War I. Tamino is a soldier, and Papageno is at war too, but still among the birds. He takes care of the canaries sent into trenches to detect gas attacks. Coming up is a modern take in which a young music student at Mozart’s conservatory in Austria finds a forgotten passageway into the world of The Magic Flute. Currently in post-production, producers anticipate a European release at the end of 2022; hopefully an American release will follow.