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The Score to the Stage: An Illustrated
History of Continental Opera Production and Staging


Private, For-Profit Theaters in Suburban Vienna: The “Freihaus” Theater

In 1786 within a large Viennese housing complex, the Starhembergischen Freihaus opened in the Wieden district. The theater, formally known as the Theater auf der Wieden (the Theater in the Wieden; today known as the Freihaus Theater) was where Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”) premiered in 1791. Emanuel Schikaneder, an actor, playwright, and singer, assumed control of the theater in 1789 and maintained a repertory of plays and operas with high-quality productions rivaling the Burgtheater’s. In addition to being the librettist, Schikaneder also created the role of Papageno.

The auditorium of the Freihaus Theater combined the parterre noble and the second parterre, a configuration similar to that of the Burgtheater. Boxes on the sides and benches in the center lined two tiers, with a combined seating capacity of about one thousand. The space for the orchestra spanned the width of the auditorium, and could accommodate at least forty musicians. The stage measured approximately 13.5 meters deep and 17 meters wide, with the proscenium opening at 9.5 meters. Five to six banks of sliding wing chariots followed the era’s theatrical norm, with three sets for each wing. While not indicated in the surviving theater plans, traps existed in the center of the stage parallel to each set of wings. Lighting practices were similar to those at other theaters, with oil lamps and candles set in the footlights and behind the chariot frames in the wings. Candlelight illuminated the auditorium.

No definitive scenic designs survive for the first performances of Die Zauberflöte at the Freihaus Theater. In 1794 and 1795, however, the Allgemeines Europäisches Journal published six prints by Peter and Josef Schaffer depicting an early production of the opera. Scholars have speculated that these are renderings of a Freihaus production several years after the premiere. Despite the lack of documentation, there is every possibility that these prints are representative of early Viennese performances.


Trial Fire and Water

Peter and Joseph Schaffer, Die Zauberflöte, “Trial by Fire and Water”; hand-colored print, 1795.
© Internationales Stiftung Mozarteum, Salzburg

One scene stands out among those represented in the publication: the trial of Tamino and Pamina by fire and water in the second act. At this point in the opera, the libretto states, “The stage changes to two high mountains: in one, a rushing and roaring waterfall is heard; in the other, fire spouts forth. Each mountain has a grille, through which one can see the fire and water. Where the fire burns, the scene must be bright red; there must be a deep fog where the water lies. Each mountain is made of rocks, and each has its own iron doors. . . . Two men in black armor lead Tamino to the stage; on their helmets burn a flame and they read to him the transparent script written on the pyramid.”

This pyramid stands in the center above the scene but near the grille. Mounted in the first and third sets of wings, several of the flats depicting rocky landscapes used at the beginning of the opera were undoubtedly recycled for this scene. An additional set of painted flats mounted in the second set of wings represented the “iron doors” in the mountain. The grille, probably a selfstanding unit, traversed the width of the stage, and a drop hung upstage of the waterfall and the mountain of fire depicted the “transparent script on the pyramid.” The waterfall was in two parts. The upper portion comprised a painted flat mounted on a wing chariot, and the lower part a single continuous loop “water” consisting of a transparent, colored fabric with additional sewn-on material stretched over two rolling drums. To create the effect of a nonstop flow of water, a stagehand manually cranked one of the drums in one direction at varying speeds.




Waterfall illusion; engraving, 1776 (detail). ✴ An old theatrical device, the illusion of a waterfall was created by an endless loop of a painted canvas sheet rolling over two cylinders cranked by a stagehand hidden from view of the audience. From Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Livorno [Paris], 1776), vol. 10, plate 19.
© Collection of the author


The mountain of fire was more than likely a painted flat with transparent red cloth hung over an opening. The cloth, shaken alternately gently then roughly by another stagehand, created the rippling effect of fire. Illumination from candles behind the red cloth conjured the color of fire. Open flames—such as those on the helmets of the two armored men—never appeared on the stage for any length of time. The danger of an actual fire was too great. [...]

Concerning the argument that the Schaffer renditions of the settings and costumes for Die Zauberflöte do not match the later elaborate Freihaus productions of other operas depicted in prints, we must keep in mind that the business of theatrical and operatic production was and is risky, extremely expensive, and dependent on a fickle public. Theaters operated on the income collected at the box office and, whenever possible, additional funds from private capital. The Freihaus Theater received no public subsidy from the imperial treasury. Schikaneder, through his talent, skills, and theatrical activities, managed to keep his theater in operation. He sought to maintain at least some level of quality in the productions to please the audiences while keeping expenses to a minimum and making a profit any way he could.

Schikaneder expressed his convictions in the foreword to his libretto for Der Spiegel von Arkadien (“The Mirror of Arcadia”): “I write for the pleasure of the public.... I am an actor—a director—and I work for my box-office; not at all to cheat the public of its money: for a sensible man is not taken in a second time.” Neither the costumes nor the settings could ever match the quality of those in the Burgtheater, simply because the Freihaus Theater lacked the funds. Only with continuing profits from “smash hits” [...] could Schikaneder invest in more elaborate settings and costumes as well as maintain the theater and upgrade its stage machinery as required.

Die Zauberflöte was a great success. All the operatic elements, Mozart’s magnificent music, the charming libretto with its magical components, and the production merged to create a stunning theatrical experience. The opera found great popularity with the public and received twenty-four performances immediately after its premiere. In just twelve months, more than one hundred performances were recorded.

Mozart, in one of his last letters to his wife, Constanze, observed the audience reactions.

“I have just come from the opera—It was just as full as ever. The duet 'Mann und Weib' etc. with the glockenspiel in the first act was repeated as usual—also in the second act the trio with the [three] boys. What most makes me happy is the silent applause. One truly sees how this opera becomes more and more appreciated.”

© Opera-Intros, 2015