Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja

Or, in rhyming colloquial English:

I’m Papageno, that’s my name,
And catching birds, well, that’s my game!

Nathan Gunn as Papageno, clutching his magic bells

And he more or less literally animates the Mozart / Schikaneder (think: Sullivan / Gilbert, Rodgers / Hammerstein, McCartney / Lennon) opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) — since he’s on the scene and in the action during most of the opera’s duration; and since he brings common, earthy, fallible, playful, humane depth to the work. The other characters are mostly otherworldly beings of one sort or another, or the presumed central human characters Tamino and Pamina (“a prince on a quest” and “a princess in distress”, according to the screen characterizations in the 2006 abridged video version of the fabulous 2004 Julie Taymor production at the Metropolitan Opera Company), who are earnest but rather cardboard idealizations of humanity (though they are humanized as much as possible in the Taymor production’s performances).

Zauberflöte is a fairy-tale opera with a familiar schematic story line, in which someone achieves a much-sought goal (love; entrance into the adult world; admission to some desirable association, band, or circle; whatever) by enduring probative tests, trials, or ordeals. T&P do that, but kids nevertheless seem to think — as I do — that the opera is about Papageno, who brought T&P together in the first place and then gets dragged along with them, serving as an unwilling hero in their ordeals but in the end failing to undergo the trials of fire and water (instead he gets his mate, Papagena). I doubt that any child seeing the video identifies with either T or P; but Papageno is a great kid, one of them: silly, error-prone, adorable, sometimes scared shitless, a sturdy friend, and a hell of a lot of fun.

It also has two prominent subtexts, which work together to support the theme of brotherhood that runs through the opera: Freemasonry and the Enlightenment ideal of the brotherhood of all humanity.   Many people will experience a performance of the opera without appreciating either element of its late-18th-century European intellectual and political context, and children will surely not get any of this (they will instead have their own understanding of what’s going on, and that’s fine; after all, there can be 17 ways of looking at a blackbird), but it’s especially relevant to the Taymor production because that production is richly overloaded with symbolism for both subtexts — which children will experience as the ways and forms of a strange but delightful imaginary world (imaginary worlds being a central element of childhood experience).

I write this after having watched the video again, twice, and of course seeing lots of things I hadn’t seen before, thereby complicating my intentions of reporting a lamentable memory lapse on my part. But I’ll press on.

The story. The plots of operas are notoriously packed with preposterous and incomprehensible details; for Zauberflöte, I’ve catalogued some of these problematic details in my 11/19 posting “On the plot of Die Zauberflöte”; they center on the three otherworldly humans in the opera: the wizard / high priest Sarastro; the “star-shimmering” Queen of the Night (who is Pamina’s mother), and the lecherous monster Monostatos (who is the overseer of Sarastro’s temple).

There are three musical instruments in the opera:

— the pipes — panpipes that Papageno wears on a cord around his neck (the cord is visible in the image above) and uses to entice birds into his nets, capturing them for his trade

— the golden flute that’s given to Tamino; this is the magic flute of the opera’s title, with many marvelous powers

— the silver magic bells, or chimes, that are given to Papageno (whatever these were in Mozart’s time, their role is now usually filled by a celesta)

(There is, alas, no bronze instrument for Pamina; she is — notable feminist point — without agency, dependent on her mother, then on Papageno, then on Tamino.)

The Wikipedia summary of the opera:

The Magic Flute (German: Die Zauberflöte), K. 620, is an opera in two acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a German libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. The work is in the form of a Singspiel, a popular form during the time it was written that included both singing and spoken dialogue. The work premiered on 30 September 1791 at Schikaneder’s theatre, the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna, just two months before the composer’s premature death.

… The allegorical plot was influenced by Schikaneder and Mozart’s interest in Freemasonry and concerns the initiation of Prince Tamino. Enlisted by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the high priest Sarastro, Tamino comes to admire the high ideals of Sarastro. [AZ: protected by the music of the magic flute, he and Pamina endure the ordeals of passing through fire and water to achieve enlightenment and] both join Sarastro’s community, while the Queen and her allies are vanquished.

The Magic Flute is noted for its prominent Masonic elements [AZ: for example, almost everything comes in threes, starting with the three-chord beginning of the overture] … Likewise, the literature repeatedly addresses the fact that the central theme of the work is not only “love,” but also becoming a better person by overcoming trials.

A visit from Ellen Kaisse. Back in October, the distinguished linguist and old friend of mine Ellen Kaisse traveled from Seattle to Palo Alto to brighten my lonely days by spending some time (10/24 and 25) hanging out with me. A wonderful gift of friendship, that was.

EK is, among many things, a musician, notably a singer, and we fell to discussing Die Zauberflöte, I think because I mentioned my (eccentric) view that the central figure of the opera was Papageno, not either Tamino or Sarastro, and my opinion that Tamino and Pamina were earnest but rather cardboard characters, in contrast to the Vogelfänger. To which she, gratifyingly, assented.

I then burbled enthusiastically about the Taymor production, which she had not seen, so I struggled, awkwardly, to recount the gigantic puppetry, the costuming, and set design for the production, plus the wonderful singing and acting. And added as a bonus that the libretto had been stunningly translated into English for this production, by a well-known poet whose name I couldn’t recall. She then spent far too long searching (vainly) on-line for the name of the poet.

Flash forward to a week ago. In search for something else, I came across two of my postings on this blog from 2010 — in which I, yes, describe the Taymor production and then identify (and laud) the translator of the libretto, J.D. McClatchy. “I am an idiot”, I bemoaned, citing in my defense the staggering number of blog postings (and other on-line postings) I have written during the past two decades and my very uncertain memory for much of it.

So now, return with me to 13 years ago.

“Grownup performances for children”, from 9/4/10 — in particular, for my then 6-year-old grand-child Opal (Opal is now, eek, an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh):

At this point [in a family discussion of grownup performances for children, Opal’s mother and I] had a list with [several performances of TheMikado and the Michael York [Three Musketeers] on it, to which we quickly added the Errol Flynn (and Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland) Adventures of Robin Hood — fabulous swordplay and more swinging on ropes! — and moved on to the Mickey Rooney Midsummer Night’s Dream (I was something of a MND devotee as a child, thanks to the movie and to the big complete set of Shakespeare that my dad had kept from college — which I still have). I also have the Peter Hall / Royal Shakespeare Company performance on DVD, but I think the Hollywood version is a lot more kid-friendly.

Plus the [Julie] Taymor Magic Flute [for the Metropolitan Opera], in English and abridged (down to two hours), which arrived at my house just yesterday. I started this blog entry while watching it this morning, which explains why I took so long to finish the posting: I was transfixed by the dazzling spectacle, which also manages to balance the two sides of the work — “half mystery play, half street comedy”, as Alex Ross put it in his New Yorker rave review of the 2004 production — beautifully, without trying to resolve them. Schikaneder, the librettist and the very first Papageno, would have adored it. (And the Papageno on the performance recorded for the DVD, Nathan Gunn, is a hoot, and really cute as well.)

“Magic Flute libretto”, from 11/30/10:

Just arrived: big book (2011 copyright) of Seven Mozart Librettos, verse translations by J.D. McClatchy: IdomeneoAbductionFigaroDon GiovanniCosìClemenza di TitoMagic Flute. In facing pages, with the originals on the left, McClatchy’s translations on the right.

… I mention the translation of Zauberflöte because it’s the one Julie Taymor used for her fabulous Metropolitan Opera production of the opera, which [I posted some about a little while back].

McClatchy really gets the serious silliness / playful seriousness of Papageno (who to my mind is the central figure of the opera, no matter what anyone else says — and my grand-[child] agrees with me). Here’s Papageno in scene 29 of act 2 (close to the end of the opera), playing his panpipe:

Papagena, Papagena, Papagena!
Sweetheart! Dearest! My beloved!
Useless! She is lost forever!
I was never meant to have her.
By chattering I missed my chance.
Here’s the end to my romance.
Ever since I sipped that wine
And saw the girl that should be mine,
The fire in my heart’s severe.
It warms me there, and scorches here!
Papagena! My dove! My darling!
Papagena! My pretty starling!
She doesn’t know the way to find me.
It’s time to leave the world behind me.
Since my love was all in vain,
It’s time to end a life of pain.

He prepares to hang himself, but thinks to use his panpipes and summon the Three Boys, who tell him to use the bells and call his mate Papagena. Bliss ensues.


2 Responses to “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja”

  1. Ellen Kaisse Says:

    I had always vaguely opined that Tamino was a bit of a drip and that his Act I aria and his and Pamina’s music in general were rather vapid, especially compared to Papageno’s and P’s duet with Papagena, which is one of the most adorable things ever written. Now you have given a much more supported overview of the whole question. Of course we are right! Papageno and Papagena forever — they rock!

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