Mozart and Birds
by Jennifer Bryce
In March this year, at the Adelaide Festival, I attended Barrie Kosky’s extraordinary production of The Magic Flute.
Only the front of the stage is used, and much of the action involves animation on a huge screen, the actors at times greatly elevated (singers must be getting used to singing from alarming heights — I think of Kate Miller-Heidke in the Eurovision contest). The animation is by the company 1927, and indeed we are in the realms of the silent films of the Weimar Republic.
By no means an opera buff, I don’t like recitatives and on this occasion I didn’t have to listen to any because the words were shown as intertitles, in appropriate silent movie font. I particularly loved the depiction of the Queen of the Night as a huge spider.
The hero of this opera is Papageno, the Bird Catcher, who , after being the proverbial loser, ends up with his Papagena. The opera is about love, and as reviewer Cameron Woodhead has said, it depicts love as ‘something visceral, irrational and disordered, but also an intrinsic delight’. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/opera/kosky-s-magic-flute-enchanting-and-unforgettable-20190302-p511cj.html
I loved the animation. But I was aware that the music of the Berlin Komische Oper was superb. In particular the high soprano notes of the Queen were piercing and amazing. I did feel that the novelty of the animation distracted me a little from the beauty of the music. What would Mozart think of this?
In March, I hadn’t yet read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book, Mozart’s Starling. For three years Mozart had a pet starling, which he kept in his rooms in Vienna. Some say that he revisited the pet shop and bought the bird because it could whistle a phrase from his piano concerto no. 17 in G major. (Who composed it first, I wonder, Mozart or the starling?) Haupt tried to teach the phrase to her starling — in case it was a natural part of starling song — but was unsuccessful.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a keen bird lover. Although she doesn’t describe herself as an ornithologist, she knows a lot about birds, and she cares about them. She rescued her starling, Carmen, from a building that was to be demolished. In Seattle, where she lives, starlings are reviled. They are rats with wings. They decimate crops and invade sensitive habitats.
In Haupt’s book, we have the parallel stories of her bird Carmen, who becomes a much-loved pet, and Mozart’s starling, ‘Star’. One thing that puzzled me, reading this book, was the matter of translation. Did Mozart call his bird ‘Star’, or the German equivalent? Also, there are long quotes in English of letters that Mozart wrote, and poems, beautifully rhyming — all quoted in English.
Carmen was so much a part of Haupt’s family that she sat on Haupt’s head or shoulder while Haupt was writing, frequently ‘pooping’ in her hair or on her computer keys. Starlings are great mimics, and Carmen could imitate sounds such as the creak of floorboards. There is interesting discussion about bird langauge and understanding, with reference to the work of Noam Chomsky. Haupt suggests that Star was similarly a pet in Mozart’s household. Haupt visited Vienna and stood in Mozart’s apartment, imagining Star there.
It is said that when Star died, Mozart arranged an extravagant funeral, whereas he hadn’t managed to find the means to travel to the funeral of his own father. Through Haupt’s book I came to see Mozart as a relaxed and fun-loving man. Previously I had thought that because his life was so short and he wrote so much he must have been driven and pedantic. No, he would have loved Kosky’s production of The Magic Flute.