Sweet Evil

Zauberflöte’s Queen of the Night is not as evil as you think. Although she scares us with her desire for revenge in her most famous aria, in the other, the quieter aria she spoils us with the sweetest gift: German grammar. O zittre nicht contains all the material needed for studying the most important grammatical rules of the German language.

Read excerpts from my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.

O zittre nicht
Königin der Nacht

Her pleading to Tamino to rescue her daughter hurtles through all the tenses—starting in the beginning with the imperative, the command not to tremble (Zittre nicht!). She continues in present tense praising Tamino, then she remembers her daughter’s ordeal in simple past, and, eventually, she turns to the future tense to affirm her faith in Tamino. The Königin brandishes everything the German language has to offer to express her passion and suffering, uses adjectives with and without articles, reasons with denn, and keeps it concise with pronouns (ihr, dich, mir). At first, she tells Tamino that he, the Jüngling, has what it takes to console the heart of a mother.

Zu plus Infinitive.  When we begin a thought with ein Jüngling vermag (vermögen = to be able to do) am besten, we need to finish it with a verb preceded by zu: zu trösten (to comfort, to console).

unschuldig = innocent
weise = wise
fromm = pious
vermögen irreg. = to be able to (ich vermag, du vermagst, er vermag)


O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn!
Du bist unschuldig, weise, fromm;
ein Jüngling, so wie du, vermag am besten,
dies tief betrübte Mutterherz zu trösten.

Connect with denn.  The conjunction denn (because) introduces the reason for the preceding statement. The Königin is suffering. Why? She misses her daughter. She could use the word weil (because) but that would make her suffering the main statement and her missing her daughter the extra information. Since the statement about her missing Pamina is of equal importance, she chooses denn. Like und, oder, or aber, denn serves as a keystone between two sentences. No change of word order is necessary. Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren. The keystone: denn. Meine Tochter fehlet mir. A little later, she remembers that Pamina’s pleading was in vain. Vergebens war ihr Flehen. The keystone: denn. Meine Hülfe war zu schwach.

auserkoren = chosen
entfliehen = to escape


Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren;
denn meine Tochter fehlet mir,
durch sie ging all mein Glück verloren—
ein Bösewicht entfloh mit ihr.

Simple Past.  When you encounter an irregular verb in simple past, try to guess the verb in present tense. Consider what you know from the plot, from the context. Something is lost (verloren), mein Glück ging verloren; durch sie, because of her. What could the simple past ging stand for? A verb starting with g-. Maybe gelten (to be valid)? Grinsen (to grin)? The -ing ending suggests a soft-sounding verb. Try gehen. In present tense: Durch sie geht mein Glück verloren. It makes losing her happiness immediate and more dynamic than the mere Ich verliere mein Glück.

A bit later, she remembers Ach helft! war alles, was sie sprach. Looking at the context, the only infinitive that comes to mind when we hear sprach is sprechen. Simple past of müssen: mussten.

Dative Pronoun.  The Königin laments, Meine Tochter fehlet mir. (fehlen = to be missing, to lack)

Who misses whom?

A) The Königin misses her daughter.
B) The daughter misses the Königin.

Ein Bösewicht entfloh mit ihr. (Bösewicht m = villain; entfliehen = to escape)

With whom does the Bösewicht escape?

A) With the Königin.
B) With Pamina.
C) With Tamino.

Noch sehe ich ihr Zittern
mit bangem Erschüttern,
ihr ängstliches Beben,
ihr schüchternes Leben.

Adjectives.  She praises Tamino highly, using adjective descriptors as the actual statement (predicate) of the sentence: Du bist unschuldig, weise, fromm. No change of ending is needed. The same will apply to der Sohn ist lieb, mein Sohn ist lieb, assuming she does not use the adjective as an attribute: Das ist der liebe Sohn. However, the Königin sees him as her son and replaces der with the possessive mein Sohn. This requires her to express the gender of Sohn (masculine) in the adjective’s ending. Take the -r of the article der and add it to the adjective: mein lieber Sohn.

Das Mutterherz ist betrübt. Es ist dies betrübte Mutterherz.

Das Beben ist ängstlich, das Leben ist schüchtern. Now, with the possessive article ihr (her) take the -s of das and add it to the adjective: ihr ängstliches Beben, ihr schüchternes Leben.

A similar case occurs when she speaks of bangem Erschüttern (fearful shock). With the preposition mit comes the dative and therefore also a change in article; das turns into dem, mit dem Erschüttern. Add bang and attach -en and create mit dem bangen Erschüttern. The Königin removes the article dem because it is not needed, for there is only one Erschüttern. The letter -m from dem stays stubbornly behind, though, now attaching itself to the adjective: mit bangem Erschüttern.

Ich musste sie mir rauben sehen,
ach helft! war alles, was sie sprach:
Allein vergebens war ihr Flehen,
denn meine Hülfe war zu schwach.

Another Dative Pronoun.  The Königing says, Ich musste sie mir rauben sehen.

What did the Königin have to do?

A) rauben. (rauben = to rob)
B) sehen.

What does mir stand for?

A) Pamina was stolen from her.
B) Pamina stole from her.

Future Tense.  The combination of werden plus infinitive makes the Königin’s statement ambiguous. She might simply foresee events, or she could be telling Tamino in no uncertain terms what she expects him to do. Only the last line points to her attitude. The word sei (subjunctive for sein) expresses a wish and a promise.

ich werde (here: ich werd)
du wirst
er, sie, es wird
Retter m = rescuer
Sieger m = victor

Du wirst sie zu befreien gehen,
du wirst der Tochter Retter sein.
Und werd ich dich als Sieger sehen,
so sei sie dann auf ewig dein.

Die Frist ist um
Navigate the Language
of 10 German Operas

by Bernd Hendricks

ISBN 978-1-008-908529

379 pages

$ 28.80

Available at: lulu.comamazon.com and bookstores

Published by


Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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