Papageno

Karl Barth famously wrote that in heaven all the official music is Bach, but in private God listens to Mozart. I’m jealous for Bach, my favorite composer, but just listen to the second act of The Magic Flute. Is there any music sweeter and more joyful than that final duet between Papageno and his Papagena?

Papageno, a baritone, is the comic birdcatcher who accompanies prince Tamino, the tenor and, ostensibly, the hero. Tamino is earnest and serious, while Papageno wears feathers. Tamino has to rescue the lovely princess Pamina, but it’s the non-heroic Papageno who accomplishes this. He confides to Pamina that he is lonely for a sweetheart of his own. Tamino passes through a series of ordeals in order to attain Wisdom and Reason and be united with Pamina. The noble couple is uplifted on the hymns of Sarastro and the priests of Isis and Osiris. Papageno resigns himself to an old hag, who suddenly doffs her disguise and reveals herself as Papagena, and she wears feathers just like him. Then they sing their duet.

The opera is fun to watch, with wonderful music. But what does it all mean? It’s been regarded as a philosophical achievement of the first rank, while others see it merely as entertainment. I think Mozart’s intuition gave us more in the opera than he might have been aware of himself. Wagner is the composer who got philosophical, but Mozart aimed lower and reached higher. Mozart gave us Papageno, Wagner gave us Tristan and Isolde. Mozart’s love duet is as comic as Wagner’s is serious (and it is very serious). Imagine Tristan sounding like a bird and singing to Isolde “Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.”

It may be comic, but it’s transcendent in its sweetness and purity. It moves me to tears when I hear it. One Saturday afternoon, when I listened to the two of them exulting in having found each other, and contemplating their future family of little Papageni, the picture came to me of Adam and Eve at their first meeting. Adam must have started singing when he saw her. And she sang back, “flesh of his flesh” and voice of his voice. And the angels sat there in the balcony, watching and listening.

I’m sure the angels’ aesthetic sympathies were with the lofty philosophical singing of Sarastro. I’m sure they were impressed by the nobility of the Tamino and Pamina, compared to Papageno, who has proclaimed himself a “natural man,” too fond of food and wine to pass through the trial of fire and water. But Papageno is God’s favorite character. And God sat there delighted, looking down at the stage, set with the scenery of Eden, as the two of them, Papageno and Papagena, Adam and Eve, male and female in God’s image, made a song so silly and lovely as the stars could never sing.

I know this because of the Incarnation. God has a hankering after bucolic flesh that angels do not have. One of God’s favorite CD’s must be Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, especially that soprano aria, Et incarnatus est. It’s the kind of music you keep playing over and over again, just to wonder at its beauty. Only Mozart could have written it. Only very good sopranos can sing it. I wonder if it was this aria which confirmed the purpose in God’s mind to go through with the Incarnation. Was it Mozart’s feeling for the female voice that settled God’s choice on being born of the Virgin Mary? In the coda, the soprano vocalizes, “ah-ah-ah-ah,” and if you take that music down from the resonant dome of a cathedral to the hard wood of a stage, what you get is “pa-pa-pa-pa.”

The temptation of Eve included a whiff of discontent with her creatureliness. The tempter offered the noble wisdom and knowledge that Sarastro offers Tamino. Who could gainsay this? But the temptation is only advertising. The reality of it, where it inevitably leads, is the “love-death” of Tristan and Isolde, which is what we’re stuck with now. What Satan wanted to ruin was what God had in mind, the creatureliness of Adam and Eve, Papageno-style, feathers and all.

All is not lost. You can replay the opera season after season, and the scene delights you every time. It’s an eternal moment, when God sits in the balcony and watches that scene and laughs. A. A. van Ruler calls the laughter of heaven the expression of God’s love. Okay, “a song of love is a sad song,” and Our Lord wept–but from love. God’s laughter is the deeper and unending “Yes” of love we need to hear. I hear it in that ecstatic and naive duet, when Papageno can hardly believe his luck and Papagena rejoices in what she is to him. Yes, love has found us, life is good, we can be happy after all, and the rest of the opera, as noble as it is, is just business.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York and a member of the Editorial Board of Perspectives.