I Wish I Could

Die Zauberflöte is rich in speculations but do not speculate about that. Instead, read part one of a short series on the subjunctive.

At first we enter a world of rituals and rules, of pyramids and a paradigm that never shifts—the world of Freemasonry, where hierarchy demands obedience for the sake of good. As a result, the language is filled with orders and encouragement, for which grammar gives us the imperative. But where a command is received there is doubt and fear, at least in Zauberflöte, and where there is fear there are speculations. For these, and for expressing a desire, grammar—and eventually librettist Emanuel Schikaneder—provides us with the subjunctive.

To express an action that we just imagine, that we wish, that is possible, we need to change the verb or add a helping verb to make sure that we are not in the realm of reality.

We can say, “Wenn ich an der Scala singe, bin ich glücklich.” This implies that you are happy (glücklich) every time you sing at the Scala. The verbs singe (infinitive: singen) and bin (infinitive: sein) are indicative and tell us about real actions. However, I assume that you do not sing at the Scala—yet!—and that you would like to engage in a thought experiment. Then, we have to create the subjunctive. We can do that
a) by using the helping verb würden plus infinitive or
b) by changing the spelling of the verb itself.

Wenn ich an der Scala singen würde, würde ich glücklich sein. This is the way we often speak.

The subjunctive functions also as an advice: An deiner Stelle würde ich bei der Scala vorsingen. In your position, I would audition at the Scala.

A dream: Wenn ich Millionärin sein würde, würde ich ein eigenes Opernhaus haben. If I was a millionaire, I would have my own opera house.

Writers often express the subjunctive by changing the verb itself. We turn it (e.g. singen), into the simple past (sangen) and than into the subjunctive with the help of the umlaut: sängen.

sein > waren> wären

haben > hatten > hätten

Wenn ich an der Scala sänge, wäre ich glücklich. An deiner Stelle sänge ich bei der Scala vor. Wenn ich Millionärin wäre, hätte ich ein eigenes Opernhaus.

As in Zauberflöte the Drei Damen discover the unconscious Tamino, each of them muses what to do with him and asks the others to go and inform the Königin der Nacht about their finding. Desires are made up of passion plus würden plus an infinitive—Ich würde mein Herz der Liebe weihen (here: to dedicate)—or a unique verb form without würden. For that, the Drei Damen turn müssen (it’s real) into müssten (now it’s an assumption): Es müsste dieser Jüngling sein.

Tamino starts daydreaming when he sees Pamina’s picture. He turns stehen into the simple past (standen) and adds two little dots to the letter “a”. What is left is ständen, i.e., only in his imagination. Wenn sie doch schon vor mir stände, though she does not.

Read soon part two: Dies Bildnis and Tamino’s dreams.

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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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