Pursued by a deadly serpent, Prince Tamino falls unconscious just as the three ladies-in-waiting of the Queen of the Night come to his rescue. The ladies are quite taken with the good-looking young man, and each vies to stay with him while the others report back to the Queen. Eventually they all unwillingly leave together.
Tamino awakes and encounters a stranger, the birdcatcher Papageno. Assuming this is his rescuer, Tamino asks how Papageno could have killed the serpent without any weapons. Papageno boasts that his bare hands are more effective than any weapon. The three ladies return, scold Papageno for telling lies, and put a padlock on his mouth.
The ladies show Tamino a picture of the Queen's daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped by Sarastro. Tamino falls instantly in love, and when the Queen appears to urge him to rescue Pamina, he is eager to comply. The three ladies remove the padlock from Papageno's mouth and order him to accompany Tamino on his quest. To protect the young men, the ladies give Tamino a magic flute and Papageno a set of magical bells – and then send them off, guided by three spirits.
At the temple of Reason, Nature, and Wisdom, Tamino meets a wise priest who tells him he has been duped and that Sarastro is not the evil villain depicted by the Queen. Meanwhile Papageno has gone on ahead to Sarastro's palace, where he finds Pamina and escapes with her, only to be overtaken by the brutal Monostatos. When Papageno desperately plays his magical bells, Monostatos and his servants start dancing, allowing the pair to elude their captors.
No sooner have Pamina and Papageno escaped than they hear the priests announcing Sarastro's arrival. Terrified, Papageno asks what they should say. Pamina replies, "The truth, even if it were a crime!" The frightened pair are taken into custody. Pamina explains to Sarastro that she fled his palace in order to escape the attentions of Monostatos – who now arrives with another prisoner, Tamino. Tamino and Pamina meet for the first time and embrace. Monostatos expects Sarastro to punish the young man, but instead Sarastro has Monostatos punished. The chorus praises Sarastro's wisdom as he orders Tamino and Papageno brought into the temple to begin their trials of purification.
Addressing the Brotherhood, Sarastro states that Tamino must undergo a series of trials to attain light and wisdom and to win Pamina. Tamino faces a trial of silence, along with the still reluctant Papageno, who has been promised a wife named Papagena if he survives. The three ladies appear and try to persuade them to abandon their quest, but, despite some lapses on Papageno's part, the young men persevere.
Meanwhile Monostatos creeps in on the sleeping Pamina. When the Queen of the Night appears, he hides and watches as she gives Pamina a dagger and commands her to kill Sarastro. Pamina is appalled. After the Queen vanishes, Monostatos tries to blackmail Pamina, but is interrupted by Sarastro's arrival. When Pamina begs Sarastro not to punish her mother, he assures her that he is not vengeful.
The trials of Tamino and Papageno continue. They are again told they must remain silent. But the inveterate chatterbox Papageno falls into conversation with an old woman – who is really the lovely young Papagena. Pamina hears Tamino's flute and seeks him out. Because he is still undergoing the trial of silence, he sadly refuses to answer her.
Heartbroken, Pamina resolves to kill herself, but the three boys prevent her and take her to Tamino. The couple now endure the Trials of Fire and Water together, guided by the music of the magic flute.
Meanwhile Papageno, having failed the test of silence, pines for his lost Papagena and threatens to hang himself. The three boys persuade him to play his bells. Papagena appears, and the delighted pair envision a life together with many little Papagenos and Papagenas.
The Queen of the Night and Monostatos try to storm Sarastro's temple and free Pamina so Monostatos can have her for his wife, but they are destroyed by Sarastro's forces of light. All rejoice: Love has triumphed, rewarding beauty and wisdom with an everlasting crown!
This production is generously supported by a gift from David H. Flaherty