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).

Mozart about 1780

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.)

Poster for the first performance

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.

19th cen­tury engrav­ing of a Lon­don performance

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.


Abduc­tion Encore:

Mozart writes to his father, Leopold, about com­pos­ing his new opera:

Sep­tem­ber 26, 1781:

Lud­wig Fis­cher, the first Osmin

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).