Glücklich ist, wer vergisst, was doch nicht zu ändern ist

On New Year’s Eve I got to enjoy a classic pleasure of the occasion, listening to a performance (in German) of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (The Bat). The 1874 operetta offers trickery, disguise, seduction, and waltzes, waltzes, waltzes (on the occasion of a New Year’s Eve ball in Vienna). It’s a standard feature of New Year’s Eve in Vienna (at the Volksoper) — followed on New Year’s Day by a danceful concert by the Vienna Philharmonic — and also in New York City (at the Metropolitan Opera). Delightful.

The title of this posting is a celebrated quote from the operetta, sometimes translated as “Happy is he who forgets what can’t be changed”. (“Happy is the person who forgets what can’t be changed” or “Happy are those who forget what can’t be changed” would eliminate the masculine generic pronoun, and “who forgets the things that can’t be changed” would clarify a subtle ambiguity in “who forgets what can’t be changed” — on the latter point, see below.) (On Facebook, Steve Anderson offers “Fortunate is the one who forgets what cannot be altered”.).

Performances of the operetta are (like performances of many Gilbert & Sullivan operettas) routinely ornamented by innovative staging, changes of location or time, and playful bits of added dialogue with topical references in them.

(Last year’s Met production — a new staging in English — was apparently packed with these features. This year the Met offered a new staging of Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) for New Year’s.)

Digression on Jack Gilford. From Wikipedia:

Jack Gilford (July 25, 1907 – June 4, 1990) was an American Broadway, film and television actor [especially noted for his performances in comic parts].

… Sir Rudolf Bing [general manager of the Metropolitan Opera] engaged Gilford for the comic speaking role of the tippling jailer Frosch in the operetta Die Fledermaus. Loved in the part, Gilford performed it 77 times between 1950 and 1964.

It’s a great part.

Finally: who forgets what can’t be changed. The intended reading is ‘that which can’t be changed, the things that can’t be changed’, with what can’t be changed understood as having a kind of relative clause. But there’s also an interrogative interpretation, with what can’t be changed understood as something like ‘the answer to the question what can be changed?‘, so that forgotting what can be changed is losing track of which things can be changed and which can’t. Subtle but real ambiguity (in German as well as English), though in the context the intended interpretation should be clear.

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