Prince Tamino is pursued by a serpent. He collapses and is saved by Three Ladies who slay the serpent and leave to tell their queen of his arrival in their land. Tamino revives as Papageno, a birdcatcher, enters. When Papageno claims responsibility for slaying the serpent, the Three Ladies reappear and padlock his mouth as punishment for lying. They give Tamino a portrait of a young woman, with whom Tamino falls immediately in love. She is Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter, and captive of Sarastro. The Queen herself appears and tells Tamino that if he rescues her daughter, Pamina will be his forever. The Three Ladies remove Papageno’s padlock giving him a set of magic chimes, with instructions to accompany Tamino. The Ladies give Tamino a magic flute which will protect him from danger. Three Spirits guide Tamino and Papageno on their journey.
In Sarastro’s palace Pamina is pursued by the lustful slave Monostatos. Papageno saves her and tells Pamina that her mother has sent a handsome prince to rescue her, one who is already in love with her. Pamina is overjoyed and together they reflect on the importance of love.
The Three Spirits bring Tamino to the Temples of Wisdom, Reason and Nature. The Speaker enters from the Temple of Wisdom and informs him that the Queen of the Night is the villain, not Sarastro, as he will understand when he enters the temple. He leaves in search of Papageno, who, with the help of his magic chimes, saves Pamina once more from Monostatos. Sarastro enters and tells Pamina he cannot let her return to her mother. Tamino is brought in and he and Pamina joyfully meet at last. Tamino and Papageno prepare to be tested for admittance to the brotherhood.
Near the temple Sarastro leads a prayer to Isis and Osiris, to assist Pamina and Tamino.
Tamino and Papageno begin the first test, during which they must remain silent. The Three Ladies try to tempt them to talk, only succeeding with Papageno.
Pamina is saved from Monostatos with the appearance of the Queen of the Night who demands that her daughter kill Sarastro. Alone, she is once again accosted by Monostatos, but Sarastro enters and chases the slave away. Sarastro comforts Pamina, telling her that love, not vengeance, lives in the walls of the Temple.
In the Temple a hooded crone appears to Papageno, claiming that she is his sweetheart. She disappears and the Three Spirits appear, returning the magic flute and chimes to Tamino and Papageno. Pamina enters but Tamino will not speak to her, leaving her heartbroken.
In the inner sanctum of the temple, Sarastro calls for Tamino and Pamina to be brought forth. Tamino has two more trials to go, the most dangerous ones.
The old crone reappears to Papageno. He tells her he’d rather have her than nothing. She removes her disguise revealing a beautiful young woman. She’s immediately whisked away, as Papageno is still unworthy of her.
Pamina is prevented from taking her life by the Three Spirits and is reunited joyfully with Tamino, in time to take his last two trials with him, those of fire and water. They emerge triumphant, earning admission to the order as initiates.
The Three Spirits prevent Papageno from taking his own life, reminding him to play his chimes. Papagena appears and the two lovers are together at last.
The Queen of the Night attempts to seize power from Sarastro but is defeated. All celebrate the triumph of Tamino and Pamina.