Learning To Love Mozart

When I first heard The Magic Flute, I hated it. Now I think it’s among the greatest artworks ever created. What happened?


Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart circa 1780. The Magic Flute was one of the composer’s last major works.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

In the mid-’70s I was living in Northampton, Mass., biding my time for the summer before becoming an impoverished graduate student in music. Every morning I got up at 5 a.m. to go sweep floors and clean bathrooms at Kmart. One day after work I was browsing the record store next door in the mall and came across a deluxe album of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) by the Vienna Opera under the legendary conductor Karl Böhm. I hardly knew any Mozart operas at that point, and this seemed like the perfect place to start. Besides, as I prepared to go back to school I figured it was time I knew Mozart better. I shelled out 20 bucks for the album, which at that moment happened to be the last 20 bucks my wife and I had to our name.

I went home and proudly showed the album to my wife, assuming for some reason that she’d be impressed with my devotion to art and learning. She wasn’t. After the screaming was done and I had settled my nerves, I sat down to listen to Die Zauberflöte for the first time. I hated it.

The story of Prince Tamino and his journey to love and wisdom appeared to me unmitigated flapdoodle. It’s a Singspiel, a comic opera with spoken dialogue, but the humor was about 200 years out of date. A lot of the music—especially the tunes dispensed by the moronic Papageno and his supposedly amusing girlfriend—I decided were commercial sellouts by the dying Mozart, who probably needed the money. There were some arias of love and yearning that I found tedious, and I didn’t believe the sentiments for a second. OK, the men’s choruses were nice, likewise Sarastro’s arias. But the whole thing struck me, with a certain despair under the circumstances, as hopeless. I shoved the album into my giant bookcase of records and tried to forget about it.

Today I number Die Zauberflöte among the dozen or so works of art that in my experience represent the highest, most potent, most moving things human creativity can achieve —along with Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Beethoven’s Eroica and Missa solemnis and late quartets, Euripides’ Bacchae, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest, Rodin’s statue of Balzac, and things of that order. What happened? What is it in us and our individual journeys with works of art that causes these radical shifts of affection?

The journey of Zauberflöte to my short list of favorites started about a year after that opening debacle, when I saw the Ingmar Bergman movie of the opera. I wanted to give it another chance. As I watched the movie the story began to draw me in. The plot is strange, incongruous. Prince Tamino is lost in some pseudo-Egyptian land and first appears fleeing from a giant snake. Listening to the opening scene that I had found so cheesy, I realized it was not truly fearful because none of it is real. I got it now: This is a fairy tale for adults.

Having fainted in terror, Prince Tamino is saved by three women who dispatch the monster and proceed to lust after this handsome unconscious stranger. I’d found that stupid too, at first. I didn’t know yet how steadily Mozart was concerned with sex and its ramifications and corruptions. The women are servants of the magical Queen of the Night, and they bring Tamino to her. She gives him a stern task: to rescue her daughter Pamina, who has been abducted by the evil sorcerer Sarastro. Shown Pamina’s portrait, Tamino instantly falls in love. (Note the parallel names, an indication of destiny.) On first encounter I found his mooning over Pamina’s portrait to be hogwash, not understanding that this is how it happens in fairy tales, which come at reality through unreality.

From there on, the opera is, even if you love it, a creaking assemblage of a plot. The queen sends Tamino on his quest with a magic flute that will protect him from harm (childish, until I realized that the flute represents the power of music itself). Tamino also acquires his “comic” sidekick, the birdcatcher Papageno, who’s not interested in dangerous quests and mainly wants to get drunk and laid. Tamino sneaks into Sarastro’s compound in ways familiar to James Bond fans, dragging along the terrified Papageno, who will find his own destined lover, Papagena. Tamino discovers that Sarastro is the leader of a secret brotherhood, about which there’s a lot of mystical hokum.

Soon the plot takes an even more outlandish turn. It is revealed that Sarastro is not a villain but a good guy. He abducted Pamina to get her away from the Queen of the Night, who turns out to be pure malevolence. This is where, on first encounter, I rolled my eyes and gave up. A switch like this in the middle of a story is nonsense. (For me it’s still nonsense—I just don’t mind it anymore.) Eventually, of course, Tamino frees Pamina from her captivity, and Papageno gets his girl.

The lovers undergo a dangerous trial to be initiated into Sarastro’s brotherhood, and at the end he crowns the couple and sanctifies their union. The. Bloody. End., I thought in Northampton, in 1974. Now as the curtain comes down I am usually dissolved in tears. Few works affect me more.

When I first heard the opera in my mid-20s, I hadn’t yet learned, among many other things, that the greatest art is not necessarily the most perfect. Bach wrote tremendous vocal music but was strangely oblivious to the fact that singers have to breathe. He wrote vocal lines as if they were for violin. The finale of Beethoven’s Ninth is clunky and episodic in its form—enough so that Beethoven talked about replacing it. Shakespeare is notoriously weak in dramatic construction and often didn’t know when to shut up. I once sat through a reading of The Tempest with a playwright who bitched all the way through, saying that Shakespeare isn’t any good because his dramatic arc is so bad. Today I’d argue that among other things a great work is one that has the power to make its faults, even the obvious ones, irrelevant to the experience of the work.

Technique is important; bad technique can sink a piece. In most of his music Mozart is celebrated for the near perfection of every element. But in the end I think none of this makes the ultimate difference in the power of an artwork. Nobody would claim Berlioz was the craftsman his contemporary Cherubini was. Beethoven admired Cherubini, and Brahms had a portrait of him on his wall. But most people these days have never heard of Cherubini unless they know Medea, his only opera still mounted with any regularity, while Berlioz fans are legion. The art that lives through the ages is not just the tightest, or the most organic, or the most anything. It just has a mysterious power to reach us, thrill us, fascinate us, draw us into its world, and to renew itself through the course of our lives and through the centuries.

The stages in the metamorphosis of Zauberflöte in my mind and heart from stupid commercial sellout to transcendent masterpiece probably trace a common course. First, an exceptional performance that drew me in and began to expand my sense of the work. I think Bergman’s is the finest film version of an opera ever, not so much in the music but in the impact of his direction.

The second stage: more listening and thinking. I went back to my deluxe album and listened until the tedious love arias became beautiful, and goofy Papageno became the necessary foil of noble Tamino. It dawned on me that this opera is a parable of love: the earthy love of Papageno and Papagena, the exalted love of Tamino and Pamina, the divine love of Sarastro for all humanity. I concluded that Mozart painted all these characters so lovingly because he was all of them, from the randy Papageno to the godlike Sarastro. Pamina, like all of his women, is a strong, sexy, and memorable character. Much later I realized that at the end Sarastro bestows the highest crown on the couple, because their love—encompassing the sexual and the spiritual—is the most important thing on this earth. “In true love you shall find the origin of wisdom,” Sarastro tells his disciples. “That is why I shall resign my power to Pamina and Tamino.” Die Zauberflöte was Beethoven’s favorite Mozart opera. He echoed it in the “Ode to Joy” finale of the Ninth Symphony: the brotherhood of person and person, the love of husband and wife, can make this world an Elysium, and they’re the only things that can. In that sense, the Ninth is Beethoven’s Zauberflöte. And Die Zauberflöte is Mozart’s The Tempest.

So your perspective on a work deepens and broadens with thought and familiarity. It broadens more with learning. I picked up the book Mozart the Dramatist, by Brigid Brophy. Among its arguments, Brophy deals with the old controversy about Die Zauberflöte, its midcourse switch of hero and villain. Generations of critics and scholars have said that of course Mozart had that in mind all along, that a great artist could never arbitrarily do something so antithetical to drama and sense. As far as I’m concerned, Brophy makes short work of that illusion. Mozart had tremendous judgment in choosing and shaping librettos, but this time he had a co-author. He cooked up the story with producer and huckster Emanuel Schikaneder, whose theater went for flashy and exotic productions that wowed the crowds with special effects. In those respects Die Zauberflöte was a typical Schikaneder concoction. He is credited with the libretto and wrote the part of Papageno for himself, but Mozart still had a big hand in it.

Brophy supplies a motivation for the jarring plot switch: Another version of the same story (both were based on a current novel) opened in Vienna and Mozart and Schikaneder found themselves scooped. For purely showbiz reasons they needed to give their version a new twist, but they didn’t want to start over from scratch. So they backed and filled. As a result, Brophy notes, the cobbled-together libretto breaks a fundamental rule of fairy tales: Bad characters can only do bad things. A villain cannot bestow boons. The Queen of the Night is evil, yet the magic flute she gives Tamino saves his bacon, likewise the magical bells she gives Papageno. That’s another clue that as the libretto took shape, the Queen started good and ended bad.

There was another and deeper reason for the plot switch. Mozart and Schikaneder were both fervent Freemasons, and the switch gave them a chance to incorporate a Masonic allegory that adds an entire other dimension to the opera—an esoteric undertone not available to a casual modern listener. If Sarastro had stayed a bad guy, he could not have headed a spiritual brotherhood. In being remade as evil, meanwhile, Mozart’s Queen of the Night became a representation of Empress Maria Theresa, who suppressed Masonic lodges in Austria. Her very name implies that she brings darkness, suppresses Enlightenment. She became an image of the reactionary tyranny and superstition that the Masons wanted to rid the world of.

So Sarastro’s brotherhood is a thinly veiled representation of a Masonic lodge, the trials of the lovers a parallel to the secret initiation rites symbolizing death and rebirth into wisdom. (In reality, women were not allowed in the lodges—Pamina’s initiation is an echt-Mozart touch.) The word brother in both Die Zauberflöte and in Beethoven’s Ninth resonates with the central significance of brotherhood in Masonry.

So for me the switch of Mozart’s opera from bad to good echoed Sarastro’s switch. It has been a long journey of discovery and deepening. The process has involved experience, changing perspectives, thinking, and reading. But the work has to stay fresh on its own, too. The music has to be good enough to last a lifetime, to return to over and over as one ages and changes.

Rodin's Balzac sculpture at the MoMA.
Rodin’s Balzac sculpture at the MoMA in New York

Photo courtesy of MoMA.

Of course, even when a work grabs us on first acquaintance and never lets go, it still evolves. Since college I’ve visited the Rodin statue of Balzac in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. From the beginning it became a touchstone in my life. The statue shows the writer standing on the brink of a precipice, wrapped in a coat, his eyes looking into infinity, his face riven with pain and tragic wisdom and mangled by the fingers of the sculptor in the original clay. For the first years I knew it, this was for me simply the ultimate image of the artist. As I learned and grew it became an image not of every artist, but rather the Romantic myth of the Genius. For years as I pulled away from the Romantic genius-cult I looked at the statue more coolly, as a great representation of a dead myth. Then I saw a museum show of Rodin’s studies for the statue. It had been commissioned for a memorial to Balzac and was finally rejected as altogether too weird. I began looking at it from Rodin’s perspective, as the end point of a long struggle to understand and embody an idea. For me that realization made the statue timeless again, redefined and revitalized it for me.

In other words, as over the years we experience changes in artworks that fascinate us, we are really observing the changes in ourselves. What do I see now when I look at Rodin’s Balzac? Hard to put into words a feeling that has evolved for so long, but I suppose the essence is that for me now the statue is all the above. In it I see the artist, specifically the Romantic artist—far-seeing, longsuffering, alone. And I see myself over the decades, creating and struggling and suffering and evolving—which is to say, doing my gig like Rodin and like everybody else.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. Our experience of art goes in both directions. Of many examples in my life, it bemuses me to remember that I used to be a devotee of Philip Glass.

What happened to divide me and Glass was simply this: Around 1973 I attended a concert of the Philip Glass Ensemble. At that point I was a country schoolteacher in Vermont preparing to go to grad school. With great excitement I shelled out some money I didn’t really have and drove 100 miles to hear a Glass concert at Dartmouth. I walked into the hall a fan and walked out with a headache, my ears ringing, seriously pissed off. The once-so-cool hypnotic effect of the music now sounded to me unearned, all too easily achieved by the dumb device of repeating things over and over, like “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Bach and Brahms and Bartók are multidimensional; they throw ideas and developments at you constantly. Glass boils all the possible dimensions of music down to one idea and beats you senseless with it.

So I dropped Philip Glass from my listening list. Whether history will do the same remains to be seen. What happens with works in the course of our lives is a microcosm of what happens to them over the decades and the centuries. That Mozart’s contemporaries didn’t understand or appreciate him is a myth. By his last years he was the most celebrated and best-paid composer alive—but he had a problem hanging on to money. What Mozart’s time could not possess—as we can’t possess on first hearing—is the perspective and resonance that time and history give a work and a creator. In the Romantic 19th century, Mozart was considered sort of a china-doll composer, elegant and perfect but not really serious. Only in the last decades have we rediscovered his demonic side, his passion and his strangeness. And, as in Die Zauberflöte, the reality that his music was intimately connected to the world. Only on the surface are Mozart’s finest operas fluffy sex comedies or loopy fairy tales. But his operas also have wonderful tunes and unforgettable characters, without which the rest of it wouldn’t matter. The prime example is the creaky, silly, and incomparable Zauberflöte.


I’d like to invite readers to share your own stories of artworks, in any medium, that you only came to appreciate over time. Did your path of discovery track with mine of Die Zauberflöte? If not, how did it differ? Email your stories to Keep it short, please—300 words or fewer. I’ll present a selection of your stories in a follow-up piece.