The Queen of the Night has lost all of her power. Following her husband's death, all of the land and property went to her and her daughter, Pamina, with the exception of one object: the disk of the sun, which the will entrusted to Sarastro. The Queen does not accept this, and has begun to fight for the return of the sun-disk.
Tamino is being pursued by a monster. The youth faints. Three ladies rush to his aid and slay the serpent. Each of the three place a spell on the handsome, but unconscious, young man. They must bring news of this development to their mistress, the Queen of the Night. However, all three want to be the one to stay behind to keep watch over the insensate young man. They argue, but then all end up leaving together.
Tamino awakes, and sees a strange human shape nearby. It is Papageno, the bird-catcher who receives wine and food from the ladies in exchange for his birds, and who also lives a merry life, with only one difficulty: he hasn't managed to find a wife. They start a conversation: Papageno pretends that he was the one who killed the monster. The returning three ladies hear him say this, and punish the boaster: from now on his birds will earn him only water to drink and stones to eat, and they also fasten a lock to his mouth. The ladies reveal that they were the ones who saved Tamino, to whom the Queen of the Night has sent a picture of her daughter, Pamina. Tamino falls instantly in love with the image. The girl, however, is the captive of a “wicked demon” named Sarastro, the ladies explain.
Accompanied by thunder and lightning, the Queen herself now arrives to inform Tamino that if he frees Pamina, the girl will be his. The Queen departs. The ladies remove the lock from Papageno's mouth and give Tamino a gift from their mistress: a flute whose bewitching music brings happiness to those who hear it. Papageno has had enough and is ready to move on, but the ladies stop him: at the Queen's command he must stand with Tamino and accompany him into Sarastro's realm. Papageno is quite upset to receive this news, and so in order to mollify him somewhat, the ladies give him a glockenspiel. Tamino and the bird-catcher will be guided on their way by three little boy-spirits.
Sarastro's palace: Papageno finds Pamina, who is at that moment attempting to escape. He tells her the whole story about how he and Tamino have come to rescue her. They set off in search of Tamino.
Meanwhile, the young man has requested that the three boys help him find his love. “Be steadfast, be patient... be a man,” comes the response. He's amazed at where the boys have taken him: instead of a formidable castle, he is confronted with a magnificent temple. Three times, he forcefully demands to be admitted. Only on the third attempt is he successful: an old priest asks him: “What do you seek in this holy place?” Tamino answers that he seeks “Love and Virtue”. The priest sees that Tamino is in fact being manipulated by the Queen of the Night and her thirst for vengeance. He explains that Sarastro is not a wicked sorcerer and that the Queen of the Night is no pitiable bereft mother. “O endless night!” Tamino laments, “When will you vanish? When shall my eyes see light?” The priest reveals to him only that Pamina is alive. Tamino begins to play the flute in the hope that its sound will bring forth his love. Even the animals of the forest venture forth at the sound of the wondrous music, but the girl does not appear.
At the same time, Pamino and Papageno are searching for Tamino, but instead are discovered by Monostatos, Sarastro's repulsive servant, who is hopelessly in love with Pamina. Papageno begins to play on his glockenspiel, hypnotising Monostatos and his entranced slaves into sedately listening to the music and then, completely enchanted, returning to their business. At this point, Sarastro enters with his attendants. Pamina admits to Sarastro that she had indeed attempted to escape, as Monostatos had been plaguing her with his undesired attentions. Sarastro is not angry with her, but he will not permit the girl to return to her mother, either, as that would cost Pamina her happiness. Sarastro professes that the Queen of the Night has overstepped her bounds. Monostatos leads in Tamino, who has been taken prisoner. The smitten couple behold each other for the first time. The servant expects a reward for his cunning, and is given one: twenty-seven lashes on the soles of his feet... At Sarastro's command, Tamino and Papageno are led to the Temple of Ordeals, where their souls will be purified.
Sarastro and his priests assemble for a ceremony. Tamino has agreed to undertake the three trials in order for the veil of night be lifted from his eyes, thus making him an Initiate. The priests decide that they will support the youth. They pray for the gods Isis and Osiris to provide wisdom and patience to the future couple, and even if they fail at the trials, for the gods to still accept them.
Two priests prepare the two young people for the first test. Tamino has resolved to submit himself to anything, even at the price of death. Papageno is no longer quite so dedicated: all he wants to do is eat, drink, and maybe have a little wife. But if he can only have the latter by undergoing a trial, then he would prefer to remain single. The priests, however, inform him that there exists in the world a certain young and pretty Papagena...
The first trial begins: they may not speak with women at all.
The two men are in total darkness. The three ladies steal in and inform them with resignation that Tamino's fate is sealed: they are going to lose. They say that “whoever joins the order, goes straight to hell!” Tamino wisely remains silent, but Papageno is so terrified that he cannot keep his mouth shut. Finally, the voices of the initiates are heard, accompanied by thunderclaps, whereupon the ladies race off in fear. The two priests congratulate Tamino: he has passed the first trial.
Monostatos creeps up on the peacefully sleeping Pamini. He too would like a mate, but love eludes him, as everyone is terrified by his external appearance. He asks the Moon to turn away while he steals a kiss, and at that moment the Queen of the Night appears. When she learns from Pamina that Tamina has switched sides and joined Sarastro, she falls into a monstrous rage. Before storming off, she gives her daughter a dagger and a threat: if she does not kill Sarastro, she will be disowned. Monostatos, who has watched the entire scene in hiding, offers the girl a deal: he will help her in exchange for her love. Pamina rejects him, whereupon the embittered Monostatos attempts to stab her. Sarastro intervenes: Monostatos is packed off and hurries off to the Queen of the Night. Pamina pleads with the high priest not to punish her mother. Sarastro reassures the girl that there is no place for revenge inside the walls of the temple.
The two priests lead Tamino and Papageno to the second trial. They must continue to keep silent. An ugly old crone appears and speaks with Papageno. She tells him she has a lover, who is ten years older than her and whose name is... Papageno. Thunderclaps remind the bird-catcher that it would best for him not to respond...
The three boys appear. They have brought the flute and the glockenspiel that had been taken away from them. Sarastro has asked that they be returned to their owners. A table full of food and drink appears. Papageno happily tucks in, but Tamino prefers to play his instrument. At the sound of the music, Pamina finds them. Her lover, observing the rules of the trial, voicelessly draws away from her. The girl thinks that Tamino no longer loves her. Broken-hearted, she departs.
The chorus of priests prays for Tamino.
Papageno has failed the tests. He attempts to find Tamino and the exit. The priests inform him that the gods will excuse him from the punishment that he deserves. But on the other hand, he may not partake in the privileges of the Initiates. The bird-catcher informs them that all he wishes for is a little wine, which he receives. And then suddenly he is overcome by a deep emotional longing: he wants a mate! The old crone he had met earlier dances in and tells him that either he must settle for her, or he will never again see sunlight or good food, not to mention a wife. The terrified Papageno swears to always be faithful to her, at which point the old woman turns into the young and beautiful Papagena. The astonished Papageno, however, is not yet worthy of his mate, and so the priest leads the girl away.
The three boys greet the rising sun. Pamina approaches, overcome with grief that Tamino had been capable of abandoning her. She takes out the dagger that her mother had given her, and raises it to plunge into herself. The three boys put a stop to this, telling her that Tamino really does love her. Everyone goes off to find the young man.
Tamino is in the chamber of fire and water. He would rather die than give up on his mission. Pamina appears, and together, hand in hand, they continue on their path. They stop before the gate of terror, behind which death lurks. At Pamina's wise suggestion, they make use of the flute's power to aid them, and succeed in crossing the fire. They have sanctifies their bond to Isis and may enter the temple.
Meanwhile, Papageno is searching madly for Papagena. Ever since meeting his betrothed, he has been desperate to find her again. He tries to call her on his pipes, but it is no use. Crestfallen, he attempts to hang himself, but the three boys intervene yet again, counselling him to play the glockenspiel instead. The music's power proves triumphant once more: out comes Papagena, and at last their life together stands wide open before them, as they plan to make many little Papagenas and Papagenos.
Monostatos slinks back to the Queen of the Night and her three ladies. The Queen promises him Pamina's hand in marriage in exchange for his services. While planning an assault against the Brotherhood, they suddenly collapse to the ground, their power broken: the sun has risen and all is illuminated. Sarastro and his attendants enter. “The rays of the sun banish away the night; Fortitude is victorious, and thus Beauty and Wisdom win their eternal reward.”