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I KNEW the name Schikaneder only vaguely: librettist of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute and also a bit character in the Mozart biopic of sorts, Amadeus (Director’s Cut). I’m gleaning a lot more, though, from Kurt Honolka’s book Papageno, the title chosen to honor Schikaneder’s bird-catcher role in The Magic Flute. Here are several theatrical tidbits from the book.
Honolka took on quite a research challenge in Papageno because very little correspondence exists concerning his subject. He suggests two reasons for this paucity: Schikaneder began his career in the early 1770s as an itinerant actor whose traveling life didn’t promote extra baggage of any kind. Later, he and Mozart were pals and lived near one another. Hence their interactions had little need of written correspondence.
Mummers, actors were called; traveling players known originally for their mime performances. The term grew to become a derogatory one for those who trod the stage, never a particularly respected profession. Honokla observes, “Their social standing was as low as their artistic level, characterized by the oft-quoted cry, ‘Take down the wash! The mummers are coming.’ ”
In time, Schikaneder achieved plaudits, for example, for his portrayal of Hamlet at Munich’s Royal Bavarian Court Theater, December 19, 1777. Plays of Shakespeare and Frenchman Molière were more highly regarded in royal venues than German farce and Singspiel. Not that today’s theatergoers would recognize this particular Hamlet: Subtitled Brudermord Gerächt (Fratricide Revenged), the play in which Schikaneder starred had been revised to have a happy ending.
Honolka shares another Schikaneder/Hamlet tale, also leading to a happy conclusion: At a performance of the play in Linz, Germany, “ ‘The lights were lit, the orchestra was ready, but not a soul was in the house.’ Schikaneder ordered ‘a roast chicken for each player’ to be sent from the White Cross Inn. A table was set up on the stage, the orchestra was ordered to play, and all dined in good spirits. He threw open the theater doors with great ostentation. When the Linz townspeople peered in cautiously, they were given to understand: here’s the Hamlet that nobody wanted to see!”
The next performance, townspeople filled the theater to capacity.
Playing to royals had its quirks too. Frederick II had commissioned Berlin’s Unter den Linden opera house in 1741. Operas in Italian were the hot tip. Indeed, it was not unknown in such court theaters for the princely patron to take part on stage or in the orchestra pit, a choice role, of course.
Audiences were seated strictly according to rank and title. Also, Honolka notes, “… when it was too cold (there was no heating) a company of grenadiers was assigned to provide adequate bodily warmth.”
No grenadiers were evident to me in the 1990s when I enjoyed a production of Bellini’s Norma at Unter den Linden opera house. Today, this theater is under renovation with the Staatsoper residing in Berlin’s Schiller Theater.
Schikaneder’s troupe played Salzburg in the fall of 1780, and he and Wolfgang Amadeus hit it off. Later, when Schikaneder’s troupe was the resident theatrical company in Vienna, Mozart’s Die Entfürhrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) was one of its popular productions. Briefly, its plot has two romantic pairs, one high-born, the other of the servant class, both with adversities to overcome. It’s a familiar theme; think numerous episodes of Downton Abbey.
Or think of The Magic Flute, with Prince Tamino and his Pamina, Papageno and his Papagena, the bird catcher played by none other than Emanuel Schikaneder. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016