It Could Be Pamina

Tamino marvels at the Pamina’s picture, the Bildnis. Admiration leads to yearning and therefore, the indicative, his struggle for words and comparisons eventually lead to the subjunctive. Read part 2 of the mini series about the subjunctive in Die Zauberflöte.

Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön

The Drei Damen, sent by the Königin der Nacht, instruct Tamino to find and free Pamina, and for this purpose they give him what they call a Gemälde (painting). When he sees this Bildnis(portrait), he trembles.


Götterbild n = godly image
Regung f = here: emotion
Etwas n = something (as a noun)
brennen = to burn

Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön
wie noch kein Auge je geseh’n!
Ich fühl’ es, wie dies Götterbild
mein Herz mit neuer Regung füllt.
Dies Etwas kann ich zwar nicht nennen!
Doch fühl ich’s hier wie Feuer brennen.

He has no word for what he calls dies Etwas (this something). He resorts to a comparison using wie, a conjunction that connects two facts of equal quality (Paula singt wie Maria.) added by the attribute so in case there is an adjective involved. (Paula singt so schön wie Maria.)

Wie schön ist das Bildnis?

So schön, wie es kein Auge je (ever) gesehen.

The participle gesehen represents the past; it’s actually the perfect tense although here it comes without the helping verb hat. (In olden days, people would drop the helping verb when the perfect tense appeared along with the extra information. Today, we would say, so schön, wie es kein Auge je gesehen hat.)

How does dies Etwas burn? Wie Feuer.

He feels how (wie) this image fills his heart with a new sensation.

Das Götterbild füllt mein Herz mit neuer Regung.

The words zwar and doch belong together. Although doch (here identical with aber or jedoch) can appear without its partner, zwar cannot. It is a signal that something contrasting is coming. Ich bin müde, you say; we expect you to go to bed. Add zwar, and we will be alert; you will do something despite your tiredness. Ich bin zwar müde, aber ich sehe heute Abend Die Zauberflöte.

Ich kann dies Etwas zwar nicht nennen (to name), doch ich fühle es brennen.

Finally, halfway through the aria, the word he has been searching for finally arrives in his mind: Liebe.

Empfindung f = sensation, sentiment

Soll die Empfindung Liebe sein?
Ja, ja! Die Liebe ist’s allein.

Until he realizes what it is that is agitating his heart, he muses in couplets, but afterward the rhyme scheme loosens. Love is followed by longing, feeling by thinking, and the indicative, the way we express facts and sensations, is followed by the subjunctive, the way we express speculations and the what-if questions. Now, the little dots fly in to crown the vowels. The umlauts signal that the subjunctive has taken over.

Entzücken n = here: enchantment

O wenn ich sie nur finden könnte!
O wenn sie doch nur vor mir stände!
Ich würde—würde—warm und rein—
was würde ich!—sie voll Entzücken
an diesen heißen Busen drücken,
und ewig wäre sie dann mein.

When Tamino wishes to find her, he does not say, Wenn ich sie finden kann. He turns kann into könnte. He longs for her presence, wishes for her to be standing in front of him. She does not stehen, that would be real (indicative). Tamino takes the simple past of stehen (standen) and adds the little dots: ständen. He has set up the condition for the action sie an diesen Busen drücken (to embrace, to clasp her to his bosom), but that would be presumptuous since he hasn’t even met her yet. It is a thought experiment. Thus, he must apply the subjunctive as well. Because drücken is a regular verb, we must create the subjunctive with an extra -t-: drückten. However, as it is with regular verbs, drückten is also the simple past for drücken. To avoid any confusion—and to create tension by repeating it—Tamino gets help from the auxiliary verb würden. Ich würde sie an diesen heißen Busen drücken. Then she would be his forever: he returns to his earlier approach of creating the subjunctive. The simple past of sein is war. Add the dots and an -e: wäre.

Listen to German tenor Fritz Wunderlich as Tamino:

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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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