Happy 220th Anniversary, Magic Flute!
The Magic Flute premiered on September 30, 1791, at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden. This opera house used to be in a suburban area. And although it only existed for 14 years, it hosted the premiere of a staggering 350 productions!
Mozart’s opera played there 100 times in the first year alone, with an additional 223 performances during the theatre’s existence. The director of the opera house was actually the writer of the opera’s libretto, Emanuel Schikaneder. In the opera’s premiere, he played the role of Papageno, while the Queen of the Night was portrayed by Mozart’s sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer-Mayer.
Emanuel also co-wrote a sequel to Mozart’s opera, along with Peter von Winter (a German opera composer), called The Magic Flute Second Part in 1798 – seven years after Mozart’s death.
When the sequel premiered at Emanuel’s opera house, he again played the role of Papageno, alongside Josepha as the Queen. Josepha, a German soprano, was the first to ever perform the role of the Queen in the opera’s history. She apparently had a very high musical range, which allowed her to handle the difficult passages that Mozart included in her aria.
At the first opera’s premiere, Mozart conducted the orchestra himself. This is how Maynard Solomon, a scholar of Mozart, described the event: “Although there were no reviews of the first performances, it was immediately evident that Mozart and Schikaneder had achieved a great success, the opera drawing immense crowds and reaching hundreds of performances during the 1790s”.
Though Mozart had been ill in the weeks leading up to the opera’s debut, its immediate success seemed to lift his spirits. The evidence lies in some of his letters to his wife, Constanze, who was away with her sister in Baden at the time.
On Oct. 7, he wrote to her, “I have this moment returned from the opera, which was as full as ever.” Though he then went on to list all the pieces that had been encored, he added, “”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 went to see the opera performed almost every night after its premiere, often taking along friends and family.
Those interested in the history of Mozart’s career should take a look at Kevin Sullivan’s documentary, Mozart Decoded. It is a follow-up to his feature-length film, Mozart’s Magic Flute Diaries, which explores the fantastical world of Mozart’s creation.
Photo: Part of the playbill for the premiere of The Magic Flute.