Chased by a serpent, Prince Tamino finds himself in an unknown land. He faints and is saved by the Queen of Night’s three Ladies. When Tamino comes to, he is approached by the bird-catcher Papageno.
The Ladies return to give Tamino a portrait of the Queen of Night’s daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped by the evil Sarastro. Tamino is instantly smitten and the Queen of Night arrives to secure his promise that he will do everything in his power to rescue Pamina from Sarastro’s stronghold. The Prince is given a magic flute and Papageno a set of magic chimes as protection; the instruments have a way of charming both man and beast. Additionally, three spirits, acting as guardians and advisors, will lead the way.
Sarastro’s slave Monostatos pursues Pamina but is frightened away by Papageno, who tells Pamina that he and Tamino have come to rescue her.
Meanwhile the three spirits have led Prince Tamino to Sarastro’s Temple. There, he meets a priest who explains to him that it is the Queen of Night who is evil, not Sarastro. Heartened by the news that Pamina is alive, Tamino begins playing his flute; it reveals its magical properties by bringing the forest to life. Pamina and Papageno hear Tamino’s flute and hasten to find him. But they are intercepted and detained by Monostatos. Papageno’s chimes come to their aid, allowing the bird-catcher and Pamina to escape.
Pamina and Tamino see one another for the first time, and fall into a passionate embrace.
Sarastro sees Tamino as a future leader of his people, who are in the midst of a grave crisis. But in order to prove himself worthy of the role, and of Pamina, Tamino must first undergo several rigorous trials.
Papageno does not share Tamino’s audacity and is only prepared to accompany him after the promise of a wife as his reward. The Queen of Night’s Ladies arrive and try to seduce the two men into abandoning their allegiance to Sarastro, but Tamino and Papageno hold their nerve and pass their first ordeal.
Monostatos tries to kiss the sleeping Pamina, but is frustrated by the entrance of the Queen of Night. Set on revenge, she charges Pamina with the task of murdering Sarastro. Torn by her devotion to her mother and her love for Tamino, Pamina is at a loss. Sarastro enters, reassuring Pamina that he is not out for vengeance, but strives for understanding and forgiveness.
The second ordeal has begun for Tamino and Papageno: a vow of silence. Papageno heartily ignores this, chattering cheerfully with his companion. Pamina finds them, but believes herself betrayed when Tamino refuses to speak to her. Her happiness dashed, she leaves in despair, but Tamino passes the second test. Papageno, on the other hand, is at his wits’ end. He encounters an old woman who, once he has sworn lifelong fidelity to her, reveals herself as a young girl named Papagena. But as he has disobeyed the vow of silence, she is driven away from him. Papageno’s life now seems futile.
Beside herself with grief, Pamina contemplates suicide, but the three spirits intervene, bringing her and Tamino together for the final trials. Protected by the magic flute, Tamino and Pamina successfully undergo fire and water ordeals. The three spirits also manage to prevent Papageno from killing himself, and the bird-catcher is reunited with his Papagena for good.
The Queen of Night and her Ladies, led by Monostatos, once again try to storm the Temple, but the intruders are caught unawares by Sarastro and cast out by the light of the rising sun. As dawn breaks, Tamino and Pamina are hailed for enduring all the ordeals with beauty and wisdom.