In The Treasures of Mozart, John Irving writes that in The Magic Flute, “…Mozart achieves a profundity of utterance perhaps unequalled elsewhere in his output. Profound, certainly, but also simple. And perhaps that simplicity is the key both to its profundity and its success.”
Playing the principal roles at the premiere was Schickaneder as Papageno, and Mozart’s sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, as the Queen of the Night. Schickaneder was a popular presence in the Vienna arts scene during this time. He was a singer, playwright, theatre manager, composer and librettist. But above all he was known as an actor, having played the role of Hamlet in Munich in 1777. He was most admired for his delivery of popular theatre repertory. Schickaneder became acquainted with Mozart’s family in the 1780s and he and Mozart went on to produce Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) a few years before The Magic Flute’s premiere.
According to musicologist Maynard Solomon, there were no reviews of this first performance of The Magic Flute. However, he says it was clear from the size of the audience and the hundreds of performances that it gave in that decade alone that it was a great success. It would see its 100th performance in November of the following year.
Sadly, Mozart was to only live a few months longer after its premiere. But, according to the letters he wrote to his wife Constanze, the opera’s success temporarily lifted his spirits. Only a week after its premiere, Mozart wrote, “I have this moment returned from the opera, which was as full as ever…But what always gives me the most pleasure is the silent approval! You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed.” Mozart then listed every number in the opera that was encored. It is said that, along with friends and family, he went to its performance almost every night.
A week later, Mozart wrote again, informing Constanze that the composer Salieri (his supposed rival) went to one of the performances, along with this mistress Madame Cavalieri, and commented that it was, “a great opera, worthy to be performed to the greatest King and at the greatest festivities, and that they had never seen anything more delightful in the theatre.”
To see how The Magic Flute is still impacting its performers and viewers today, more than two centuries after its creation, take a look at Kevin Sullivan’s Mozart’s The Magic Flute Diaries.