Images of Mignon in early postcards
“I don't mind what language an opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don't understand.”
Here’s a small mystery. The most popular opera in the early 20th century was about a long suffering wretch who lacked a personality, scarcely had a moment’s happiness in her life and brought much of her misfortune upon herself. Like Carmen, Mignon was a gypsy but where Carmen was unfettered, Mignon was servile, and meek where the former was mean. You could respect Carmen even if you were supposed to think she got everything she deserved. You could also see how she could become a sex symbol, but Mignon, the little dishrag in the corner? Why did she end up the poster girl for bohemian gypsy lifestyles?
This is the opening to Mignon, a comic opera about thwarted love and mistaken identities: In the courtyard of an inn somewhere in Germany, Lothario, a wandering minstrel, is plucking his harp and singing of the travails in his life while some gypsies dance. Two actors, Filina and Laertes, appear in a castle window and down below a student named Wilhelm Meister turns up. The leader of the gypsies spies Mignon asleep in a cart. He threatens to beat her but Lothario and Wilhelm step in. The grateful Mignon divides a posy of flowers between her saviours. She then tells Wilhelm that she is not a real gypsy. She was kidnapped as a young girl and still has vague memories of her home. You don’t need to be told that once she confesses she was stolen as a child, Mignon will be restored to her family, and that said family own a fabulous castle. Getting to that point however will involve a series of misunderstandings and brilliant coincidences. This is opera, where anything can happen so long as it defies the laws of nature.
When Ambroise Thomas wrote the opera in the 1860s he expanded on one chapter from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. In the original, Mignon was the abandoned daughter of a priest and it was only with her untimely death that Wilhelm began to understand the shallowness of his values. As that précis suggests, Mignon’s life was too miserable for a comic opera and Thomas needed an implausible redemption. He turned to a device used in hundreds of folk tales and by Dickens in Oliver Twist and by a remarkable stroke of fortune, Lothario turned out not only to be Mignon’s unwitting father but heir to a throne. At least the cast had something to celebrate with a rousing song at the finale.
In the very late 19th century some dancers found it useful to claim an actual gypsy heritage. Not only did it give their performance some authenticity, it conveniently blurred the issue of their origins. People were more willing to believe that Caroline Otero was a gypsy rather than the daughter of farmers, even if they preferred to think of peasants as honest and simple and gypsies as thieving rogues, because it added glamour and gave her credibility. Strange then that in most images Mignon is depicted as ragged, harried and dispirited. Maybe her problem was that she wasn’t the real thing. By admitting early on that she had been kidnapped she gave the story a riddle that needed to be solved but in doing that she extinguished any idea she had that romantic gypsy love of freedom in her veins.