Mozart's Musical Comedy

Classic Arts Features   Mozart's Musical Comedy
In some ways The Magic Flute is the grandest of grand operas, but in other respects it is more like a Broadway show. Michael Feingold takes us to the theater.

It might never have happened if the actress Eleonore Arth's lover hadn't died. But Johann Jakob Friedel, actor and playwright, made his last earthly exit in March of 1789, less than a year after coming upon an extraordinary stroke of luck: Having wandered for years with Eleonore at the head of a ragtag traveling troupe, he'd just taken possession of a spacious, comfortable, up-to-date, thousand-seat theater in a new community just outside the city walls of Vienna. When he died, Eleonore was left holding the lease, and did what any sensible 18th-century actress would have done in her place: She sent for her ex-husband, graciously overlooking the fact that, a decade earlier, his multiple adulteries had been what drove her into Friedel's arms in the first place. And that, as they say in fairy tales, is how Emanuel Schikaneder became the manager, star, and principal playwright of the Starhemberg Freihaus Theater auf der Wieden, where he and a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart created a work called Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute").

As befits a man who could go, virtually overnight, from provincial player to artistic eminence, Schikaneder was a complete man of the theater, in both good and bad senses. A skilled and knowledgeable artist who had played everything from Hamlet to Hanswurst, and had been acclaimed in both realms, he could turn about and reveal as little concern for taste and coherence onstage as he had displayed for his marital vows. Still, scurrilous gossip notwithstanding (and the 18th-century Viennese loved celebrity gossip as much as we do today), there is no doubt that Schikaneder was a man of considerable gifts, able to steer the Wieden Theater through the seas of political upheaval and changing taste for a substantial number of years. Mozart had admired his work since 1780, when Schikaneder's company played Salzburg and Mozart, in the throes of Idomeneo, interrupted himself long enough to compose an additional aria for Schikaneder's adaptation of Gozzi's Le Due Notte. In 1786, Schikaneder had opened his abortive stint as head of Vienna's Kärntnertor Theater with a revival of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, on the structure of which the Flute's libretto would later be modeled. (Supplementary evidence of his gifts as a lyricist comes from Arnold Schoenberg, who, when attempting to write for the Viennese cabarets of the early 1900s, made a charming setting of a lyric from Schikaneder's The Mirror of Arcadia.)

Naturally, in 1790, the newly returned Schikaneder saw the value in having Mozart create a new opera for his theater, all the more since other Viennese operatic venues seemed irretrievably blocked to the composer. Though steeped in the Italian musical tradition, like all composers of his era, Mozart was emphatically German in his cultural allegiance, and strongly believed that the German-speaking regions should have a vernacular operatic tradition of their own, just as Italy and France did. (On his visit to England as a youthful piano prodigy, he had been particularly struck by the willingness of London audiences to listen to opera and oratorio performances in English‹even to Italian opera sung in translation. Certainly German, as he later wrote to several correspondents, was no more difficult to sing than English.) The Abduction (1782) had been a first major step toward extending the dramatic richness of Italian opera into the German singspiel form, a more loosely structured form, less hidebound by conventions, that interspersed its musical numbers‹often popular tunes of the day fitted to suitable new lyrics‹with dialogue instead of secco recitative.

The form is the equivalent of the one the English theater of the time called "ballad opera," which had begun in 1728, appropriately, as a way of ridiculing London's new craze for Italian opera. Its seminal event was the production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, a work that took the situations (and occasionally the hit tunes) of Italian opera seria, and puckishly set them loose among the sleaziest characters of London's underworld. One of the great theatrical sensations of its time, The Beggar's Opera spawned a flood of imitators, mostly lacking Gay's brilliance and satirical bite. British troupes traveling to the newly populous cities of North America, brought along The Beggar's Opera and its successors, which ultimately evolved into one principal influence on what became American "musical comedy."

The ballad-opera genre traveled to the continent as well, shaping the evolution of the German singspiel, just as the continent's growing awareness of Shakespeare was having an explosive effect on German drama. Still only a loose collection of states under the Holy Roman Empire, the German regions may have had their political center in Mozart's Vienna, but their aesthetic and spiritual center lay in Italy, where through-composed opera, seria or buffa, was the socially approved form of music theater. Mozart's great patron, the Emperor Joseph II, was sympathetic to both "high" Italian taste and the Austrian public's craving for an indigenous form, sung in their own language and arising out of their own tradition. For a time, Emperor Joseph maintained alternating companies for Italian opera and singspiel at the Burgtheater, the official state theater in the center of Vienna. When administrative conflicts arose, the singspiel company moved to the Kärntnertor Theater‹the one to which Emperor Joseph had invited Schikaneder's troupe in the mid-80s, after admiring their performances in Pressburg.

Our contemporary notion of Emperor Joseph as hostile or apathetic to Mozart's music, fostered by Peter Shaffer's popular Amadeus, is a huge misunderstanding. In truth he was both musically knowledgeable (it is recorded that he would often send for and study the Burgtheater's orchestral score of The Marriage of Figaro) and politically astute about the value of cultural diversity. Though his personal preference seems to have been for Italian opera buffa, no doubt he understood that Mozart's deepest commitment lay elsewhere: In 1786, when a state occasion required the display of both the royal opera and singspiel companies, the official court composer, Salieri, was commissioned to prepare an opera buffa; Mozart's commission was to provide a singspiel. Hence the double bill of Prima la Musica e poi le Parole and Der Schauspieldirektor.

By the time Schikaneder took over the Wieden Theater, however, Viennese culture was in the midst of a great transition. The political upheavals in France had made all of Europe tense. A costly war with the Turks had kept Vienna's economy dismal (it was the chief cause of Mozart's giving up the subscription-concert series that had produced his great piano concertos) and had destroyed the Emperor's health. Joseph II died in February 1790; the closing of the court theaters for the period of mourning foreshadowed the difficulties of Mozart's own final years, by cutting short the run of his acclaimed Cosí fan tutte.

Leopold II, who succeeded his elder brother as Emperor, was thoroughly Italianate in his tastes. He had no patience with Mozartean complexities, musical or moral. Emperor Joseph's envelope-pushing court poet, Da Ponte, one of the great creative partners of Mozart's career, was dismissed; state occasions pointedly ceased to include invitations for Mozart to perform. When he was offered a royal commission, it was to compose an opera seria, not for Vienna, but for Prague, for one of Leopold's secondary coronations (as King of Bohemia). The sumptuous result, La Clemenza di Tito, was apathetically received by the coronation guests ceremoniously assembled at its premiere; packed houses of cheering crowds only emerged later in the run, when the royal visitors had departed.

Menaced by stirrings of revolution, Leopold also discouraged the Enlightenment ideas that Joseph had tacitly supported, which had a directly adverse effect on one of the bonds that drew Mozart to Schikaneder: Both were Freemasons, members of a wide circle of elite European minds. Though decked out in ceremonial mumbo-jumbo, 18th-century Freemasonry was at its core a progressive intellectual-social movement, internationalist and democratic in outlook. After Mozart had observed and relished the work of Schikaneder's new troupe, it was natural that the two should collaborate on a vernacular opera with a Masonic theme. For Mozart, it was a kind of godsend: It fulfilled his vision of an indigenously Germanic work, offered an outlet for his theatrical gifts when Vienna's state opera house appeared closed to him, and provided a librettist both theatrically knowing and intellectually sympathetic to replace Da Ponte.

The musical quality of Schikaneder's troupe also appealed to him strongly. In addition to Mozart's sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer (noted for her flexible coloratura), the company included two men who were able composers as well as widely admired singers, the tenor Benedikt Schack and the bass Franz Xaver Gerl. Given the stunning (and demanding) music that Mozart tailored to their abilities, the troupe's overall musical level must have indeed been high. And Schack, as well as becoming the first Tamino, was one of the very few to do his own flute playing.

Much of the Flute's music, in its solos and in the larger ensemble pieces, is elaborately developed and the score overall has a far more varied character than any of Mozart's Italian works. It says much for Schikaneder's artistic range that this man so widely acclaimed as Hamlet and Iago should have made a triumph as the clownish Papageno, for whom, as for other minor characters like the low-comic villain Monostatos, Mozart tailored songs (distinctly not arias) that are tuneful, simple, and easily hummable by audiences. (The Flute score, says the Mozart scholar Daniel Heartz, "outdoes any other from his pen in folklike simplicity.") Like the slapstick and wisecracking in which Papageno often indulges, these elements belong to the musical comedy stage, not to opera. (Compare them for example to the slapstick scene that Mozart added for the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni, in which Zerlina ties up Leporello and threatens him with a razor‹a scene that is virtually never played today, and that many lovers of the work wish didn't exist at all.) Yet Papageno and Monostatos are integral to the structure of The Magic Flute, which would seem a diminished work without them. Its patchwork fabric, uniting a polyglot mixture of accents and a stylistic range from highest to lowest, is the essence of musical comedy.

Note that both of these "low" male characters are linked to higher ideas through significant encounters with Pamina, the lyric soprano who is at the center of Flute both dramatically and morally: She and Papageno unite to sing the praises of male-female love in one of the work's shining moments, while the song in which Monostatos contemplates her asleep (though its lyrics tend to make contemporary political-correcters uncomfortable) is in essence Schikaneder's adaptation of Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. (The scene itself, though, is inspired by the Posthumus-Imogen scene in Cymbeline‹Schikaneder knew his Shakespeare thoroughly.)

Pamina is also pivotal in another sense: The all-male Masonic order had a deep mistrust of women: Flute displays it in elements that have furrowed many modern critical brows‹the Queen of the Night's cruelty and deceit, the Priests' warning against "women's trickery." With pure theatrical know-how, Schikaneder balances this assumption against Pamina's essential goodness: Her integrity and love of truth are the inspiration that guides Tamino through the final ordeal; at the end, he and she are admitted together to the higher realm; virtue is meaningless unless tempered by love. This is less a Masonic moral than one long beloved of the commercial musical theatre, and The Magic Flute proved its validity by becoming a smash hit: In its first season, it played an extraordinary sixty-four performances, undoubtedly making both Mozart and Schikaneder a good deal of money.

The Flute's widespread success also granted Mozart his wish of becoming the trailblazer of a new, singspiel-based German opera tradition: It inspired Weber, Marschner, and Nicolai; they in turn inspired Wagner. And when Wagner's simple folk materials ballooned into the elaborated realms of Gesamtkunstwerk, Flute inspired the counter-movement that led away from his grandeur to operetta, to Offenbach ("the Mozart of the Champs-Élysées"), Johann Strauss, and Lehár. Which, in turn, fed into the American musical comedy that had initially been inspired, like the singspiel, by English ballad opera. One wonders if Schikaneder, reconciling with his estranged wife at the Theater auf der Wieden, could have foreseen the cascade of pleasures his little spectacle would produce. No doubt, as a knowing man of the theater, he would gladly take credit for it.

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