The Magic Flute

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder

Endlessly inventive, charmingly fantastical and utterly unique, Mozart’s final opera is a profound yet lighthearted tale of romantic love, spiritual transcendence and the beguiling art of birdcatching. The internationally acclaimed ensemble cast is led by Rory Macdonald, an exciting young conductor with “a superb natural physical talent” (, and includes lyric tenor Alek Shrader, a “stylish, vivid” Mozartian (The New York Times); Heidi Stober, a soprano with “rare vivacity of voice and personality” (Houston Chronicle); Nathan Gunn, “a singer with unmistakable star power” (Opera News); Kristinn Sigmundsson, lauded for his performance in San Francisco Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier (2007); and, in the opera’s most virtuoso role, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, who is “in demand everywhere as The Queen of the Night” (The New York Times). Singing the final two performances as Tamino is tenor Norman Reinhardt, "tall, handsome and virile of voice" (Opera Today). In a new production by visual artist Jun Kaneko and sung in English, The Magic Flute is perfect for the whole family.

View a slideshow of Jun Kaneko's production design sketches and models for The Magic Flute by clicking on the image below. Then click on the bottom-left play button to start the slideshow, or use the arrows on the image to scroll.

View a video by NET Nebraska about production designer Jun Kaneko and his work; including interview footage with the artist.

Sung in English with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 3 hours including one intermission

Co-production with Washington National Opera, Opera Carolina, Opera Omaha and Lyric Opera of Kansas City

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Audio credit: Audio excerpts are from the October 27, 2007 performance of The Magic Flute for Families with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles


Pamina Heidi Stober
Tamino Alek Shrader
Tamino Norman Reinhardt * July 6, 8
Papageno Nathan Gunn
The Queen of the Night Albina Shagimuratova *
Sarastro Kristinn Sigmundsson
First Lady Melody Moore
Second Lady Lauren McNeese
Third Lady Renée Tatum
Monostatos Greg Fedderly
The Speaker David Pittsinger
First Spirit Etienne Julius Valdez *
Second Spirit Joshua Reinier
Third Spirit John Walsh
First Armored Man Beau Gibson
Second Armored Man Jordan Bisch

Production Credits

Conductor Rory Macdonald
Director Harry Silverstein
Production Designer Jun Kaneko
Lighting Designer Paul Pyant
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer Lawrence Pech

* San Francisco Opera Debut


 A young prince named Tamino is being chased by a serpent through a valley. After he falls unconscious, three ladies emerge from a temple and kill the snake. Tamino awakens and assumes the snake was killed by a good-natured bird catcher named Papageno who has just arrived on the scene. When Papageno accepts the credit, the three ladies reappear and place a padlock on his lips. They then show Tamino a picture of Pamina, the beautiful daughter of their mistress, the Queen of the Night. He immediately falls in love with her. They then tell him she has been kidnapped by the evil magician Sarastro. The Queen appears and asks Tamino to rescue Pamina, which he agrees to do. The ladies free Papageno and give him a magic set of chimes. They also give Tamino a magic flute and send the two off on their mission.
     Pamina is being guarded by a villain named Monostatos, who is attempting to seduce her when Papageno wanders in. Frightened, Monostatos runs off, leaving Papageno to tell Pamina that her rescuer is close by.
Tamino is being led through Sarastro’s realm by three boys. He tries to enter the three temple doors, but is turned away from two. At the third, he is greeted by a priest, who tells him the Queen is really the evil one and the good Sarastro was merely trying to get Pamina away from her mother’s dark influence. Tamino rushes off to find Pamina; a moment later, she and Papageno enter, pursued by Monostatos. Papageno plays his magic bells, rendering the villain and his henchmen harmless. Sarastro enters and tells Pamina she is free to marry but not to return to her mother. Tamino is brought in by Monostatos, who demands a reward from Sarastro but instead gets punished.
Sarastro informs the priests of Isis and Osiris about what is going on and explains that Tamino and Papageno are about to undergo the rites of initiation to determine if they are worthy to enter the Temple of Light. Tamino, who is brave, and Papageno, who is not, receive contradictory counsel from the priests and the Queen of the Night’s three ladies, but they decide to follow the priests, who take away the flute and bells from the pair. Monostatos attempts one last seduction of Pamina, but he is interrupted by the Queen who comes to her daughter and demands that she murder Sarastro. Instead, Pamina goes to Sarastro and begs forgiveness for her mother; he agrees, declaring that only love, not vengeance, will lead to peace and happiness. As part of their tests, both Tamino and Papageno are sworn to silence. An old woman approaches Papageno declaring that she is really eighteen years old and in love with him. She runs away, but three boys appear and give back to Tamino and Papageno the magic flute and bells. Pamina arrives, but she misunderstands Tamino’s silence and is heartbroken. Sarastro reassures her, but she is not comforted. Papageno says that he wants a sweetheart, and the old woman returns and reveals herself to be a young woman in disguise. Her name: Papagena. As soon as she reveals herself, however, a priest orders her away.  Meanwhile, Pamina is about to commit suicide using the dagger her mother gave her to kill Sarastro. The three boys stop her and take her to Tamino, who is about to undergo the final trial. Pamina and Tamino go through the ordeal together, emerging unscathed thanks to the magic flute. Papageno rather reluctantly attempts to hang himself. Seeing this, the three boys suggest he play his magic bells. He does and Papagena appears; the two declare their intent to raise a large family. Meanwhile, Monostatos has joined forces with the Queen of the Night, but their plan to kill Sarastro is foiled by an earthquake. The opera ends with Sarastro, Tamino, and Pamina celebrating the victory of light over darkness.

Love Conquers All

Gavin Plumley

What are we to make of The Magic Flute? A comedy with a serious vein or an amalgam of conflicting styles? Mozart’s last opera has always been something of an anomaly. Smashing together various strands, with murderous threats and obscure rituals, Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder created a very strange opera indeed. But many of those intriguing facets were part and parcel of the suburban theater company for which the piece was written.

Posthumous portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Barbara Krafft
Bridgeman Art Library

Rather than pandering to their audience, Schikaneder and Mozart created as complex a morality tale as any of the composer’s previous operas. But, without the moral compromise of the Da Ponte comedies, Mozart’s bawdy farce finally presents romantic love in its purest form.
By the time that Mozart wrote The Magic Flute for the Viennese suburbs, he was highly adept at writing commissioned work. He was raised in Salzburg, then not strictly part of Austria but ruled over by the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, where, like his father, Mozart was on the Archbishop’s music staff. Given his children’s considerable talents, however, Mozart’s father Leopold took the opportunity to parade his children around the courts and cities of Europe. Yet, having enjoyed success on tour, the returns to Salzburg were always an anti-climax. At home Mozart had little opportunity to spread his wings beyond writing endless masses and anthems. He had to escape.
The composer’s initial destination was Vienna. As the heart of the Habsburg Empire and the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor, the city enjoyed an unparalleled cultural life. It had opera, churches, and numerous potential patrons. Mozart attempted to find employment there in 1773, but the plan failed and he returned to Salzburg with his tail between his legs. Over the next eight years, he repeatedly tried to find the job that would release him from the Prince Archbishop’s clutches. In 1781, Mozart went to Munich for the premiere of his opera Idomeneo, and then caught up with touring Archbishop’s retinue as it arrived in Vienna. When the court returned to Salzburg, Mozart stayed behind; it was to be the making of him and, indeed, Vienna.
At the time, Emperor Joseph II was making marked reforms across the Holy Roman Empire, aimed at diminishing the power of the church and the Jesuits in particular. While he inadvertently put many church musicians out of work, Vienna’s theaters flourished, as did an atmosphere of Enlightenment and entertainment. Having leased the theaters to outside producers, the Emperor then took over the central Burgtheater himself, employing his friend Count Rosenberg as director. The Emperor insisted on German-language works, an avoidance of opera seria, and a general predilection for comedy. As Mozart wrote to his father, Vienna was “the best place in the world for his profession.” This happy-go-lucky environment brought about Mozart’s first stage work for Vienna, the cheeky Abduction from the Seraglio and, after some wrangling, adaptation and kowtowing to Imperial demands, the controversial Marriage of Figaro.
But theatrical Vienna was not entirely focused on the politics and premieres at the Burgtheater. Around this time, the Emperor took a more lax approach to theaters outside the city walls. While Vienna is now a seamless sprawl from the center to the Vienna Woods, in Mozart’s day, the inner city was separated from the suburbs by a ring of medieval walls. Despite this marked division between city and outlying villages, the Emperor had sway over all of it. Within his new policy of “theater freedom,” the Emperor allowed for the establishment of three new auditoriums including the Freihaus-Theater (1787), southwest of Vienna.

Original playbill for The Magic Flute
Bridgeman Art Library
Each of these theaters had its own traditions, not least the Freihaus, run by the spirited impresario Emanuel Schikaneder. He and Mozart first met in Salzburg, when Mozart contributed music to some of his touring productions. The pair subsequently met again in Vienna when Schikaneder mounted a new production of Abduction. And the actor-producer would certainly not have been far from Mozart’s mind when he pitched The Marriage of Figaro to the powers-that-be at Court; Schikaneder’s recent production of the play had been cause for much controversy.
Mozart was instantly attracted to these maverick tendencies and, although connections to Court had proved fruitful, Mozart craved independence—much as he had done in Salzburg. But rather than just wishing for new avenues of interest, the Freihaus soon became a necessity. Following the death of Emperor Josef II in 1790, Mozart was forced to look for work. Coronation celebrations for the new Emperor, Leopold II, provided a commission for a new opera called La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), but it was not enough. The rent was due for Mozart and his wife.
Calling in a favor from his friend the tenor Benedikt Schack— Mozart’s first Tamino —Schikaneder’s theater troupe provided that financial lifeline. The move away from the splendor of the Burgtheater in the center of town to the suburban theater could not have been more marked.
It was called the Freihaus because, thanks to the owners, it was free from all taxes. In the great courtyard there was a garden with allées, flowerbeds and a wooden pavilion. The theater accommodated 1,000 people and was equipped with all the necessary requisites— safety, comfort, and stage machinery. Since, in this enormous place, there was no lack of room, the director and most of the company lived in the Freihaus.
The audience at the Freihaus was far less pretentious, and it was the eating and drinking that most people remembered, including the poet Ignaz Franz Castelli.
I had to sit for three hours, bathed in heat and sweat and impregnated by the garlicky fumes of the smoked meats being consumed. Finally the lamps were dimmed and my sun started to rise. The musicians came into the pit one by one, those lucky ones, who can sit there every day.
The sun was, of course, The Magic Flute itself. Yet despite Castelli’s admiration, Schikaneder and Mozart had written something that was far from rarefied. Unlike Mozart’s previous highborn comedies, The Magic Flute had the feeling of a ribald farce. Schikaneder himself played Papageno, prompting endless encores of his arias from a loyal audience. Papageno enters the opera untroubled by life, and his easy temperament works its way through the piece. It feels only natural that he will in turn find his mate in Papagena, who is just as smilingly silly as he is (and driven by sex). In time, their charming music box transforms serious individuals into much meeker specimens; the magic of the Freihaus was at work.
But, alongside the smoked meats, the drink, and Papageno’s japes and jaunts, there is a more sombre side to The Magic Flute. If Papageno is characterised by quixotic and dancing tunes, Tamino is ardent, heroic and serious. Rather than just creating contrast with Papageno’s world, however, this yin and yang has a very clear moral point to make. Like in The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, love is something to be earned, cherished, and respected. Frivolity is all very well and good but, as Mozart had already pointed out, it can lead to the grave. Even the larky Papageno has to learn some restraint. The trials of fire and water through which Tamino and Pamina must pass in order to reach enlightenment and marriage are manifestations of the trials and tribulations of our own daily lives.

Autograph score for The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Bridgeman Art Library
Further jeopardy is added by the Queen of the Night. She occupies her own inimitable sound world. Mozart created the role as a vehicle for his sister-in-law Josepha Weber, and he wrote a wild coloratura showcase. Weber had been the prima donna at the Freihaus Theater since 1789 and, as a central part of Schikaneder’s troupe, she required a major role in the new opera. But while Mozart pandered to such demands, creating tailored roles for both Weber and Schikaneder, they form an essential part of the opera’s fabric. The Queen of the Night first appears to Tamino, cajoling him in a style that mimics his own. But when Sarastro finally impresses himself upon the story and points the way to resolution, the Queen threatens to kill Sarastro. But through the gleeful and pure choruses of his followers and his contrasting sagacity, Sarastro makes the passage to salvation clear.The trials he sets for his newest disciples have religious connotations, taken from the book of Isaiah:
When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
By having faith and turning away from anger and frivolity, the rising sun greets Tamino and Pamina.
In many ways, this conflation of jollity and ardour, murderous intent and religious sobriety has the feel of a review show. Each character has a turn, an aria, a duet, all presented with great flair. But, like the various characters in his suburban fairy-cum-morality tale, Mozart is able to assume almost any role and when the opera opened on September 30, 1791 (with Mozart directing from the keyboard), it was an enormous success. The composer was in his musical prime. The restrictions of the Salzburg court had prevented him from displaying this nascent skill and, indeed, the political minefield of the Burgtheater— however liberal the Emperor and his staff— had often stymied his intent. Within the collaborative freedom of the Freihaus, Mozart was able to explore the full range of his talents.
The sheer post-modern vivacity of The Magic Flute—its collocation of various styles and forms, the seriousness with which he presented religious and Masonic enlightenment, and the ultimate balm of sexual and romantic love— points to a new vein of creativity. Sadly, it was not to last. The happiness of the opera’s final moments and Mozart’s suburban success proved cruelly short-lived; Mozart was dead two months later. But in those last weeks of his brief life, the composer presented the world with a most dazzling sun, burning through the garlic and sweat of the suburbs. Neither the jollity of Papageno, Tamino’s ardour, the Queen’s anger, or the wisdom of Sarastro wins through. Each is balanced by the other and, in the end, love conquers all.
Gavin Plumley is a British writer and musicologist specialising in the history and culture of Vienna.

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The Magic Opera

Julian Budden

If there is an opera of Mozart’s that deserves the Wagnerian term “Music of the Future,” it is surely Die Zauberflöte. None of the great composers had attempted anything like it before. A fairy-tale pantomime that reveals itself as a Pilgrim’s Progress of the Enlightenment, it far transcends the operatic category in which it was conceived.

Until then, “magic” opera had been a genre of modest pretensions, the province of minor practitioners such as Wranitzky, and already on its way to becoming fashionable with a middle-class public. It flourished at the suburban theaters of Vienna, one of which—Das Freyhaustheater auf der Wieden—had been acquired in 1784 by Emanuel Schikaneder, an enterprising theatrical manager whose acquaintance Mozart had made in Salzburg, and for whose troupe he had written incidental music to Gebler’s play König Thamos as early as 1773, adding to it six years later. By 1791 both he and Schikaneder had become fellow-Masons; and when in the spring of 1791 the manager invited him to set his libretto, Die Zauberflöte, Mozart accepted readily enough (“I am always for German opera,” he had once written to his father, “even if it means more trouble for me”).About the proposed venue he may well have been less enthusiastic, but by this time he had little choice in the matter.
Opera, it has been said, is a political gesture—a monstrous generalization certainly; but for that particular fin-de-siècle it has more than a grain of truth. Two years before becoming sole emperor, Joseph II had established the National German Opera (Singspiel) in the capital; nor did his interest in opera and drama cease with his accession. it was he who commissioned Die Entführung aus dem Serail from a Mozart whose metropolitan fame was yet to be established. If the finished result fell short of his hopes (“Too many notes, my dear Mozart!”) he continued to support the composer, whose music embodied the “enlightened” ideals that he himself was endeavoring to realize in political terms. The Viennese performances of Figaro and Don Giovanni took place because of him. He even granted Mozart the position of Chamber Music Composer to the Imperial Court left vacant by the death of Gluck in 1787—though at a reduced salary. In 1790, with his policies lying in ruins about him—the Belgian nobles in revolt; the people alienated by the war with Turkey, which put up the price of food; the upper classes terrified into political reaction by the French Revolution—one of the last acts of the dying emperor was to command the performance of Così fan tutte at the Imperial Burgtheater. His successor, Leopold II, while sharing many of his brother’s political aims, was shrewder in his tactics. He knew that the only way to win friends was by dissociating himself from everyone who had enjoyed Joseph’s favor—not least the two perpetrators of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte was expelled from Vienna as an undesirable alien. Mozart was refused the post of second Imperial Kappelmeister, which would nave ensured a comfortable living for himself and his family. Politics, it is true, were not the only, perhaps not even the principal reason in the last three years of his short life Mozart fell on evil days; domestic fecklessness certainly played its part. But it is significant that for his last public concert given at the Himmelpfortgasse the list of aristocratic subscribers was reduced to one—Baron van Swieten, a well-known supporter of the late emperor. In the still more repressive reign of Francis I the term “Josephinian” was held to be almost synonymous was “Jacobin.” No need to wonder, then, that for his last Viennese opera Mozart should have been banished from the city center to the suburbs.
The first performance of Die Zauberflöte took place on September 30, 1791. Mozart himself directed from the forte-piano; Schikaneder played Papageno; and the rest of the cast included Mozart’s sister-in-law Josepha Hofer as the Queen of the Night and the two singer-composers Franz Gerl and Benedikt Schack and Sarastro and Tamino respectively. Among the mute extras was the actor Karl Ludwig Gieseke, who would later claim authorship of the entire libretto—whether justifiably or not. Certainly Mozart could not complain of the opera’s reception. Night after night the theater was packed, so he told his wife. On October 13 “I called in the carriage for Salieri and Mme Cavalieri [Mozart’s first Constanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail] and drove them to by box . . . You can hardly imagine how charming they were and how much they liked not only my music, but the libretto and everything . . . Salieri listened and watch most attentively and from the overture to the final chorus there was not a single number which did not call forth from him a ‘bravo!’ or “bello!’. It seemed as if they could not thank me enough for my kindness . . . . When it was over I drove them home.” So much for the notion that Salieri was mortally envious of Mozart! If anything, the envy had been entirely on Mozart’s side, resenting as he did his colleague’s uncanny knack of securing prestigious commissions. By this time they were evidently on the best of terms. But that mention of the carriage gives one pause for thought. To maintain the equivalent of a limousine together with private chauffeur is not much help in liquidating one’s debts.
Not everyone would share Salieri’s admiration of the libretto. Indeed, many believe that the plot was changed at the last moment, either because in its original form it bore too close a resemblance to Wenzel Müller’s Kaspar der Fagottist [Kaspar the Bassoonist], which had gone into production at the Leopoldstadttheater (E.J. Dent: Mozart’s Operas) or because it was in danger of giving away too many Masonic secrets (Brigid Brophy: Mozart the Dramatist). How, Miss Brophy goes on to ask, can it make sense in the context of a fairy tale for the forces of evil represented by the Queen of the Night and her three ladies to voice sentiments of irreproachable morality during the first third of the opera? Surely the scheme must have been reversed, but at too late a stage to prevent first intentions from showing through. Against this, Alfred Einstein’s contention (Mozart, His Character, His Work) that the plot makes complete sense as it stands might be dismissed as German reverence for a Meisterstück [masterpiece]. But a moment’s consideration will show that there are powerful arguments on his side as well.
Die Zauberflöte was composed at leisure over several months, not run op in haste like Mozart’s other late opera, La Clemenza di Tito; nor does it seem to have cost the composer undue effort (“I’ve written an aria for my new opera out of sheer boredom,” he wrote to Constanze at Baden, no doubt with a touch of exaggeration). If there had been a last-minute change of plan, with all the trouble that this would have involved, he would not have failed to tell her about it. Moreover, those who, like Miss Brophy, attempt to explore the literary background of Mozart’s operas and its bearing on his music would do well to begin with the writers whom he is known to have read and admired—notably that trendsetter of the German Enlightenment, Christian Martin Wieland, whose collection of Oriental folk tales entitled Djinnistan is the immediate source of Schikaneder’s (or Giesecke’s) libretto. In his best-known work, Die Abderiten, a satirical parable of contemporary Germany, to which Mozart refers enthusiastically in one of his letters, Wieland uses a deceptively simple, low-keyed narrative to make some very subtle and sophisticated points. Mozart and his librettist can be seen to do likewise when they have the Queen’s three ladies extol the virtues of truth, courage, and constancy. In the course of the opera Tamino is won over from a conventional creed that accepts the all-too-human emotions of hate and vengefulness to a better one in which they have no place at all. But all movements based on creeds, however harmful in their effects, must pay at least lip service to the basic social virtues, otherwise they would not cohere as movements at all. A philosophy of evil is a contradiction in terms. The queen herself could hardly hope to enlist Tamino’s support by appealing to his worst instincts. Unless the change of perspective had been envisaged from the start, the opera’s message, which is as relevant to our own day as it was to Mozart’s, could not have been conveyed. Nor is the apparent amorality of the three genii, who seem to take first one side then the other, in any way illogical. They are surely the guardians of music, symbolized by the flute and the bells, and music is at the service of all nations and all creeds. But those who obey its innermost spirit will sooner or later find themselves in the realm of light—a belief entirely worthy of one who was both a musician and a Mason. No wonder he was furious with a spectator who refused to take the opera seriously: “I called him a Papageno and cleared off. But I don’t think the idiot understood my remark.” Significantly, Goethe, himself a Mason, not only approved of the plot but began a sequel to it that, alas, he never completed.
True, there are aspects that may seem a little puzzling to the uninitiated (the numerology, for instance) and even dated. The excessive emphasis on secrecy must be understood in the context of a time when Freemasons were subject to persecution by the authorities. Here and there an anti-feminine bias rises to the surface, especially when the Queen of the Night is mentioned. But this is firmly countered in the scene of the trial by fire and water, where Pamina assumes command (“Ich selbe führe dich . . . “). For some people Sarastro remains a problem. The high priest of universal benevolence was supposedly based on Ignaz von Born, spiritual head of the Viennese Masonic lodges, but he nevertheless sentences Monostatos to seventy-seven lashes on the soles of the feet; indeed, an English critic of some eminence has described him as a sadist! And one may be pardoned for wondering how he could have been so imprudent as to entrust Pamina to the care of one “whose spiritual soul is as black as his fact.” But I believe there is an explanation.
Like most of his German contemporaries, Mozart knew his Shakespeare, as a reference to Hamlet in a letter to his father written during the composition of Idomeneo makes clear. It has even been conjectured that he intended making an operatic setting of The Tempest. For this there is not the slightest evidence. Nonetheless, if the characters in Die Zauberflöte are interpreted in the light of Shakespeare’s last play, they make very good sense. Tamino and Pamina are Ferdinand and Miranda, Sarastro is Prospero, Monostatos Caliban, whose master denounces him severely:
            Those most lying slave
            Whom stripes may not move, not kindness: I have used thee,
            Filth as thou art, with human care; and lodged thee
            In my own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
            The honor of my child.
And is it a coincidence that Monostatos, like Caliban, is conceived in essentially comic terms?
Die Zauberflöte is Mozart’s profoundest philosophical statement in music, made in the teeth of obstacles that many other composers would have found insuperable. It is not only the theatrical clumsiness and banal versification of the libretto that precludes the easy perfection of Figaro. Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte; there is also the primitive Singspiel convention with its spoken dialogue in place of recitative. The advantage of recitativo secco lies not so much in the continuity it provides between formal numbers (in fact it is the flimsiest of connecting tissue) but in its establishment of artificial convention against which the still greater artificialities of aria and ensemble can expand and flower without making the human drama seem any less real. In the three great Italian comedies, above all in Figaro, we find a self-consistent world whose characters define themselves by contact with each other. In Die Zauberflöte the definition is effected across differences of style and language, sometimes, as in the case of Sarastro, through single isolated phrases. The virtuoso fireworks of opera seria are confined to the Queen of the Night, whose arias raise the hard, tragic glitter of Donna Anna’s in Don Giovanni to a higher power. Papageno, the child of nature, expresses himself in catch Austrian tunes such as one finds in the homelier Singspiele of Dittersdorf and Schenk. Monostatos’s aria carries overtones of the chattering Turkish style (though without Turkish percussion) that we associate with Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The two men in armor speak from the heart of the Lutheran tradition at its most austere. No less striking is the diversity of forms, few of which owe anything to the prevailing Italian manner. Many pieces are simple and strophic with a directness that only the greatest composers can afford. Others evolve with a freedom of design for which one searches in vain for an eighteenth-century precedent. It is possible that the duo-dramas of Benda, which Mozart heard and admired at Mannheim in 1777, and even Haydn’s recitative-opera L’Isola Disabitata may have left their mark on the extraordinary dialogue between Tamino and the priest who converts him, but the result is wholly original. Likewise the main theme of the overture does indeed echo that of the sonata by Clementi that he played in competition with Mozart in 1781, but only for the first two bars. It is the second two with their offbeat accents that stamp the theme with its original character and make possible that organic contrapuntal growth that is the overture’s distinguishing feature. At any rate, it is Clementi’s work that sounds like a pale reminiscence of Mozart’s.
In the years that followed the composer’s death, Die Zauberflöte continued to grow in popularity. Among its keenest admirers was Beethoven, who not only wrote a delightful set of variation for cello and piano on the duet “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen,” but in the course of his long battle with his brother’s widow over the guardianship of his nephew Karl repeatedly referred to her as the Queen of the Night and himself (of course) as Sarastro. Thanks to the opera’s example, the “magic” genre enjoyed a fresh boost during the first two decades of the following century, without, however, producing anything more lasting than Joseph Drechsler’s Bauer als Millionär, whose hit-tune, “Brüderlein fein,” is as well-known to the Austrian of today as is “Home, Sweet Home” to the Anglo-Saxon. In the meantime, Peter von Winter, a composer who would have been far readier than Salieri to poison Mozart, had written an operatic sequel to Die Zauberflöte in 1798 entitled Das Labyrinth, nowadays justly forgotten. A far worthier descendant of Mozart’s last opera can be found in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919). But perhaps the finest tribute to Die Zauberflöte cam from that ardent Wagnerite Bernard Shaw, when he declared that Sarastro’s were the only utterances in music worth to be put into the mouth of God.

The late Julian Budden, an internationally renowned musicologist, was a frequent contributor to San Francisco Opera Magazine and the author of a landmark three-volume series, The Operas of Verdi.

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Director's Note

Harry Silverstein

An opera production is a journey: a few travelers set out, they are joined by many more, arriving at the destination that is the performance. It may be begun by an impresario, who trusts an artist to make a thrilling design of one of the greatest operas ever written. They might be joined by a director, conductor, and a staff of theater artists who continue to build a concept based on how the project will look and how the story will be told. The journey certainly would be continued by a brilliant cast, orchestra, and stage crew, all of whom will collaborate to interpret a 221-year-old work of art in a fashion that is vitally interesting for a contemporary audience. As you have no doubt imagined, this was our journey.

Production design by Jun Kaneko

My part in it was a marvelous challenge. As a director I hope to understand what the composer and librettist wish to communicate with their original work and then interpret it in a way that is at once vital and clear, as well as exciting and entertaining to the public who come to experience it.

On this project I worked with a spectacularly talented fine artist, Jun Kaneko, and I had two responsibilities—to help inform the design process and its transfer to the stage, and to make certain that the story and music are one with that design. Jun has created a series of fantastic abstract animations, based on his elegant painting style and reflecting the emotions of the music, to create a thrilling setting using the most current projection technology. These animations are truly an innovative way of operatic storytelling, and we have aspired to create staging that is not in contrast or concurrent with the animations, but in concert with them. The goal of each aspect of this production has been inspired by and, hopefully, in service of the music.

The Magic Flute is also a journey, and has a number of stories to tell. A young man is on his quest for maturity, sent by his father to a magical land. He is led and misled, excited by his first experience of love and brushes with death, monsters, and magicians. Mozart and Schikaneder have marvelously imbued all the characters with such humanity. I asked Jun to consider that none of the people in Mozart’s world are either simply good or bad. Rather, their lives and needs have driven them to do what they feel is necessary and correct: Sarastro has committed an abduction, the Queen requires a murder of her daughter, the initiates are old and their order may not endure and they send a young couple through their dangerous trials. In the face of all of this, Tamino and Pamina are able to survive their quest for enlightenment and lead humanity to its new future. And as always, Mozart specially loves his peasant couple, Papageno and Papagena, who probably have the best chance of happiness through family, work, and a good glass of wine.

Storytelling exists for a reason. Theater adds the opportunity for us to come together and experience emotion. Jun has captured the humanity, truth, sublime beauty, and comedy of Mozart’s creation in his animations, costumes, and props. It is up to us, his fellow travelers, to build on this very special foundation and create an evolving life on stage that interprets these lessons and humor of the eighteenth century for our modern public, giving us all a journey to take together.

Happy travels!

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The Accidental Opera Designer

Most will agree that there is no more complicated art form than opera—a nexus of music and singing, dance, set and costume design, lighting, and a host of other artistic mediums. So it comes as no surprise that opera has a storied history of noted architects (Vetruvius, Gehry, Libeskind), fashion designers (Armani, Versace, Prada), and visual artists (Chagall, Hockney, Chihuly) who have created work for the stage. Mozart’s The Magic Flute in particular has a star-studded roster of artists who have designed productions, including Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schenkel in 1815 and, more recently, artists Marc Chagall, David Hockney, William Kentridge, and Maurice Sendak. This summer, San Francisco Opera adds another name to that list: Jun Kaneko.

Kaneko considers some of his designs for The Magic Flute

Born in Nagoya, Japan in 1942, Kaneko began an apprenticeship with the painter Satoshi Ogawa in his teens, and by twenty-one he was on his way to study art in the U.S. Here he encountered sculpture and began studying ceramics at the Chouinard Institute of Art in Los Angeles—the institution went on to become the California Institute of the Arts. Together with Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner, John Mason, and Jerry Rothman, Kaneko devoted himself to sculpture—this group is now known as the Contemporary Ceramics Movement in America.

Kaneko is perhaps best known for his series of large-scale pieces known as Dangos—the word means “dumpling” or “closed form” in Japanese. His work is included in more than forty museum collections, including the Smithsonian, and appears in several international solo and group exhibitions annually. The artist has realized several public art commissions around the world and holds an honorary doctorate from London’s Royal College of Art. He has taught at some of the nation’s leading art schools, including Scripps College and Rhode Island School of Design.

Kaneko began working in Omaha, Nebraska in 1981 at the invitation of his now wife Ree Kaneko to create experimental work at an industrial brick factory. In 1986 he moved to Omaha and has progressively renovated a complex of seven warehouses into ceramics, painting, and design studios.

In 2003, Opera Omaha approached Jun Kaneko to design a production of Madama Butterfly. Surprised at the invitation, Kaneko, who considers himself an outsider to the performing arts world, ultimately realized an interest in performing arts and accepted. The production received its premiere in 2006 and has since toured to Atlanta Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Dayton Opera, Vancouver Opera, and most recently Opera Carolina, among others. Kaneko went on to design a production of Fidelio for Opera Company of Philadelphia, which had its premiere in 2008.

San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley was having dinner at the home of some friends in 2009, and they showed him the book chronicling the creation of Kaneko’s Madama Butterfly at Opera Omaha. Gockley was not familiar with Kaneko or his work, but it sparked an idea for a new production of The Magic Flute and he reached out to the artist. Gockley recounts, “Once Jun’s interest in The Magic Flute was confirmed, I paid a visit to his large and impressive workshops in Omaha, and it was a revelation. I became very excited at the potential of Jun’s talent being put into service.”

San Francisco Opera Magazine sat down with Kaneko to discuss his approach to designing for the operatic stage and the creation of his latest production.
How did your involvement in your first opera production, Madama Butterfly, come about?
I wasn’t even thinking about it. The project just came to me. I’m not even really an opera fan. When I was a kid I saw opera, but not as an adult. Opera Omaha came and asked me if I would be interested in designing the production. I didn’t know what to think and I don’t know how it happened, because I’m definitely outside of the opera world. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure if they were even serious. It was a real shock. But a few days later I called them up and said that I would need a couple of months to make a decision. It’s a serious commitment and completely different from my studio work. In my studio, I’m like a dictator. I make all the decisions and I’m responsible for everything that happens. Opera on the other hand is a huge collaboration and that’s a totally different way of making art. I wasn’t sure if I could do that. But in the two months it took for me to make my decision, I came to the conclusion that this would be a really great opportunity to grow as an artist, and I agreed to do it.
How did you approach designing it?
I didn’t have any background to help trigger my imagination, but I knew that opera doesn’t happen without music. That’s a definite, and no one could argue with that. So I thought I would start by listening to the music, and not having an opera background turned out to be a huge advantage. I was wide open creatively. If you start off with a preconceived idea, it restricts your imagination and guides you in certain directions. Starting at zero really helped a lot.

I listened to the music two to three times every day for three months. That became a job in itself! I sat and actively listened, not just as background, and very slowly images started to come. I started drawing anything that came to my mind, and then I used those drawings to come up with two to three conceptual directions.

Then I created the storyboards, and narrowed it down. One was a traditional approach, and one was very contemporary. As I looked at it, the traditional one wasn’t really too challenging visually. The contemporary one had really interesting shapes and colors, but I thought there was a little too much distance between the opera and my design. So I wanted to try and shrink that gap and find the middle ground so there was some gesture of the traditional shapes but in a wildly contemporary way. I thought that was the way to go.
Were there any challenges to designing both sets and costumes?
I was drawing the sets and costumes simultaneously, so being able to design both was a huge advantage. Many times, the costume and set designer have different concepts and that can show easily. By doing both, I think I avoided a conceptual design gap.

At the end, everything­—music, sets, costumes—has to come out as one unified piece. If you become too aggressive with the visual side, it could destroy some of the musical sensitivity. So striking a balance between the musical and visual experience and the flow between the two from beginning to end is most crucial… it’s very tricky.

Kaneko working with director Harry Silverstein at a 2011 technical rehearsal


What do you think about being chosen to design this production of The Magic Flute?
I don’t know why David Gockley picked me. He hadn’t seen my previous opera productions, and his only experience with me was the Butterfly book. That’s a huge chance to take. It was another shock, but I was excited to try it and it was another opportunity to grow as an artist. It is rare for a visual artist to have the chance to design an opera production.
If you only listen to the music for inspiration, how do you learn the story, particularly with one as complicated as The Magic Flute?
With Flute for example, I also watched about twenty different DVDs. I studied the characters, the stage direction, costumes, and sets to understand not only the story, but also to figure out the movement of the singers and their entrance and exit points. When I’m drawing the set, I’m constantly thinking about that; where might the singer be, how would they be moving, how they are going to be lit.

Kaneko's storyboards for the overture, with detailed movements timed in seconds 

 This production of The Magic Flute is dominated by very hi-tech digital animation. How did that come about?
I wasn’t even really thinking about this much projected animation initially, but I felt that the flow of the opera really seemed to call for it. There are a lot of scene changes—twenty-seven or twenty-eight—and they are often fast. Watching the different productions on DVD, I found the rhythm to be really interesting, but also messy at times. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do about that, and I started to study the theater space and the use of animated projections. With them, you can change the set at any speed you want and the transitions are much smoother.

I had worked with our projection designers Fred Clark and Kevin Reiner on my previous opera productions, but not on this scale. First it was just me, storyboarding and painting the emotion in the music. I didn’t do any other studio work during the initial months and created more than 3,000 storyboard images. They covered the walls of my studio. I then had to develop the storyboards into specific instructions for the designers.

Kaneko working with animation designer Kevin Reiner

How do the animations affect the way you designed this production?
Lighting was a huge challenge, and I knew this would be a headache for the lighting designer. We are using projectors behind the screens and in front. The front projectors in the piece can be particularly challenging because the singers cast shadows. I’ve been working with the director, Harry Silverstein, since the very early stages about this. He felt that shadows are part of the piece and suggested that we not try to fight it. That really freed me up from a design perspective, and we’ve come up with some interesting solutions.
How did you approach creating the costumes for The Magic Flute?
As I said, it is very important that everything feel as one piece. If that’s your approach, then costumes are influencing the environment so you have to think about the space around the singers wearing the costumes. You have to think about it as a total environmental presentation. And then if you have that attitude, people are the shapes within the stage—except they’re moving around. For me, that’s the most difficult part. As a sculptor I think a lot about form and shape issues, but once I’m done with the sculpture it doesn’t move around, but singers do. In designing these costumes, I wanted to make sure they made great visual sense in any position. That was my focus, and it’s also part of collaborating with the stage director.

Kaneko and Costume Supervisor Kristi Johnson select fabrics

What was the process for selecting materials and designing the textiles?
At the beginning I wasn’t worried about material. I was focusing on the shapes and colors. Once I had that, then it was time to select fabrics and see how they could be manipulated. That’s when the experts in the costume department came in to help me to determine the best way to achieve the shapes I wanted. The decisions I made with them were very collaborative, and they have a truly fantastic knowledge of their craft. They could tell when I was having difficulty, and they would present me with several different options to solve the problem.
These costumes have to go through a lot: multiple cleanings, alterations, travel to different locations. They have to be extremely durable. So the costume department was outstanding in making sure these costumes met their design and logistical needs.

Kaneko with David Gockley (left) and members of the creative and production team
What’s it like when you see everything come alive in performance?
When all the different elements really come together and gel, there’s a really hypnotic quality. It’s magical. And it’s fun to see the little differences that crop up from rehearsal to performance.
What are your upcoming projects?
A sculptural installation in Millennium Park in Chicago, with forty six-foot pieces and forty eleven-foot pieces. They have to be made and fired, so it’s a lot of work. We’re also creating a fifty-six-foot glass tower in Lincoln Nebraska that glows at night, and there are projects in Toronto and Washington, D.C.

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Past San Francisco Opera Magic Flute Casts

A selection of images from past San Francisco Opera productions of The Magic Flute

Our first production in 1950 featured John Brownlee as Papageno and Charles Kullman as Tamino

Zdzislawa Donat as the Queen of the Night, 1975

San Francisco Opera’s Pamina of 1975, Kiri Te Kanawa, being led by the Three Spirits

Our 1980 production featured sets by Marc Chagall...

and the Queen of the Night (Barbara Carter) with her three ladies (Rebecca Cook, Gwendolyn Jones, Fredda Rakusin) and Monostatos (Steven Cole).

The conclusion of our 1987 production, with set design by David Hockney

Our Pamina and Tamino in 1991 were portrayed by Ruth Ann Swenson and Jerry Hadley

Papageno (Johannes Martin Kränzle) and Papagena (Marnie Breckenridge) from our 2003 production

Piotr Beczala (Tamino) charms fanciful animals, like the “crocoquin” and “giraffestritch,” created by renowned cartoonist Gerald Scarfe for our 2007 production.

Christopher Maltman as Papageno in our 2007 production

Georg Zeppenfeld as Sarastro, 2007


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"A Feast for the Eyes, A Feast for the Ears!"
"A Flute from America's heartland that goes directly to your heart."

  –Opera Today
This 'Magic Flute' "put the seal on the company's wonderful June trifecta!"

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Nathan Gunn was a first-rate Papageno, singing with new vigor and tonal robustness."
Tenor Alek Shrader sang with "his usual clarity and sweetness of tone."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Albina Shagimuratova is simply absolutely must hear her."

"No YouTube clip can possibly prepare you for the wonders of the new San Francisco Opera co-production of Mozart's The Magic Flute."

"Kaneko's constantly changing, marvelously illumined animations, together with his joyously fanciful sets and costumes create an alternate universe of wonder and delight that bathes the darkest of intentions in golden light."

"General Director David Gockley's English-language translation...allow you to devote all your attention to the production and singing."

"Kristinn Sigmundsson's ever-dignified Sarastro boomed out magnificently."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
Heidi Stober's "voice is more than beautiful; she penetrates Mozart's depths."

Heidi Stober gave a "marvelous performance."

"The Queen's Three Ladies: soprano Melody Moore and mezzo-sopranos Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum, all splendid."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Visually Stunning and Ravishing...Kaneko's design creates a delightful magical landscape!"
"Kaneko's design...creates a delightful magical landscape. It's like entering 'Alice in Wonderland' through the keyhole of a Mondrian painting, with side trips to a Japanese temple."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Fanciful Vision...Explosively Colorful!"
"Audience favorite Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, in a bravura company debut as the Queen of the Night..., brought down the house with a dazzling, pinpoint delivery of the Act 2 showpiece."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"A Masterpiece of Conception and Execution!"

"It's the kaleidoscope of lines and dots and a thousand colors, maybe more that percolate across the proscenium canvas in always changing, never ending orders that make you feel that the good life will never end.... Finally all those lines and all those dots will become a perfect circle! This new Magic Flute is indeed a perfect circle."

"Baritone Greg Fedderly made Monostatos absolutely delightfully unthreatening."

Portraying the Three Spirits are "Etienne Julius Valdez, Joshua Reinier and John Walsh, who have to have been the best Three Spirits that ever hit the earth."

  –Opera Today
"Prepare to be enchanted."
"If any single night of theater can convince that the world can indeed be transformed through music and song, this collaboration between Kaneko, Silverstein, Gockley, and Mozart is it."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice


  • Wed 06/13/12 7:30pm

  • Sat 06/16/12 8:00pm

  • Tue 06/19/12 8:00pm

  • Thu 06/21/12 7:30pm *

  • Sun 06/24/12 2:00pm *

  • Wed 06/27/12 7:30pm *

  • Fri 06/29/12 8:00pm

  • Fri 07/6/12 8:00pm

  • Sun 07/8/12 2:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


This production is made possible, in part, by Thomas F. and Barbara A. Wolfe, the Koret Foundation and Tad and Dianne Taube. Set and costume design fees are supported, in part, by the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund. Additional support provided by members of Camerata and Chevron.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.