It’s March. Spring’s harbingers are reaching Vienna. Any day, now, the city’s flora will begin to bud, among them the flowering lilacs in the Sankt Marxer Friedhof – the St. Marx Cemetery – on the southern edge of the city’s 3rd District.
Opened during the time of Joseph II and closed in 1874, St. Marx is perhaps most famous as the final resting place of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was unceremoniously buried there in a pauper’s grave in 1791. Was it as abruptly as depicted in Miloš Forman’s 1984 film, Amadeus? Probably. As had become customary, Mozart’s remains were cast into an unmarked Schachtgrab. Today, somewhere nearby, a broken column – for Mozart’s all-too-brief 35 years – marks the site.
When the lilacs bloom again, visitors will also return to visit Mozart’s hallowed ground. Few will be told of a tomb that lies about a hundred meters to the south, the grave of Anna Gottlieb. Who was this, for all that Mozart lovers should care?
Anna Gottlieb was Mozart’s first Pamina, that’s who.
Pamina. As in The Magic Flute. You’ll remember the plot. Our hero, Prince Tamino, is persuaded by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the clutches of the evil high priest Sarastro. As Act I concludes, the two have reversed roles – the Queen is revealed to be the evil one, the high priest virtuous – but never mind. The Prince is determined to save Pamina. He has seen her portrait and has fallen in love with her image that he finds “bezaubernd schön” (“enchantingly beautiful.”)
Tamino finds Pamina in Sarastro’s temple, but the high priest will not let them unite until, through trial by fire and water, Tamino proves that he is worthy of her, and they are worthy of each other. It isn’t easy. At one point, Pamina doubts Tamino’s love: “Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden” (“Ah, I feel it, it has vanished”).
But they know that they’re protected by the magic flute, vouchsafed to Tamino back in Act I. “Tamino mein,” sings Pamina, “o welch ein Glück!” (“Oh, my Tamino! What good fortune!”) They prevail. They are worthy. Sarastro blesses their union, and he and the other priests sing:
Es siegte die Stärke und krönet zum Lohn
Die Schönheit und Weisheit mit ewiger Kron!
(Strength has triumphed, rewarding
Beauty and wisdom with an everlasting crown!)
Pamina is one of the plot’s critical hinges, but a slender role for a singer. Truth be told, Mozart gave the best soprano material to Pamina’s mother, the Königin. Consider the Queen’s vindictive “Der Hölle Rache” (“Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”), one of Mozart’s most famous arias. Still, Anna Gottlieb might have been relieved to give a pass to that High C. When she appeared in the premiere of The Magic Flute, she was only 17.
Anna’s father, Johann Christoph Gottlieb, was an actor, his wife Maria Anna Theyner an opera singer. Their daughter, born in 1774, joined the family trade. On the boards by the age of 5, at 12 Anna was singing Barbarina in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in Vienna’s Hofburg Theater. And then, at 17, in the then-famous but now long-gone Theater auf der Wieden, she was the world’s first Pamina.
Afterward came dashed hopes. In the decade following her Pamina debut, both of Gottlieb’s parents died. Anna herself would never marry. Or, one might say, she would be married to the stage. From her Magic Flute premiere until well into her 50s, she found steady work at another long-gone stage, the Theater in der Leopoldstadt on Praterstraße. Most biographers suggest that her voice faltered as she aged, or, some say, rusted up during the Napoleonic wars, when theaters were often shuttered. Others, like Wilhelm Kuhe, even mocked her, writing years after her death, that “she seemed to think that she had at least an equal claim with Mozart to be an object of universal veneration.” Still, she was the last singer alive in Vienna who had known Mozart personally.
In her later years, she took to parody, lampooning operatic sopranos and working as a lyrical character actor. A success at 17, waning skills at 40, lampooning the faded glory of others at 50: All became perhaps sordidly autobiographical.
Anna Gottlieb died on February 4, 1856, at the age of 82, her remains buried in the Sankt Marxer Friedhof, grave number 207. Her gravestone reads:
«Singer and Actress, first performer of “Pamina”»
So visit her under the lilacs. And while you’re there, think about lying on your deathbed and concluding that the highlight of your life came and went when you were 17.