Saturday, July 19, 2008

In Praise of Papageno

People are talking about a new mini-trend on Broadway: writers and composers appearing in their own shows. Of course there's Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen from [title of show], but also Lin-Manuel Miranda in In the Heights, Stew in Passing Strange, and Harvey Fierstein in A Catered Affair. Miranda and Fierstein are playing original characters (tailored to suit their own personalities), while Stew and the [tos] gents play themselves, or versions thereof.

This kind of thing is relatively rare on Broadway, but even less common in the opera world, because an even higher level of skill is needed to sing opera than to sing in a musical. In fact, I can think of only one librettist who starred in an opera he wrote: Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote The Magic Flute and then played Papageno. Are there any others?

The role of Papageno is thus kind of an anomaly in the operatic repertoire. Schikaneder obviously fit the role to his own talents (he was known for playing a Papageno-like comic character named "Hanswurst") but plenty of other singers have found success in the part. In fact, Papageno can easily steal the show and make Tamino seem stiff and boring by comparison. Because Schikaneder was not a virtuoso singer, Papageno's music is simple, rhythmic, and sits in the middle of the male vocal range (lyric baritone). But that means that you're likely to leave The Magic Flute humming one of Papageno's arias (well, that or The Queen of the Night). And despite its limited vocal range, the Papageno/Papagena duet is absolutely glorious, isn't it?

Papageno is a coward, he tells lies, he fails Sarastro's tests, and yet, for all his flaws, he remains lovable. I always feel sorry for him during "Bei Mannern" because he and Pamina harmonize so beautifully in praise of love, but she's already promised to Tamino, and he hasn't found anyone yet!

Though Papageno yearns to get married, he's not a stereotypical innamorato. And though there are other comic baritone roles in the repertoire, they're not Papageno clones. For instance, the Birdcatcher is entirely sweet-natured, lacking the angry streak of Mozart's Figaro; and he's not especially clever, unlike Rossini's Figaro. Yet he's good at his job, loyal and kindhearted, and knows he'll be a great husband and father. He is Everyman, raised to the level of the sublime.

From a strict dramatic standpoint, Papageno doesn't do enough in the plot of The Magic Flute to justify the size of his role, but I can't imagine the opera without him. He keeps things lighthearted when they threaten to get ponderous, and allows Mozart to illustrate one of his favorite themes: forgiveness. At least 4 earlier Mozart operas--Abduction from the Seraglio, Così fan Tutte, Nozze di Figaro, Clemenza di Tito--end with scenes of forgiveness, and The Magic Flute continues the pattern: though Papageno fails Sarastro's trials, he still gets to live happily ever after with his dream woman. The Magic Flute ends by recognizing both the prince Tamino and the commoner Papageno as worthy men--one of the reasons it is the quintessential Enlightenment opera.

Though Papageno began as a way for Emanuel Schikaneder to entertain his fans, he ended up one of the most appealing characters in opera. I wonder what other unique roles would be in the operatic canon had more librettos been written by singers and actors?

Image is from the silhouette-animated film Papageno directed by Lotte Reiniger in 1935. Credit:

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