Mozart’s most popular work for the stage may also be his most misunderstood.

For a work that had its debut in a suburban Viennese vaudeville theatre, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte( The Magic Flute) has had a terrific run, casting its spell on audiences for over 200 years. Its fantasy and pantomime elements delight children, while the universal quest for truth and knowledge rewards adult viewers – quite apart from the sublime music. But despite being Mozart’s most charming opera, it is also his most misunderstood. Why do so many esoteric symbols clutter most productions? What is the role of the imposing temple and its chorus of priests? All this is part of a thinly veiled allegory born of the composer’s devotion to the secret society of the Freemasons.

This undercurrent of Masonic symbolism can be alienating to even the most seasoned Flute-goers. It’s easy to get carried away by the classic damsel-in-distress/valiant prince scenario without thinking too deeply about why the suitor and his beloved must subject themselves to a series of ceremonial trials in order to be united… Or what other strange rituals might go on behind closed doors in the temple where much of the...

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