Sun King Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are in an eternal war. Their daughter, Pamina, has found herself at the centre of their conflict. Sarastro is shielding Pamina in his realm to protect her against the evil influence of her mother.
A prince, Tamino is frightened by a dragon. He falls unconscious but his life is saved by Three Ladies – servants of the Queen of the Night. All three are attracted by Tamino but eventually leave and report what has happened to their Queen.
When Tamino revives he encounters Papageno, a bird catcher employed by the Queen of the Night who claims to have killed the dragon. The Three Ladies return and punish this lie by gagging Papageno. They present Tamino with a picture of the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, with whom he instantly falls in love.
The Queen herself appears and tells Tamino that Pamina was stolen from her by an enemy, Sarastro. She urges Tamino to rescue Pamina and bring her home. He will be aided in this mission by Papageno. The two are given a magic flute and magic bells to help them. Three Spirits will also be their guides.
In Sarastro’s realm, Pamina is being tormented by her captor Monostatos, a servant of Sarastro. Monostatos is frightened off by the appearance of Papageno who has become separated from Tamino. Papageno comforts Pamina and together they plan to escape.
Meanwhile, Tamino guided by the Three Spirits has also made his way to Sarastro’s realm. Voices forbid him to enter. When he asks after Pamina he is told she is still alive. A stranger tells Tamino he has been deceived by the Queen of the Night. He claims that Sarastro is a force for good, not evil. Tamino is puzzled. He plays the flute and discovers its music has magical and transformative powers. Pamina and Papageno hear the flute but when they try to follow it they are captured by Monostatos and his henchmen. The music of Papageno’s magic bells casts a spell over the men but he an Pamina immediately run into Sarastro and his followers who now have Tamino in their power. Pamina tells Sarastro the truth of what she has suffered. Tamino is brought in by Monostatos and he and Pamina see each other for the first time. Sarastro orders Monostatos to be punished for his treatment of Pamina. He also separates the young lovers just as they have met. He invites Tamino and Papageno to join his community but only after they have undergone trials of initiation. They are blindfolded and led away.
Sarastro’s followers doubt the wisdom of introducing Tamino and Papageno into their community. But Sarastro convinces them of his purpose. The two men endure their first test – which is to remain silent in darkness. The Three Ladies attempt to distract them from their vow and return them to the Queen’s cause but without success.
Pamina is asleep when she is again assaulted by Monostatos. The Queen of the Night intervenes to protect her. Believing that Tamino is now in her enemy’s power, the Queen forces Pamina to take a dagger with which to kill Sarastro. Pamina refuses but Monostatos has been listening and threatens to tell Sarastro that Pamina is planning his assassination if she will not give herself to him. Sarastro appears and he explains to that to live well we must live lives without vengeance.
Tamino and Papageno are still bound to silence. Three Spirits bring food and drinks and return the two magic instruments. Pamina finds Tamino. She can’t understand why he rebuffs her and refuses to speak to her. She concludes that he no longer loves her. Tamino is congratulated by passing the test of silence. Papageno hasn’t done so well but says all he really wants is a companion in life. He catches a glimpse of such a woman who says she is Papagena but she is taken away from him and he is left alone.
In her despair Pamina is driven to the brink of suicide but the Three Spirits reassure her that Tamino still loves her. They reunite her with Tamino, and she accompanies him through the final trials – ordeals by fire and water. Protected by the flute’s music and the power of their mutual love pass through the trials unharmed.
Certain that true love and contentment will never be his, Papageno is ready to take his own life. The Three Spirits return and remind him about the magic bells. Their music unites Papageno and Papagena.
The Queen of the Night, the Three Ladies now joined by Monostatos mount a final assault on Sarastro’s realm. The power of the sun overwhelms the forces of night. The community celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, mutual love, the power of art and the imagination to overcome repression and fear.