Stories in tune – The Magic Flute; Part 1

Welcome to the second post in a new mini-series here on Playing by the bookStories in tune – all about picture books inspired by classical music.

In the first Stories in tune post I talked about picture book versions of Peter and the Wolf. This time round we are looking at, reading and listening to The Magic Flute by Mozart – a story I thought would lend itself naturally to the format of children’s picture books given its fairy tale-like quest to rescue an imprisoned princess with plenty of magic and mayhem along the way.

What I found with introducing Peter and the Wolf was that in the beginning, before they became familiar with the music, both my girls most enjoyed listening to the music when it was the sound track to the wonderful animation by Susie Templeton. Listening to the music just happened naturally, almost without them noticing that they were listening. Once they were familiar with the music, they then enjoyed listening to it on its own.

This listening-by-stealth was much more successful than trying to sit them down to listen to a piece of music without any “warming up” or preparation and so I did something similar with The Magic Flute – before sitting down with a book or turning on our CD player we watched a BBC animated (and abridged) version of this opera by Mozart on YouTube. Here’s the first part:

Here’s part 2 and part 3. I think this is the same animation as is available on this DVD, which for some reason you can get in the States but not in the UK.

Now this video may not please all of you, especially if you know The Magic Flute well, as the version in the animation is only 30 minutes long and consequently a great deal of music from the original opera is left out, the story is adapted to fit the time frame, and it is sung in English. None of these things will sell the animation to an opera buff, but all of these things combined to make the animation compulsive viewing for both my kids – even J was transfixed for the full 30 minutes.

Having viewed the video several times I then started playing the music in the house whilst we were getting on with other stuff and both girls clearly recognised the arias and were excited to hear them again (you can’t imagine how pleased I was at this!). It was at this stage I introduced the picture book versions I had found of The Magic Flute, and here’s what we thought of them:

The Barefoot Book of Stories from the Opera, retold by Shahrukh Husain, illustrated by James Mayhew

This is a fabulous collection of retellings of a selection of operas, including The Magic Flute. The quality of the storytelling is lovely – the tale flows easily and is well written for children M’s age and older. This illustrations are gorgeous – richly hued and detailed, the only complaint from M and myself being that we would have enjoyed many more, given the length of the text. Each opera in this book is premised with an illustrated list of characters and a page or so background information on the opera and composer. The selection of operas is perhaps a little surprising – including as it does some less well known ones such as Britten’s The Little Sweep and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve, but the delightful retellings and the fantastic illustrations make this a book very much worth buying if you want to do what I am trying to do in using stories to introduce more classical music to my children.

The Magic Flute, retold by Anne Gatti, illustrated by Peter Malone

Of all the picture books I’m reviewing today this is the only one that comes with a CD of highlights from the opera. If it is important to you to have a version of The Magic Flute designed to be read alongside listening to the music this is definitely the version for you. It is the most detailed and faithful retelling of all I’ve read with my children, facilitated, no doubt, by the explicit pairing up of sections text with CD tracks. The level of detail and length of text make this ideal for older children (I can imagine it might even appeal to young teenagers studying Mozart). The illustrations look as if they come from an 18th century gallery – costumes and hairstyles appear to be contemporary with when the opera was written and each scene is presented like a formalised tableau in an oil painting. I personally find the illustrations somewhat stilted and subdued, given the amount of magic and fantasy present in the opera, but like the text, they might well appeal to readers older than my children.
The Magic Flute, an opera by Mozart, Adapted by Kyra Teis

This is a the picture book version of The Magic Flute I would recommend you treat yourselves to! The story is brilliantly retold – it feels fresh and fluid, with no hint of the clunkiness I’ve found in some adaptations which try to stick too rigidly to the original libretto. (Yes, this retelling leaves out details from the original opera, but ultimately I believe this ensures the story works as a story to be read and enjoyed in its own right). The illustrations are stunning – brilliant, bold, saturated colours seduce you on every page. The clothing the characters wear is flamboyant and (indeed!) operatic whilst widespread use of patterns and textures give the pictures depth and further theatricality. Both M and J loved this version – although the story is not short, the wonderful pictures fired up M’s imagination and kept J’s attention right to the end. The story is prefaced with cameo illustrations of the characters and followed by a short section about Mozart and lots of suggestions for story extensions. The stark use of colour and vocabulary (eg. “KA-BOOM!” when there is a thunderclap) give this book a modern feel which I think will appeal greatly to children, but perhaps not win over traditional opera lovers. The fact that this book can stand on its own two feet, and work as a great story without the reader having any knowledge of the opera, makes this a book worth having in your home whether or not you want to listen to Mozart!
The Magic Flute, retold by Margaret Greaves, illustrated by Francesca Crespi

Greaves gives us a more faithful retelling than that by Kyra Teis, but I feel in doing so, the story becomes a little laboured, especially for young children. Additionally, where Teis has opted for modern language, Greaves sticks with more archaic vocabulary, which may appeal to a certain readership, but for us it didn’t work – M kept asking for explanations of what phrases meant, and this ensured the telling of the story was very disrupted. Whilst we all enjoyed the illustrations by Crespi they are an unusual mix of 1960s vintage style (the birds and other animals in particular) with Russian lacquer box style (the detail in the costumes, especially the use of gold highlights). All in all a beautifully produced book, definitely worth reading alongside listening to the music. It is only available second hand now and for my family I would still choose Teis’ version as my 1st choice.

To summarise:

  • The Barefoot Book of Stories from the Opera: Lovely retellings, gorgeous pictures and worth investing given the number of operas included.
  • The Magic Flute, retold by Anne Gatti, illustrated by Peter Malone: Great for older children, especially if you want a book that is designed to read alongside listening to the music.
  • The Magic Flute, an opera by Mozart, Adapted by Kyra Teis: If you want a gorgeous book that will appeal to younger children as well as primary school aged children that works well as a picture book in its own right this is the book to choose.
  • The Magic Flute, retold by Margaret Greaves, illustrated by Francesca Crespi: Interesting illustrations and text for older children.

  • As this post has already become very long, click here for Part 2 of Stories in tune – The Magic Flute to find out what play all these picture books and wonderful music inspired in us!

    17 Responses

    1. Maria

      The Magic Flute is absolutely my favorite opera. I heard it for the first time when I was a young kid and was completely entranced with the Queen of the Night (especially the song where she tells Pamina to kill Sarastro.) Her vocal range is amazing! I decided right then and there that I wanted to sing that song in my lifetime, and actually went on to study opera for a while in college because of this opera!
      Thanks for this post!

      • Zoe

        Hi Maria,
        What an amazing story – it’s lovely to hear how the opera really inspired you! Do you still sing?

    2. Natalie

      Every time I read your entries, I have this strong desire to check out every book you recommend. I’ve never listened to Magic Flute in English. Last time I heard it live was in Paris Opera, and they had a big tableau on the screen translating the words in French.

    3. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Natalie,
      Yes, I’m not particularly a fan of opera being translated into a language other than the one it was written in, although I got to hear a lot of opera this way because the opera house in London which specialises in opera translated into English was much cheaper than the main opera house! And I know the problem of wanting to buy everything you read about…. it’s a daily problem for me!

    4. Fiddler

      A couple other enjoyable resources to go along with your lovely collection of Magic Flute picture books are two Classical Kids cds–one that tells the story of The Magic Flute (Mozart’s Magic Fantasy) and another that centers around the character of W.A. Mozart’s son Karl but also features “the dream children” from the opera (Mozart’s Magificent Voyage,).

      And one other is a dvd of a live action, shortened version of the opera specifically created for children, The Magic Flute Story.

      It’s about time for me to drag these resources out again–I don’t think my youngest has heard them yet, and now I have some great new books to add. Thanks!

      • Zoe

        Hi Fiddler! Thanks so much for adding these resources – I’m looking forward to finding them for me and my girls.

    5. Caro

      Brilliant! Have just booked to go and see the Magic Flute with my daughter for her first opera experience, and have found everything I need right here – thanks!

    6. Laura

      Hello there!! I am a spanish young pre-school teacher , and I was just looking for some ideas related to clasical music and children, when I founded your blog. Amazing work!! It helps a lot, and spreads your initiative and love for kids. Thanks a lot!!

    7. MacKenzie

      I realize this is an older post but thanks for the recommendations. Last year we read and listen to Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of Animals and had a blast so I know my kids will love these to go along with our study of Opera this fall.

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