Emanuel Schikaneder, librettistb. Straubing, September 1, 1751; d. Vienna, September 21, 1812
At his peak, Emanuel Schikaneder was a genuine king of the theater in Vienna, writing, acting, directing, producing, even composing—no small achievement for a man who began life with nothing. He was born in a small town in Lower Bavaria, the son of a lackey and a serving maid. At the Jesuit Gymnasium in Regensburg he picked up a bit of Latin, some music training, and experience in church performances before taking off as a wandering minstrel. Joining a traveling troupe as an actor, he was soon writing, staging, and composing music for plays. His first play, The Minstrels, based on his own experiences, was a great success and enjoyed a long life.
His friendship with Mozart began in September 1780 when he came to Salzburg, now with his own company, for a six-month run. Mozart was 24, restless in the service of the Archbishop, and Schikaneder, four years older, must have injected a welcome spark into the local scene. That he was a frequent visitor in the Mozart home says much, for father Leopold would never have tolerated a fool. Over the next several years Schikaneder was often away touring, but the two men still managed to fraternize intermittently.
In 1789 Schikaneder settled in Vienna on a more permanent basis to take over, at the invitation of his estranged wife, the new Theater auf der Wieden after her partner, the theater’s director, suddenly died. The reunion, of practical benefit to both, gave Schikaneder a stable base at last. He plunged in, presenting operas, comedies, and tragedies as well as occasional spectaculars, concerts, and ballets. The range was wide, from melodramas to Schiller and Goethe, from popular Singspiels, including some of his own, to works by Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart.
On September 30, 1791, Schikaneder entered history with the premiere of The Magic Flute. Playing the role of Papageno himself, Schikaneder scored great success in the singspiel that was destined to be the most frequently played German opera in Germany well into modern times. Mozart died only months after The Magic Flute premiered, but Schikaneder went on to become one of the primary theatrical entrepreneurs of his day—indeed, a precursor to the modern theatrical impresario. Without consistent financial backing, he continually struggled to balance art and economics; and ever controversial, he was accused of overindulging his flair for the spectacular by mounting outdoor productions and emphasizing special theatrical effects. Still, he eventually gained enough wealth and prestige to build his own theater in 1801, the Theater an der Wien, which exists to this very day. The end of his life was more tragic, however, beset as he was by dementia and plagued by the pennilessness that characterized the start of his career.
by Joanne Sheehy Hoover