Tamino, a young prince lost in an unknown land, enters, running for his life (Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe!). He is pursued by a cunning snake. Fearing he is about to become its victim, he invokes the mercy of the gods, and faints. Three veiled maidens rescue him. Charmed by the young man, each Lady wants the other two to depart to inform their Queen of the youth's presence, thereby leaving the third alone with the handsome young man (So geht und sagt es ihr!). Finally, they all depart.
Tamino awakens and is surprised to find the snake dead at his feet. The sound of panpipes is heard. The strange creature, Papageno, earns his keep by catching birds for the Queen of the Night (Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja) in exchange of wine, sweetbread and figs. Papagano pretends he killed the poisonous snake. The three Ladies have overheard him and are not pleased by what they have heard. They appear, not with wine, sweetbread and figs in exchange for his birds, but with water, a stone, and a padlock for his mouth. They give him a portrait of Pamina, the Queen's daughter and promise that if he is not indifferent to the portrait, good fortune, honor, and fame will be his. Tamino falls in love with the portrait (Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön).
They tell him the story of the abduction of Pamina by the evil demon Sarastro. When Tamino promises to rescue Pamina. The night suddenly comes: The mountains divide, revealing the Queen of the Night. If he is successful in Pamina's rescue (O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn!), says the Queen, then Pamina will be his, forever. And with this promise, she disappears.
The three Ladies tell Papageno that the Queen has pardoned him. But with the removal of his padlock he must promise never to lie again and help Tamino for rescuing Pamina. The First Lady presents Tamino with another gift from the Queen: a Magic Flute which will protect and sustain them in the greatest of misfortunes (Hm Hm Hm).
Inside Sarastro's palace, we discover the Moor, Monostatos, an underling of Sarastro's. Monostatos failed in seducing Pamina and asks for her to his slaves. Papageno enters, the two slaves run from each other, convinced that he is the Devil. Having the picture in his possession, Pamino instantly recognizes Pamina and tells her that a prince will come to rescue her. But the conversation brings sorrow to Papageno: he has no one to love. The two ponder the idea of love (Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen).
Three Boys arrive with Tamino in Sarastro's temple and advice him to be steadfast, tolerant, and discreet (Zum Ziele führt dich diese Bahn), Suddenly a strong voice tells him "Stay back!" He proceeds to the Temple of Nature, but another voice tells him to again "Stay back!". The Speaker tells Tamino that Sarastro is not the monster depicted by the Queen of the Night but refuses to explain why he keeps Pamina. The Speaker promises Tamino that all will be revealed as soon as he is led by the hand of friendship into the sanctuary to the eternal bond.
Tamino begins to play his Flute. He hopes that Pamina might hear the sweet song of his Flute. Suddenly, Papageno's panpipes are heard in the distance. Wondering if Papageno found her, he rushes off to meet up with them.
Papageno and Pamina urge to find Tamino, praying to be protected from their enemy's fury (Schnelle Füße, rascher Mut). They are stopped by Monostatos. Papageno lets the little bells sing out. The Slaves - and even Monostatos - are entranced (Das klinget so herrlich) and they all dance away. Unexpectedly, when Pamina kneels before him and apologize for her escape, Sarastro just has cheerful words. But he can't liberate her but doesn't explain the reasons. He lets her be with Tamino, and, after having punished Monostatos, orders that they be tested and purified in the temple.
The priests, led by Sarastro, enter the grove. He gives Pamina et Tamino to Gods. They will have to withstand trials to avoid The Queen's pitfalls. All ask Isis and Osiris to guide the steps of these two wanderers (O Isis und Osiris). The Priests want to verify Papageno and Tamino's motivations. The coward Papageno is finally motivated by the pledge of a wife. The Speaker tells Tamino, that he, too, must remain silent. With these instructions, the Priests leave, taking the light with them (Bewahret euch vor Weibertücken). Suddenly, the three Ladies appear. When Papageno continues to chatter, Tamino silences him, calling his inability to stop talking a disgrace. The Speaker and Priest return. The Speaker congratulates Tamino on his steadfastness and manly conduct. Papageno, lying in a faint, is prodded by the Priest.
Pamina is sleeping in a garden. Monostatos appears and wants to seduce her again Suddenly the Queen arrives with a clap of thunder! "Back!" she cries. Monostatos hides himself, determined to listen to the conversation between mother and daughter. The Queen pulls out a knife and asks her daughter to kill Sarastro (Die Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen). She disappears.
Monostatos creeps to her side, trying to blackmail Pamina. Sarastro steps in, taking the knife from him and order him to go. Monostatos is swearing to seek out the Queen. Sarastro announces to Pamina that he will revenge through the arms of his kingdom, love and wisdom (In diesen heil'gen Hallen).
The Priest order again Papageno and Tamino the oath of silence, and departs. But Papageno begins to speak with an ugly woman who pretends to be eighteen years old and be promised to him. But a clap of thunder is heard and she disappears.
The three Boys arrive and return the Flute and Bells. And they also bring food and drink, which greatly pleases Papageno. Tamino plays upon his Flute and Pamina arrives. But they can't speak to her because of their oath of silence. Calling Tamino her one and only love, she tells him of her despair (Ach ich fühl's). She dejectedly leaves.
The assembled priests congratulate Tamino (O Isis und Osiris, welche Wonne!). Sarastro praises him for his manly conduct. Pamina arrives, with her head covered, to say goodbye to Tamino. This is the last trial but Pamina refuses to hear about it (Soll ich dich, Theurer, nicht mehr seh'n?).
Papageno in punished and surrounded by the dark chasms of the earth. But his only wish, he tells the Speaker, is a good glass of wine. The Speaker grants him this wish momentarily. He dreams, once again, of a sweet little wife (Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen). The old crone reappears. If he doesn't marry, he will die in awful circonstances. The instant he swears his fidelity, the crone changes into Papagena. The Speaker wisks her away, telling that he is not yet worthy for her.
The three Boys appear for the third time in a small garden. They announce the first rays of the morning sun (finale: Bald prangt, den Morgen zu verkünden). Then the Boys catch sight of Pamina. who is preparing to commit suicide. Pamina now hears the Boys telling her Tamino loves her.
Two armored men warn Tamino of the difficulties awaiting him, for the fire, water, air and earth trials (Der, Welcher wandert diese Straße). Pamina calls out for him to wait. Tamino now realizes that she can go with him and will lead him. They emerge successfully, voices proclaim the triumph of the noble pair (Triumph! Triumph!):
Papageno is all alone in a garden. He is calling, in vain, for his Papagena. Just in the nick of time, the three Boys appear, halting Papageno's suicide. The Boys remind him of the Magic Bells - if he will let them ring out, they will bring a wife to him. Papagena appears (Pa-pa-pa-pa).
Monostatos is urging the Queen and her three Ladies in the temple. Suddenly, bright sunlight streams into the night. They plunge into the bowels of the earth. Sarastro and the priests praise and thank Osiris and Isis. "The strong have won and as reward, are crowned with everlasting crowns of beauty and wisdom."