Mozart’s Die Enthührung aus dem Serail—The Abduction from the Seraglio — was written during a particularly happy period in the composer’s life. In March 1781 he had been summoned to Vienna by his patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg, who was in residence for the celebrations surrounding the accession to the Hapsburg throne of Emperor Joseph II. Unfortunately, as a member of the Archbishop’s household, Mozart was essentially a servant, seated at the table below the valets but above the cooks, and had to ask permission (which was often refused) to play concerts to earn money on his own.
These insults were especially galling, since in Munich, where his opera Idomeneo had been a success at its première only a few weeks before, Mozart had been accepted as an equal by the nobility. Finally, the young composer had had enough. And on May 9 he asked for his release from the Archbishop’s service. He was refused, but the following month the composer was finally granted his freedom (“with a kick on my arse…by order of our worthy Prince Archbishop,” Mozart reported).
At the age of twenty-five, Mozart found himself on his own, free to pursue his career as he saw fit. By all accounts he had landed in Vienna at just the right time. As Nicholas Till writes in Mozart and the Enlightenment, “Under Joseph, for a few brief, feverish years, Vienna became the freest, most open, liberal and tolerant city in Europe, guided by the purposeful vision and forthright hand of the emperor himself. Vienna also promised to become the seat of a renewed German culture in which theater and opera played a central role.” In 1776 Joseph had succeeded in establishing a German-speaking National Theater in Vienna, and two years later, a German opera.
Today’s opera-goers accept as a matter of course the fact there are different kinds of opera: Italian opera, German opera, and French opera all sound different from each others, yet all are an integral part of the operatic world. When Mozart began writing opera this was not the case. Opera predominantly meant Italian opera, and more often than not its hero was a castrato. Our idea of an unneutered male voice (whether tenor, baritone, or bass) being the hero of an opera was almost unheard of at the time. So when, in The Abduction of the Seraglio, Mozart wrote the role of Belmonte, the romantic leading man, for a tenor, it was still a novel experience for his audience.
Only a few weeks after breaking with the Archbishop, Mozart had been asked to write an opera — a Singspiel (literally a song play, or a play with songs) — to a libretto by a popular playwright of the time, Gottlieb Stephanie. The libretto was based on the play Belmonte und Konstaze by Christophe Friedrich Bretzner. When Bretzner discovered his play had been used as the basis for an opera, he took out an advertisement in a Leipzig newspaper accusing Mozart of “abusing” the play and “solemnly protesting against this illegal interference.” Since copyrights did not exist, there was little else Bretzner could do, especially since his play, apparently, was itself a close copy of an old English pastiche.
At first Mozart and his librettist assumed their new work would be a part of the entertainment surrounding the state visit of the Russian Grand Duke Paul to Vienna in September 1781. (As things turned out, the opera was not premiered until July 16, 1782.)
Mozart knew exactly what he wanted to do when he was writing Abduction: he wanted to write an opera that would please the Viennese public and place Mozart-the-opera-composer on equal footing in their minds with Mozart-the-virtuoso-performer, this ensuring — among other things — financial security and, possibly, even a court appointment. “The Janissary chorus is all that can be desired,” he wrote his father. “That is, it is short, lively, and written to please the Viennese.” And to his sister he confessed, “You know I am writing an opera. Those parts which are already completed have won extraordinary praise on all hands, for I know these people.”
“Turkish” music was all the rage in Vienna at the time. Even though the army of the Turks had not threatened Vienna for a century, in the popular imagination, the Turks (which stood for all of Islam) were still seen as “the enemy.”
“Interest in Turkish music was not a sign of genial Austrian complaisance toward a benign neighbor, as is often argued,” observes Nicholas Till. “It was expedient for Joseph to keep the Turks in the public eye as bogeymen in anticipation of the right moments to seize possession of one or the other chunks of territory which were crumbling from the fringes of the Ottoman Empire.… If Joseph II was willing to countenance Turkish music, it must have been because it was considered a just representation of the Turks themselves, its clashing and jangling aptly suggestive of the supposed barbarism of the oriental bogeyman.”
In Abduction the Turks are represented by two characters, Pasha Selmin and his overseer Osmin. Osmin’s unrelenting cruelty and anger (i.e., his barbarism) are a constant source of humor, and though the Pasha is eventually revealed to be the embodiment of the Enlightenment, in the first act he does not hesitate to threaten Konstanza with torture if she will not yield to him. Today we realize this single-minded view of Islamic culture is patronizing, at best, but it was a fact of eighteenth-century Europe. And given current events today, such a view is not necessarily foreign to today’s audiences.
“One of the things that hit me was that with the world the way it is right now, it would be a little embarrassing to do a production of Abduction in which figures like Osmin and even the Pasha were made into figures of mockery,” says Edward Berkeley, director of Aspen Opera Theater Center. “It’s a wonderful opera because the score itself is amazing, and the development of the characters in the score goes far beyond what is in the text. So in our production I’m trying to convey the sense that the opera is a satire, that it is a comedy about people’s behavior and the misperception of other people. It’s about cultural misunderstanding. I want to keep the humor, because it’s not a mean-spirited opera.” Berkeley points out that much of Osmin’s rage stems from his powerlessness and desperation.
Of the Europeans, the women, Konstanze and Blonde, are actually stronger characters than Belmonte and Pedrillo — something Mozart conveys in the score when Belmonte actually follows Konstanze’s lead, repeating her vocal line as his own in one of their duets. But Mozart’s score also clearly shows the humorous side of Konstanze (“a bit of a drama queen,” Berkeley points out) especially in her Act Two aria, “Marten aller Arten,” where the almost nonstop embellishments to her vocal line clearly demonstrate her “over the top” nature.
In Bretzner’s play, Pasha Selim discovers that Belmonte is his own son, so the happy ending is a matter of course. Mozart strengthened the plot, and the character of the Pasha as well, by changing the ending — perhaps to slightly challenge his audience’s one-dimensional view of Islamic culture. Mozart insisted that Belmonte not be the Pasha’s son, but the son of the Pasha’s most hated enemy. To free Belmonte and the other Europeans under those conditions is to demonstrate a nobility that goes far beyond that shown by Belmonte’s father and, by extension, Europeans.
Mozart had judged his audience correctly, and Abduction’s premier was an enormous success. “My opera was given yesterday for the third time and won the greatest applause,” Mozart wrote his father gleefully. “And again, in spite of the frightful heat, the theater was packed. It was to be given against next Friday, but I have protested against this, for I do not want it to become hackneyed. I may say that people are absolutely infatuated with this opera. Indeed, it does one good to win such approbation.”
On August 4, 1782, a month after the première of Mozart’s opera, he married his own Konstanze — Constanze Weber.
Mozart writes to his father, Leopold, about composing his new opera:
September 26, 1781:
“Osmin’s rage [in his Act One aria ‘Solche hergelaufne Laffen’] is rendered comical by the use of Turkish music… and as Osmin’s rage gradually increases, there comes (just when the aria seems to be at an end) the allegro assai, which is in a totally different meter and in a different key; this is bound to be very effective. For just as a man in such a towering rage oversteps all bounds of order, moderation, and propriety and completely forgets himself, so must the music, too, forget itself. But since Passions, whether violet or not, must never be expressed to the point of exciting disgust, and as music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be music, so I have not chosen a key foreign to F (in which the aria is written) but one related to it — not the nearest, D minor, but the more remote A minor.
“I have sent you only fourteen bars of the overture, which is very short with alternate fortes and pianos, the Turkish music always coming in the fortes. The overture modulates through different keys, and I doubt whether anyone, even if his previous night has been a sleepless one, could go to sleep over it.”
This article originally appeared in the 2004 program book of the Aspen Opera Theater.
The painting at the top of the article is “The Reception” by John Frederick Lewis (1873).