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Mozart Meets The Masons: 'The Magic Flute'

Take a quick look at the latest fiction bestseller list, and you'll find a familiar author topping the charts. It's Dan Brown with his latest blockbuster novel, The Lost Symbol — a grimly portentous book with an interesting connection to Mozart's shrewdly playful opera, The Magic Flute.

The Lost Symbol features the same, somewhat unlikely central character as Brown's previous bestseller, The Da Vinci Code — the heroic symbologist Robert Langdon. In the earlier book, Langdon was found decoding timeless legends of the Knights Templar. In the new novel, he's again tracking the age-old mysteries of an ancient order. This time, it's the Freemasons — a fraternity famous for secret rites and rituals, which in the novel threaten to bring down the entire U.S. government.

Of course, writing about Masonic ceremonies can be a little bit dicey. The only people familiar with them are Masons — and they're all sworn to secrecy. So the rest of us are kept guessing as to how much actual fact might be present in Dan Brown's fiction.

Opera lovers have long been in the same position when it comes to The Magic Flute. Both Mozart and the opera's librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were devoted Freemasons, at a time when the Masonic order was frowned upon by the authorities and mistrusted by the public. Its meetings were mysterious to outsiders and the order was believed to be connected to the principles of the Enlightenment, so established political leaders were a little nervous about it. The emperor of Austria even restricted the number of Masonic lodges allowed to operate in the country.

So, while Mozart's drama fell into the general category of "magic opera" — works based on folk tales, with plenty of stunts, scene changes and spectacular stage effects — it was also a political statement in disguise. Mozart and Schikaneder crammed all kinds of veiled Masonic symbolism into The Magic Flute, and people have been trying to figure the whole thing out for more than 200 years. (Maybe, in his next novel, Brown could have Robert Langdon decode the opera for us?)

Still, while there has been plenty of speculation about Masonic allegory in Mozart's opera, one of its messages seems fairly clear. The story introduces a mysterious brotherhood, supposedly headed by an evil man. But by opera's end, the brotherhood turns out to be benign, and the leader seems like a pretty decent fellow. Perhaps that was Mozart's way of saying that Freemasonry may not be the ominous force some folks think it is.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Mozart's The Magic Flute in a buoyant performance from the 2009 Aix-en-Provence Festival. It features conductor Rene Jacobs and the Academy of Ancient Music, along with tenor Daniel Behle as Tamino and soprano Anna-Kristiina Kaapola in the famously high-flying role of the Queen of the Night.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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