Mozart’s Magic Flute, as Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Updated: Jun 23, 2018

Tonight we shall have the privilege of participating in the operatic magnum opus of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, completed and staged in 1791, only two years before his death at the age of 35, at the height of his creative powers.

It is generally considered one of the greatest of all operas. But in technical terms, it was only a singspiel, a shorter more popular form (meaning aimed at the common person as audience) and a mixture of song and dialogue, involving more of a focus on character and plot, and slightly less on the power of sound itself.

Mozart and a costume sketch by Winckelmann for a performance at Vienna, Kindertheater, 19th century

The libretto for the work was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, the leader of a theatrical troupe that was resident in one of the major opera houses in Vienna at the time. Mozart himself conducted the orchestra and his sister-in-law played one of the lead roles. It was a great popular success from its opening night, and remains so to this day among audiences for opera.

However, there is great controversy over why it is so popular or even what it is really about. Many theories can be found, asserting such opinions as that the play is a subversive political commentary on the Empress Maria Theresa, or a conservative call for enlightened absolutism, as it was called, and against the tendencies of republicanism. Modern theorists have attacked it for its racism and anti-feminism. But no consistent case can be made for any such hypotheses. And so, other commentators have simply ridiculed the opera for being a naïve and childish fairy tale aimed at unlettered audiences, a kind of dumbed-down Disney-fication of Western mythology avant la lettre.

The more Freudian commentators, of course, see in the magic flute only a phallic symbol, to help him in his Oedipal passage into a higher symbolic manhood, and in the bells given to Papageno a new pair of testicles to help him grow into a more courageous and faithful manhood. But this focus on male psychology is also clearly a very one-sided view and does not fairly evaluate the feminine side of the operatic equation. Jungians likewise offer their archetypal theories, which are no doubt closer to the truth, but still do not give a coherent account of the action.

Still others focus on the names of characters, such as Sarastro, the high priest and leader of the secret spiritual brotherhood, and assume that he is modeled on Cagliostro, a contemporary mystic and séance leader. Others say Sarastro refers to Zarathustra, the prophet of the dualistic Zoroastrian religion, which influenced a number of Christian heretical sects, beginning with Manichaeism. But this conflicts with the equally obvious presence of signifiers of ancient Egyptian religion, including references to Isis and Osiris, and the symbol of the pyramid. The music has also been analysed as reflective of numerological Pythagorean symbolic messages, including the employment of the key of E Flat, with its three flat chords to emphasize the Law of Three, which appears in many forms in the unfoldment of the play, and the Law of Seven, which combines, as does the pyramid, both the Three and the Four (as the four elements of Nature), in four triangles that meet at the highest point.

All of these theories come up short as complete explanations of the meaning of the drama we are to witness. But what is a documented fact is that Mozart was an active Freemason, was associated with the Illuminati, he was knowledgeable about such esoteric symbolic systems as alchemy, Kabbalah, Renaissance neoplatonic philosophy, ancient Egyptian Hermetic philosophy, and other occult sciences. Mozart was a contemporary of Goethe, another well-read master of the esoteric traditions, who publicly recognized the opera as aimed at initiates, who alone would understand it, and the rest would assume it was a silly patchwork of themes from fairy tales.

So how can we best make use of this spectacle as Sat Yogis? I suggest we consider ourselves undergoing our own initiation into a mystery school, into the deepest secrets of the nature of reality. Indeed, culture was initially centered on such mystery-guarding institutions that were responsible for transmitting the knowledge, the maturity, the virtue, and the power of higher consciousness, in short, the capacity for sustaining the Dharma of a healthy community from one generation to the next.

Thus, although we can analyze the opera at an exoteric level and find useful if clichéd teachings in it, as are employed somewhat crassly in this version in the form of literal pop-ups of apothegms and aphorisms, and we can also find mesoteric references to teachings of masonic derivation, we can make most use of this great work to view it on the most esoteric level possible.

In this paradigm, we can recognize it as expressing nondual reality, from both the perspective of Brahman and that of Atman. All the characters belong to the single consciousness of the Whole. The play shows the Great Chain of Command. But the world, Samsara, has gotten out of order, and now a restoration of Dharma is required. The masculine and feminine principles are at war, the relationship between Nature and Spirit has become inaccurate, and the resistance to growth, transcendence of ego, and sustenance of the power of divine love has become overwhelming. The play shows that all the different esoteric traditions have the same message and the same divine intention. The magic flute is an ancient symbol that goes back to Krishna and beyond. It is also the power of pure speech, transmitting Wisdom that casts a spell of liberation upon the ego and releases the Real Self into full awakening and illumination. The Self returns to rule the manifest world as its own infinite reflection in form of its formless supreme Presence.

So in the first scene, we face the initial situation. Man has been overcome by the Beast. The lower chakras have human consciousness on the run. The best of men is unable to fight off the dragon of lust. His masculinity is out of balance. It requires the feminine power of soulful love to control his animalistic sexual drive. But in accepting the help of the feminine principle, he also comes under the influence of the female fury at the male principle that has allowed the situation to become so oppressive and dictatorial, so objectifying and defiling of the goddess. The feminine projection of anti-male anger must also be balanced. Thus, the symbolic guides on the initiatory journey are three young boys, who remain innocent but fully male in their attitudes and influence.

The Shadow is represented by Monostatos (One-Dimensional Man), who wants to sexually defile Pamina, but who is held back, just barely, by the Law. Papageno is the male ego in its more socialized form, but it remains infantile and unable to go through a full transformation. The ego is only capable of supporting the sexual relationship at a level that can parent children, but cannot function as a spiritual guide for society. It remains narcissistic, even though loyal to the higher guidance in its way.

But Tamino symbolizes the Buddhi, who goes through the various ordeals of celibacy, of self-restraint, of silence, in order to attain an inner unification of the divine masculine with the divine feminine at the level of pure Spirit. The purification of the consciousness leads once more to the renewal of the world. The old order of ego, of anger, projection, and conflict between the man and the woman is overcome dialectically, and the unification of Nature, Reason, and Wisdom becomes manifest. The conditions of a new Sat Yuga have been attained, and the transmission of power can now ensue. This is the coronation of the new king and queen, and the abdication of Sarastro, having completed his own charitra, his own divine act of deliverance. May we all undergo the catharsis of this inner transformation as we participate mystically in this great work of inspired art.

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