Pursued by a serpent, Prince Tamino falls faint from exhaustion. Three Ladies in the service of the Queen of the Night slay the monster, then admire Tamino’s beauty. They fight over who will remain with him while the others fetch the Queen. Not coming to any resolution, all three depart.
Tamino revives and observes the approach of Papageno, who catches birds for the Queen. In the course of becoming acquainted, Papageno claims he killed the serpent. The Three Ladies return and seal his mouth for telling the lie. They show Tamino a portrait of the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, and Tamino immediately falls in love with her visage. The Queen of the Night appears and asks he rescue Pamina from the temple of the tyrant Sarastro, where she is being held captive. As a reward, the young couple will be wed. Tamino agrees enthusiastically, and the Three Ladies give him a magic flute for protection. Restoring Papageno’s power of speech, they order him to accompany Tamino. He receives a set of magic bells. Three Spirits will guide their journey.
At Sarastro’s temple, Monostatos is charged with guarding Pamina, whom he treats harshly. Papageno enters, and both men startle one another with their unusual appearance and momentarily flee. Papageno is the first to return, recognizes Pamina as the Queen’s daughter and tells her of the ardent young prince who has been sent to her rescue. She takes pleasure in the prospect of love, and Papageno too pines for his perfect mate.
Elsewhere in the temple, Tamino comes upon the inner sanctuary, but is barred entrance. A priest tells him he has been deceived by a mother’s tears – Sarastro is not the evil person she described. Feeling lost, Tamino plays his magic flute and hears Papageno’s pipe in response; he then follows its sound. Back in Monostatos’s lair, Pamina and Papageno face recapture, but Papageno plays his magic bells, charming Monostatos and his slaves and allowing their escape.
Sarastro enters magnificently, and Pamina admits her attempt to flee, but only to escape Monostatos’ amorous advance. Still, she misses her mother, but Sarastro proclaims there is still much for her to learn from his tutelage. Tamino is brought in and embraces Pamina, while Monostatos is punished for his dereliction.
Sarastro announces before the Speaker and the priests Tamino’s wish to enter the sanctuary of wisdom and his willingness to undergo the trials of initiation. Papageno is more reluctant, but is promised a pretty wife, Papagena, as his reward. The first test is one of silence, a task Papageno has some difficulty achieving, especially when tempted by the Three Ladies.
Elsewhere, Monostatos continues his lusty pursuit of Pamina, but is deterred by the arrival of the Queen of the Night. The Queen pleads with her daughter – the seat of power rests with the all powerful Circle of the Sun, which was wrongly taken from her and given to Sarastro. Pamina must kill him and take the Circle back – if she doesn’t, her mother will disown her. After the Queen’s angry departure, Monostatos offers to help in exchange for Pamina’s love. When she refuses, Monostatos again threatens her but is interrupted by Sarastro, who knows of the Queen’s plot. He forgives Pamina’s part in it, and Monostatos is banished from the Brotherhood.
Tamino and Papageno continue to wait out their oath of silence, augmented by thirst and fasting. An old woman offers Papageno water and soon admits that her boyfriend’s name is “Papageno.” Before her identity is revealed, she is sent away with a clap of thunder. The Three Spirits then pay a visit and offer refreshments. Papageno eats heartily while Tamino plays his flute. The music brings forth Pamina, who is distressed when Tamino does not respond to her inquiries. She fears his love has vanished and considers taking her own life.
Papageno tries to catch up to Tamino but is denied entry to the inner temple. The Speaker denounces him, stating that he will never know true enlightenment, yet Papageno is hardly bothered, for all he wants is a wife. He plays his bells, and the old woman reappears. Under threat of imprisonment, he begrudgingly agrees to be her husband. She is immediately transformed into a beautiful young woman, Papagena, but is whisked away by the Speaker – Papageno is not yet worthy.
Demented by Tamino’s seemingly broken vow, Pamina wanders aimlessly, dangerously clutching a dagger. The Three Spirits take her to Tamino, who is about to undergo the trials of water and fire. Pamina and Tamino reaffirm their love, and she resolves to go through the ordeals at his side.
Missing Papagena terribly, Papageno is about to hang himself, but is saved by the Three Spirits. He is told to play the magic bells, and to his great joy, Papagena is soon restored to him. They rejoice in a future together.
Now in league with the dark side, Monostatos leads the Queen and her ladies in one last attempt against Sarastro, but all are vanquished. Dressed in priestly robes, Tamino and Pamina usher in a new era of truth, beauty and wisdom.