Particle Physics – The Opera

A new season is about to start at English National Opera and I’ve been spending a lot of time and money recently getting tickets for some of the operas, as well as organizing the logistics of getting to and from London. Among the forthcoming productions is a revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, K. 620).

I can’t remember how many times I have seen this opera performed nor in how many different productions. It’s a wonderful creation because it manages to combine being utterly daft with being somehow immensely profound. The plot makes no sense at all, the settings are ridiculous (e.g. “rocks with water and a cavern of fire”), and the whole thing appears to be little more than a pantomime. Since it’s Mozart, though, there is one ingredient you can’t quibble with: a seemingly unending sequence of gorgeous music.

When I first saw The Magic Flute I thought it was just a silly but sublime piece of entertainment not worth digging into too deeply. I wondered why so many pompous people seemed to take it so terribly seriously. Real life doesn’t really make much sense, so why would anyone demand that an opera be any less ridiculous? Nevertheless, there is a vast industry devoted to unravelling the supposed “mystery” of this opera, with all its references to magic and freemasonry.

But now I can unveil the true solution of problem contained within the riddle encoded in the conundrum that surrounds the enigma that has puzzled so many Opera fans for so long. I have definitive proof that this opera is not about freemasons or magic or revolutionary politics.

Actually it is about particle physics.

To see how I arrived at this conclusion note the following figure which shows the principal elementary particles contained within the standard model of particle physics:

particles of the standard model

particles of the standard model

To the left of this picture are the fermions, divided into two sets of particles labelled “quarks” and “leptons”. Each of these consists of three pairs (“isospin doublets”), each pair defining a “generation”. This structure of twos and threes is perfectly represented in The Magic Flute.

Let’s consider the leptons first. These can be clearly identified with the three ladies who lust after the hero Tamino in Act 1. This emotional charge is clearly analogous to the electromagnetic charge carried by the massive leptons (the electron, muon and tauon, lying along the bottom of the diagram). The other components in the leptonic sector must be the three boys who pop up every now and again to help Papageno with useful advice about when to jangle his magic bells. These must therefore be the neutrinos, which are less massive than the ladies, and are also neutral (although I hesitate to suggest that this means they should be castrati). They don’t play a very big part in the show because they participate only in weak interactions.

Next we have the quarks, also arrayed in three generations of pairs. These interact more strongly than the leptons and are also more colourful. The first generation is easy to identify, from the phenomenology of the Opera, as consisting of the hero Tamino (d for down) and his beloved Pamina (u for up); her voice is higher than his, hence the identification. The second generation must comprise the crazy birdcatcher Papageno (s for strange) and his alluring madchen who is called Papagena (c for charmed). That just leaves the final pairing which clearly is the basso profundo and fount of all wisdom Sarastro (b for bottom) and my favourite character and role model the Queen of the Night (t for top).

To provide corroboration of the identification of the Queen of the Night with the “top” quark, here is a clip from Youtube of a bevy of famous operatic sopranos having a go at the immensely different coloratura passage from the Act 1 aria “O Zittre Nicht, mein leiber Sohn” culminating in a spectacular top F that lies beyond the range of most particle accelerators, never mind singers.

There’s some splendid frocks in there too.

The Queen of the Night isn’t actually in the Opera very much. After this aria in Act 1 she disappears until the middle of Act 2, probably because she needs to have a lie down. When she comes back on she sings another glass-shattering aria (Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen), which I like to listen to when I’m writing referee reports. The first line translates as “The rage of hell is boiling in my heart”.

The remaining members of the cast – The Speaker and Monostatos, as well as sundry priests, slaves, enchanted animals and the chorus – must make up the so-called Force carriers at the left of the table, which are bosons, but I haven’t had time to go through the identifications in detail. They’re just the supporting cast anyway. And there is one particle missing from the picture, the Higgs boson. This accounts for the masses of other particles by exerting a kind of drag on them so it clearly must be the Dragon from Act 1.


8 Responses to “Particle Physics – The Opera”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:


    This is not a farther-fetched allegory than many in mediaeval theology and culture (or freemasonry, not that I am a member)!


  2. telescoper Says:

    My uncle Richard is a free mason. He puts fireplaces in for nothing.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I once invented the cast of a Mozart opera from an Italian restaurant menu:

    Hero and heroine: Cappucino and fettucine
    Baddie: Marscapone

    etc etc

  4. telescoper Says:

    I once wrote a skit involving the commentary on an Italian football match in which all the players were physicists.

    “Now it’s Torricelli, under pressure, outside to Volta charging down the wing….”

  5. […] I’ve lost track of how many different productions I have seen of this strange and wonderful masterpiece, but this one was as good as any I can remember. It is sung in English rather than the original German (all productions by English National Opera are in English, in fact). Translating the libretto isn’t at all necessary for this work because the plot makes no sense whatsoever in whatever language the words happen to be sung or spoken. It’s all so weird it might as well be about particle physics. […]

  6. […] Pity it had to be this Opera though. I hate it. Somebody should do a similar thing with the Magic Flute, which is actually all about particle physics… […]

  7. “I once wrote a skit involving the commentary on an Italian football match in which all the players were physicists.”

    Reminds me of this truly classic Monty-Python sketch:

  8. […] before (at ENO) and have also written about my theory that it’s all about particle physics (here). I’ll just repeat here that this gloriously silly piece is one of my absolute favourite […]

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