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 It's a Singspiel, a comic opera with spoken dialogue, but the humor was about 200 years out of date.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.