by Opera




In June 1900 Gia­co­mo Puc­ci­ni (1858 – 1924) was in Lon­don to super­vise the Eng­lish pre­mière of his lat­est opera Tosca, at the time only six months old. Sev­er­al peo­ple, includ­ing the Covent Gar­den stage direc­tor, Fran­cis Nielsen, urged him to go to the Duke of York The­atre to see David Belasco’s newest sen­sa­tion, the play Madame But­ter­fly — A Tragedy of Japan. In lat­er years, Belas­co would claim that after the per­for­mance, Puc­ci­ni had rushed back­stage, embraced him, and plead­ed to be allowed to turn Belasco’s play into an opera.

I agreed at once,” Belas­co said, “and told him he could do any­thing he liked with the play, and make any sort of con­tract, because it was impos­si­ble to dis­cuss arrange­ments with an impul­sive Ital­ian who has tears in his eyes and both of his arms around your neck.”

David Belas­co

Like so many of Belasco’s rem­i­nis­cences, the scene he describes is dubi­ous, since on the composer’s way back to Italy he stopped off in Paris to talk with Emile Zola about turn­ing one of his nov­els into an opera, and a few weeks lat­er he was enthu­si­as­tic about writ­ing his next opera based on Marie Antoinette. There is no doubt Belasco’s play had left a vivid impres­sion on Puc­ci­ni, even though his Eng­lish was too poor to allow him to under­stand what the char­ac­ters were say­ing. But he cer­tain­ly under­stood the broad out­lines of the dra­ma and espe­cial­ly the char­ac­ter of But­ter­fly her­self — her world, her suf­fer­ing, and, espe­cial­ly, her sui­cide at the end, in which Belas­co had pulled out all the stops to wring every pos­si­ble tear from his audience.

Belasco’s play, which is in one act, was based on a sto­ry by John Luther Long that had been pub­lished in the Jan­u­ary 1898 issue of Cen­tu­ry Illus­trat­ed Month­ly  Mag­a­zine. Long, a lawyer who had lit­er­ary aspi­ra­tions, claimed the sto­ry of Madame But­ter­fly had been told to him by his sis­ter, Jen­nie Cor­rell, the wife of a Methodist mis­sion­ary in Nagasa­ki, and that she knew the peo­ple involved first­hand. (See side­bar below.)

But the basic sto­ry had been told before that, most notably by Pierre Loti in his huge­ly suc­cess­ful nov­el Madame Chrysan­thème pub­lished in 1887. Loti, who had trav­eled quite wide­ly dur­ing his career as a navel offi­cer, used his obser­va­tions and mem­o­ries of exot­ic lands as back­ground in a num­ber of nov­els. (His 1880 nov­el, Le mariage de Loti, was the basis of Leo Delibes’s opera Lak­mé.)

Madame Chrysan­thème tells the sto­ry of a young navel offi­cer, Pierre, whose ship docks at Nagasa­ki for three months. To pass the time he enters into a tem­po­rary mar­riage with a young geisha named Madame Chrysan­the­mum. Unlike the lat­er sto­ries, in Loti’s first-per­son nov­el (told by Pierre him­self) there is no tragedy, and when it’s time for his ship to leave the part­ing is straight­for­ward, with only a trace of sen­ti­ment. In Jan van Rij’s fas­ci­nat­ing book Madame But­ter­fly, Japon­isme, Puc­ci­ni, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, he says that when Loti returned to Nagasa­ki in 1900, he heard from “Madame Chrysanthemum’s” moth­er that her daugh­ter had made a good mar­riage to a busi­ness­man from the area. (The moth­er even went so far as to give a din­ner in Loti’s hon­or, though she did not invite her daugh­ter to attend.)

What made Loti’s nov­el so extra­or­di­nar­i­ly suc­cess­ful was his atten­tion to descrip­tive detail. Not only the minu­ti­ae of Madame Chrysanthemum’s dai­ly life, but of the coun­try­side itself, the hous­es and tem­ples, peo­ple on the street, reli­gious pro­ces­sions, almost any­thing that made life in Japan dif­fer­ent from West­ern life found its way into the book. It went through 25 edi­tions in five years and was trans­lat­ed into oth­er lan­guages, includ­ing Eng­lish. It was also the basis of André Messager’s 1883 opera, Madame Chrysan­thème.

The arrange­ment between Pierre and his tem­po­rary Japan­ese wife was not uncom­mon at the time. Van Rij says the prac­tice was cen­turies old, and points out that the women who entered into such liaisons were dis­tinct from both the true geisha (pro­fes­sion­al, high­ly accom­plished enter­tain­ers who might or might not be avail­able for a sex­u­al rela­tion­ship) and the com­mon prostitute.

It was all fod­der for the wave of Ori­en­tal­ism that was sweep­ing West­ern Europe and the U.S. at the time. Not that fas­ci­na­tion with “the exot­ic East” (which includ­ed the Mid­dle East, as well) was any­thing new. Think of Mozart’s “Turk­ish” music, as well as his operas The Abduc­tion from the Seraglio and The Mag­ic Flute, both of which take place in non-West­ern lands; both of which were writ­ten in Ger­man, using spo­ken dia­logue rather than recita­tives, in a con­scious attempt to appeal to a larg­er audi­ence than the aris­to­crat­ic court (itself proof of the broad appeal such sto­ries had).

But the last part of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, saw suc­ces­sive waves of vogues for things East­ern, as one coun­try fol­lowed anoth­er as the inspi­ra­tion for home fur­nish­ings, cloth­ing, paint­ings, books, the­ater, and music. In their turn, the details of life in Egypt, Chi­na, Japan, India, and oth­er for­eign cul­tures were eager­ly con­sumed by the West — all, of course, absorbed through Occi­den­tal sens­es, which meant the end results were more West­ern, with a tinge of East­ern influ­ence, than gen­uine East­ern art.

For instance, Long’s sto­ry “Madame But­ter­fly,” and Belasco’s play, tell us much more, today, about the Amer­i­can cul­ture that pro­duced them, than they do about actu­al life in Japan. In both, But­ter­fly her­self is a car­i­ca­ture. For one thing, she speaks a pigeon Eng­lish, and in the Long sto­ry often behaves like an ill-man­nered child:


Cio-Cio-San dropped the baby with a reck­less thud, and sprang at Suzu­ki again. She gripped her throat vicious­ly, then flung her, laugh­ing, aside.

‘Speak con­cern­ing mar­riage once more, an’ you die. An’ tha’ ’s ’nother thing. You got know at his Unit­ed States Amer­i­ca, if one is mar­ry one got stay marry…oh, for aev­er an’ aev­er! Yaes! Nob’y can­not git him­self divorce, aex­ep’ in a large cour­t­house an’ jail.’ ”


Pinker­ton him­self scarce­ly comes off any bet­ter. His view of But­ter­fly is reflect­ed in a song he used to sing her, which she, in turn, sings to her son: “Rog-a-by, beb­by, off in Japan / You jus’ a pic­ture off of a fan.” And when his Amer­i­can wife meets But­ter­fly she com­ments, “How very charm­ing, how love­ly you are, dear! Will you let me kiss me, you pret­ty…play­thing!” Long con­tin­ues, “Cho-Cho-San stared at her with round eyes, as chil­dren do when afraid. Then her nos­trils quiv­ered and her lids slow­ly closed.” Which sums up the But­ter­fly of Long’s short sto­ry and Belasco’s play — a child unable (or unwill­ing) to deal with real­i­ty, and for whom we’re to weep while, of course, under­stand­ing that Pinker­ton can­not tru­ly mar­ry her; he must mar­ry an Amer­i­can wife and, after all, the all-Amer­i­can cou­ple are tak­ing the son of Pinkerk­ton and But­ter­fly to raise in the U.S. where, of course, he will be bet­ter off.

John Luther Long

At first Puc­ci­ni and his libret­tists, Giuseppe Gia­cosa and Lui­gi Illi­ca, planned their opera to be in three acts, with the first and third acts tak­ing place in Butterfly’s house and the sec­ond at the Amer­i­can Con­sulate. The scene at the Con­sulate is only found in Long’s sto­ry and it is a tear­jerk­er of major pro­por­tions. It is there that But­ter­fly acci­den­tal­ly dis­cov­ers Pinker­ton is mar­ried when his Amer­i­can wife barges into the room and asks to send a telegram to her hus­band (whose ship is at sea). She has, she says, seen “the baby” and wants to take him home to Amer­i­ca, though she hasn’t yet spo­ken to the moth­er (whom she has no idea is sit­ting in the room). When “the blonde woman” leaves, But­ter­fly sad­ly gives the con­sul the two dol­lars she has left from the mon­ey Pinker­ton had giv­en her three years before, and asks that the con­sul return the mon­ey to Pinker­ton and thank him for the hap­pi­ness he has giv­en her. “ ‘Goon night,’ said Cho-Cho-San, and at the door look­ing back, ‘Say­onara,’ and anoth­er tired smile. She stag­gered a lit­tle as she went out.”

Such a scene would seem to be tai­lor made for Puc­ci­ni, but the com­pos­er real­ized that But­ter­fly, both the char­ac­ter as he saw her, and his opera, would be bet­ter served by hav­ing all the action take place around Butterfly’s home. “If you only knew how I am rack­ing my brains!” Puc­ci­ni wrote his pub­lish­er, Giulio Ricor­di, at one point. “The work to be done is not great, but it is essen­tial to bind the whole sto­ry togeth­er with a clos­er log­ic than there is in the Belas­co play.”

Rather than demean But­ter­fly by giv­ing her the Ital­ian equiv­a­lent of pigeon Eng­lish, her speech is gram­mat­i­cal. Her ini­tial naiveté and inno­cence is pro­vid­ed by her reac­tion to things, and some­times by her music. For instance, for her entrance in Act I as she and her atten­dants arrive on top of the hill, the accom­pa­ny­ing orches­tra (marked piano and pianis­si­mo) is col­ored with the use of bells and harp (del­i­cate sound­ing instru­ments), the three-part sopra­no cho­rus is often writ­ten in thirds, and there is a sense of spa­cious­ness and won­der to the music. But­ter­fly is giv­en the option at the end of her entrance music to float a high D‑flat, which gives a mar­velous float­ing effect if the sopra­no can do it with a sense of ease.


Puccini’s hero­ine, though still 15 years old, is not the help­less vic­tim found in Long and Belas­co. She’s a tru­ly trag­ic fig­ure who matures as the opera pro­gress­es, as Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of the Aspen Opera Cen­ter, points out.

She’s a rebel­lious teenag­er, fight­ing the world she is from, rebelling against her own reli­gion and fam­i­ly,” he points out.  “So going through with this whole mar­riage to Pinker­ton is a renun­ci­a­tion of fam­i­ly and reli­gion. She’s real­ly doing it as much to escape her own world as any­thing. He makes com­plete sense for her. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the guy she choos­es is not capa­ble of the kind of com­mit­ment she needs.”

One way But­ter­fly choos­es a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way of life in the opera (but not in the sto­ry or play) is by going to the Chris­t­ian mis­sion and con­vert­ing, some­thing she tells Pinker­ton she did secret­ly the day before their mar­riage.  It’s also the act that pre­cip­i­tates her family’s renun­ci­a­tion of her when her priest-uncle, the Bonze, expos­es her action dur­ing the wed­ding. Through­out the opera But­ter­fly repeat­ed­ly empha­sizes her “Amer­i­caness” in a vari­ety of ways.  She inevitably cor­rects any­one who address­es her as Madama But­ter­fly, by insist­ing on “Madame Pinker­ton.” When her suit­or, Prince Yamadori and the mar­riage bro­ker, Goro, tell her that under Japan­ese law she’s free to mar­ry since she has been aban­doned, she replies that under Amer­i­can law divorce is not so easy and she is an Amer­i­can wife. She wel­comes the U.S. con­sul Sharp­less to “an Amer­i­can home.”

There are peo­ple who see But­ter­fly as a cheap vic­tim (among them was Puccini’s own pub­lished, Giulio Ricor­di who saw the opera as a facile tear-jerk­er, unwor­thy of Puccini’s tal­ents.) For them, it is ridicu­lous that she does not mar­ry the wealthy Prince Yamadori. But as Berke­ley points out, “Going with Yamadori would be an com­plete admis­sion of her fail­ure in her new life. To her, it would mean she accepts being trapped for­ev­er in the life she was try­ing to escape.” Bet­ter to fol­low her father’s exam­ple, as the words engraved on his sword say: “He dies with hon­or who can­not live with honor.”

And Puc­ci­ni did, in fact, give her an hon­or­able death. In Long’s sto­ry she sur­vives the sui­cide attempt, and “When Mrs. Pinker­ton called the next day at the lit­tle house in Higashi Hill it was quite emp­ty.” In Belasco’s play, But­ter­fly has the last words, remind­ing Pinker­ton of his promise to return to her when the robins make their nest:


LIEUTENANT PINKERTON. (Dis­cern­ing what she has done)  Oh! Cho-Cho–                                    San! (He draws her to him with the baby pressed to her heart. She waves the child’s hand which holds the flag — say­ing faint­ly.)

MADAME BUTTERFLY. Too bad those robins did n’ nes’ again. (She dies.)


In the opera her final words are to her child — “Go and play.” Every­thing after that is pan­tomime until Pinkerton’s off­stage cries of “But­ter­fly! But­ter­fly! But­ter­fly!” the clos­ing words of the opera. Which is not to imply that Puc­ci­ni and his libret­tists did not go all out to work on the audience’s feel­ings. They do. When Puc­ci­ni wrote But­ter­fly he had devel­oped great­ly as a com­pos­er, and his expand­ed skill at orches­tra­tion, and in com­po­si­tion, allowed him a vari­ety of sub­tler touch­es in cre­at­ing his char­ac­ters, telling their sto­ry, and depict­ing their emo­tions. But he was still an Ital­ian oper­at­ic com­pos­er, and he used his remark­able skills to go right for the audience’s hearts.

Rosi­na Storchio

He was at the height of his pop­u­lar­i­ty and con­fi­dent of suc­cess when But­ter­fly pre­miered at La Scala on Feb­ru­ary 17, 1904. That morn­ing he wrote the famous sopra­no, Rosi­na Stor­chio, who would cre­ate But­ter­fly, “My good wish­es are super­flu­ous! So true, so del­i­cate, so mov­ing is your great art that the pub­lic must suc­cumb to it! And I hope that tonight through you I am speed­ing to vic­to­ry! Tonight then — with sure con­fi­dence and much affection.”

The per­for­mance was a fias­co. Accord­ing to reports, the audi­ence took excep­tion to the music of Butterfly’s entrance (think­ing it had been used on Bohème), and things went down­hill from then. Much of the sec­ond act was inaudi­ble through the cat­calls, whis­tles, and deri­sive com­ments from the audi­ence, though the aria “Un bel di” was greet­ed with utter silence. Puc­ci­ni with­drew the score after the per­for­mance (it was the only time La Scala gave But­ter­fly dur­ing the composer’s life­time) and set to work on revi­sions. The new ver­sion was giv­en in Bres­cia three months lat­er and was a suc­cess, though Puc­ci­ni con­tin­ued tin­ker­ing with the opera for some time.

It was first giv­en at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in Feb­ru­ary 1907. Puc­ci­ni him­self super­vised the rehearsals and David Belas­co attend­ed them, as well. With the ritzy cast of Geral­dine Far­rar (who had sung the role in Berlin), Enri­co Caru­so, Louise Homer, and Anto­nio Scot­ti, it was a tri­umph. Far­rar would even­tu­al­ly sing But­ter­fly 139 times at the Met, far more often any any­one else. Puc­ci­ni didn’t think much of her in the part. “It was a per­for­mance with­out poet­ry,” he wrote to Tito Ricor­di, his friend and his publisher’s son. “Far­rar is not too sat­is­fac­to­ry. She sings out of tune, forces her voice, and it does not car­ry well in the large space of the theater….However, it went well, on the whole, and the press is unan­i­mous in its praise.”

And so it has been even since, with But­ter­fly rival­ing Puccini’s La Bohème and Tosca for the hearts of the public.



In his book, Madame But­ter­fly, Japon­isme, Puc­ci­ni, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, Jan van Rij inves­ti­gates the account Jen­nie Cor­rell told her broth­er, John Luther Long, which served the basis for his short sto­ry, “Madame Butterfly.”

In involved three Scot­tish broth­ers, Thomas, Alex, and Alfred Glover who lived in Nagasa­ki about 1870. One of them (Alex, prob­a­bly) was involved with a woman named Kaga Make, who worked as an enter­tain­er under the name Cho-san, Miss But­ter­fly. She became preg­nant and gave birth to a son on Decem­ber 8, 1870. When the father aban­doned her and her son, the father’s broth­er, Thomas, and his com­mon law Japan­ese wife, adopt­ed the boy and changed his name to Tomis­aburo. Tom Glover, as he was known, was well edu­cat­ed, study­ing at pres­ti­gious Japan­ese schools and at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia in Philadel­phia (biol­o­gy and nat­ur­al history).

Kaga Make mar­ried a Japan­ese man in 1877 and moved away. She divorced him in 1888 and moved back to Nagasa­ki, where she died in 1906.

Her son, Tom, mar­ried a Japan­ese woman whose father was a British mer­chant. They had no chil­dren. His wife died of tuber­cu­lo­sis in 1943 and, short­ly after Japan sur­ren­dered in 1945, Tom Glover, the orig­i­nal “Trou­ble,” com­mit­ted suicide.


This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the 2007 Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram.

The pho­to at the top of the arti­cle shows Geral­dine Far­rar as Cio-Cio-San. She was the Met’s first But­ter­fly and sang the role 139 times with the com­pa­ny, far more than any­one else in Met his­to­ry. The pho­to is auto­graphed to Dorothy Kirsten in 1946, the year she sang the first of her 68 per­for­mances of Madama But­ter­fly at the Met. The role was the one both Far­rar and Kirsten sang most often with the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera.




It is star­tling to real­ize that Leoš Janáček’s enchant­i­ng yet pro­found opera, The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vix­en, had its ori­gin in what was close to being a news­pa­per car­toon strip.

From April through June, 1920, Brno’s pop­u­lar lib­er­al dai­ly, Lidové noviny, pub­lished the illus­trat­ed sto­ry of a clever vix­en con­stant­ly out­wit­ting a forester. The 200 or so sketch­es had been drawn by the painter Stanislav Lolek (1873 – 1936) who had been appren­ticed as a forester before turn­ing to art. One of the paper’s edi­tors saw the sketch­es and assigned Rudolf Těs­nohlídek (1882 – 1928), the Lidové noviny’s law reporter, to come up with some text to accom­pa­ny the illustrations.

The print­er mis­took Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal title, “Liš­ka Bystronož­ka” (Vix­en Fleet­foot) for “Liš­ka Bystrouž­ka” (Vix­en Sharp-Ears”) — and so she has been ever since. Janáček’s title for his opera is Adven­tures of the Vix­en Bystroušky (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky). When Max Brod trans­lat­ed the opera into Ger­man, the title became Das schlaue Füch­slein or The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vix­en—the title by which the opera is known almost every­where out­side of Janáček’s homeland.

The dif­fer­ence in the word­ing of the title is not mere pedantry. As Michael Ewans has point­ed out in Janáček’s Trag­ic Operas, the Ger­man and Eng­lish trans­lat­ed titles “are sad­ly symp­to­matic: the West has shown too lit­tle abil­i­ty to inter­pret an opera whose vision is as far from Dis­ney as it is from the clum­sy sym­bol­ism of Max Brod’s ‘arrange­ment for the Ger­man stage.’ Janáček’s ani­mals are not patron­ized or sen­ti­men­tal­ized by the attri­bu­tion of human fea­tures: human singers and dancers, tak­ing on the masks and skins of insect, bird or ani­mal, find them­selves for the dura­tion of this opera mem­bers of an order nobler, by its deep humor and its sim­ple, amoral enjoy­ment of life, than that of human­i­ty. The par­tic­u­lar moments where ani­mals assume the man­ners of men sat­i­rize human rather than ani­mal behav­ior; no ani­mal is por­trayed iron­i­cal­ly, except the dog and hens who have suc­cumbed self-right­eous­ly to exploita­tion by mankind.”

This unsen­ti­men­tal view of the opera is shared by Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “In our pro­duc­tion, the sense of char­ac­ter, in terms of ani­mals, is going to be strong, but it def­i­nite­ly is going to go away from ‘cute.’ The peri­od will be the 1920’s or ’30s with a Euro­pean fla­vor. It will be call­ing back to a time of aware­ness of the earth and the val­ues of the earth, a kind of re-find­ing one­self in nature.”

Through­out all the adven­tures the Vix­en has dur­ing the course of the opera, there is a strong under­ly­ing theme of the rela­tion­ship between humans and the world of nature. Janáček empha­sized this part of the work — as well as the cycli­cal nature of renew­al found in life itself — by the changes he made in Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal version.

Těsnohlídek’s sto­ry was large­ly devot­ed to the numer­ous adven­tures of Vix­en Sharp-Ears, cul­mi­nat­ing in her mar­riage to the Fox. Janáček, how­ev­er, used this end­ing to the orig­i­nal sto­ry as the finale to Act Two of his opera. For Act Three, the com­pos­er used a few inci­dents from ear­li­er in Těsnohlídek’s sto­ry, pri­mar­i­ly the inci­dent with Haraš­ta the poach­er — but with a major dif­fer­ence. In Janáček’s ver­sion, the poach­er kills the Vix­en, which com­plete­ly changes the nature of the work. How­ev­er, the pro­fun­di­ty of Janáček’s ver­sion is sealed by not end­ing the opera with Sharp-Ear’s death (which would be mere­ly sen­ti­men­tal), but by the last two scenes of the opera which are Janáček’s invention.

The almost painful nos­tal­gia of the scene at the Inn where the School­mas­ter real­izes his beloved There­sa has mar­ried anoth­er man, and the Forester announces the Vix­en has left her bur­row and dis­ap­peared, gives way to the aston­ish­ing trans­for­ma­tion scene with which the opera ends.  The Forester enters the for­est with his gun, as he did at the begin­ning of the opera. But this time — because of his rela­tion­ship with the Vix­en, and because he has been open to learn from her — he sees Nature in all its beau­ty, and it renews him. He val­ues not only the mush­room he picks, but every­thing he sees. Unlike the mem­o­ries he has of his wed­ding day in the open­ing scene (“I feel as tired as I did on my wed­ding night. The next day I was dead to the world” — an obvi­ous metaphor to his being dead to the world of nature in which he found him­self) this time — as he rev­els in the splen­dor of nature all around him — he remem­bers the pas­sion of the love they had felt and the all con­sum­ing kiss­es they had shared.  As in the open­ing scene, the Forester falls asleep, and this time meets the descen­dants of the Vix­en and the Frog from Act One.

In an mar­velous touch, the huge dra­mat­ic arch the Forester has trav­eled since we first met him is deft­ly con­veyed by Janáček’s last stage direc­tion in the piece, the last words in the score: “Absent­mind­ed­ly, the Forester lets his gun slip to the ground.”  He no longer needs it. He is at peace with Nature.

When Max Brod want­ed Janáček to write some final words for the Forester “in which he could sink into rumi­na­tion,” the com­pos­er adamant­ly refused. “In the final scene the Forester’s gun sim­ply slips from his hand,” he insist­ed. “Noth­ing more; let every­one work out for him­self what he will.”

Vix­en is a life-giv­ing piece,” Berke­ley explains. “That sense of renew­al — that we don’t loose the past, but we grow by accept­ing it. By accept­ing the Vixen’s death, and then look­ing into the future, the shape of the opera says that death is a nat­ur­al part of things, and from that sense of renew­al we can learn and grow.

The work is a para­ble about what we should appre­ci­ate and learn from nature and the nat­ur­al cycle — and about male/female rela­tion­ship in gen­er­al.”  Berke­ley agrees with the crit­ic who said the Vix­en is the embod­i­ment of unre­strained fem­i­nin­i­ty. “The growth of the piece is toward her own dis­cov­ery of that — and the Forester dis­cov­er­ing that. The scene with the Fox, at the end of Act Two, is where it all comes out. That’s a glo­ri­ous moment!”

Aside from a few moments, such as the humor­ous polit­i­cal harangue the Vix­en gives the Hens in Act One, there are com­par­a­tive­ly few words in the opera’s libret­to. It is the music, by far, through which Janáček sub­tly con­veys the shift­ing rela­tion­ships. “The musi­cal insight lav­ished on the depic­tion of each suc­ces­sive stage of [the Vixen’s] life is intend­ed to have deep mean­ing for us,” writes Ewans. “Human beings, like vix­ens, are born, grow, mar­ry and die; those seen in the opera live lives poor in com­par­i­son with Bystrouška’s — except for the Forester, whose road to wis­dom is care­ful­ly chart­ed, and on whose clos­ing vision Janáček lav­ished some of his most inspired music.… Janáček illu­mi­nates for us the cycles of life and nature; and at the same time he shows us arche­types of the moral­i­ty of the humans who can­not accept those cycles — and the road by which one human even­tu­al­ly can.”

The orches­tral inter­ludes and mimes/dances were inte­gral parts of Janáček’s vision of the sto­ry from the very begin­ning, and he resist­ed all well-mean­ing sug­ges­tions to add con­ven­tion­al arias so the ani­mals could “explain” things.

The Vix­en is a for­est idyll; only a hint should sur­face of our cycle and that of ani­mal life,” he wrote to his pub­lish­er. “That is enough — it is true that for most this sym­bol­ism is too lit­tle. The Vix­en can only eat rab­bits, not romances and arias.”

I’m hop­ing the audi­ence will come away from the per­for­mances real­ly lov­ing the music,” says Berke­ley. “That sounds like such a cliché, but for me the piece is such a rev­e­la­tion of Janáček’s incred­i­ble musi­cal style that is real­ly a unique voice. It’s an impor­tant voice. It’s roman­tic, it’s very beau­ti­ful, and here it’s con­vey­ing a quite seri­ous vision of nature, and the impor­tance of nature in our lives.  As we destroy the envi­ron­ment, we should be learn­ing how to restore our­selves the way nature does, and renew our­selves, rather than destroy­ing each oth­er and destroy­ing nature.”


Janáček and Animals

Janáček loved ani­mals and the fam­i­ly always had numer­ous pets: dogs, pigeons, a gold finch — and three hens.  Marie Ste­jskalová, the Janáček’s ser­vant for over 40 years, remem­bered, “Janáček talked to the hens as to chil­dren, they looked at him, answered some­thing and he under­stood. In the evening, when he sat down in the gar­den in his arm­chair to read the paper, he rapped on the table, like a school­mas­ter at school. The hens came run­ning at once, jumped up [onto the table] and kept him company.”

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1922, while he was work­ing on The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vix­en, Janáček and some friends went into the for­est near Huk­valdy to observe a fam­i­ly of fox­es. The game­keep­er, J. D. Sládek, lat­er wrote, “We reached Babí hora [Old Woman Moun­tain], and indeed, as if to order, the vixen’s fam­i­ly emerged from the den and began to show off and frisk about. Janáček start­ed twitch­ing with excite­ment until in the end he fright­ened the fox­es away.

‘Why couldn’t you keep still, Dr. Janáček? You could have gone on looking?’

Janáček, com­plete­ly exhil­a­rat­ed and hap­py, just brushed this aside. ‘I saw her! I saw her!’


This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram, 2005.

The pho­to at the top of the arti­cle is by Jonn Leffmann.

The draw­ings in the arti­cle are Stanislav Lolek’s of “Vix­en Fleetfoot.”








[Adeli­na] Pat­ti con­tin­ued her new depar­ture into Wag­n­er­land by singing Elisabeth’s prayer from Tannhäuser,” wrote George Bernard Shaw on July 18, 1894. “Now, if I express some skep­ti­cism as to whether Pat­ti cares a snap of her fin­gers for Elis­a­beth or Wag­n­er, I may, after all these years of ‘Una voce’ and ‘Bel rag­gio,’ very well be par­doned. But it is beyond all doubt that Pat­ti cares most intense­ly for the beau­ty of her own voice and the per­fec­tion of her singing. What is the result? She attacks the prayer with the sin­gle aim of mak­ing it sound as beau­ti­ful as pos­si­ble; and this being pre­cise­ly what Wagner’s own musi­cal aim was, she goes straight to the right phras­ing, the right vocal touch, and the right turn of every musi­cal fig­ure, thus mak­ing her Ger­man rivals not only appear in com­par­i­son clum­sy as singers, but actu­al­ly obtuse to Wagner’s meaning.

If Pat­ti were to return to the stage and play Isol­de, though she might very pos­si­bly stop the dra­ma half a dozen times in each act to acknowl­edge applause and work in an encore…the pub­lic might learn a good deal about Isol­de from her which they will nev­er learn from any of the illus­tri­ous band of Ger­man Wag­n­er hero­ines who are queens at Bayreuth, but who can­not sing a grup­pet­to for all that.”

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw, who knew a great deal about the art of singing and spent much of his tenure as music crit­ic bul­ly­ing the best singers of his day into adding Wag­n­er to their reper­to­ry, ends with a cou­ple of sen­tences that should be post­ed above the desk of every­one respon­si­ble for cast­ing opera today: “Wag­n­er means his music to be sung with the most exquis­ite sen­si­tive­ness in point of qual­i­ty of tone and pre­ci­sion of pitch, exact­ly as Mozart did…I am real­ly tired of going to the the­ater to hear the best music asso­ci­at­ed with the worst singing, and the best singing in the worst music.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for most opera singers — to say noth­ing of audi­ences — Wag­n­er him­self often sab­o­taged the per­for­mance of his works with “exquis­ite qual­i­ty of tone” by mak­ing sheer sur­vival a pre­em­i­nent con­sid­er­a­tion in some of his best-known roles. If a singer is wor­ried pri­mar­i­ly about just get­ting out the notes, being heard above a roar­ing orches­tra, and mak­ing it to the end of the evening, vocal nuance and qual­i­ty of tone are like­ly to be jet­ti­soned ear­ly on, in the inter­est of stay­ing afloat through a per­for­mance of Brünnhilde, Siegfried, Isol­de, or Tris­tan. It is pos­si­ble to sing Wagner’s heav­i­est roles beau­ti­ful­ly and still be heard, but how often does God send along a Kirsten Flagstad?

In Lohen­grin, Wag­n­er wrote an entire opera for human-size singers. To bor­row an anal­o­gy from the world of sports: if Ami­na in La Son­nam­bu­la and many of her bel can­to cousins can be com­pared to a hun­dred-yard sprint­er, and Siegfried or Tris­tan to an Olympic weight lifter, then Lohen­grin might be an ice skater, who needs sta­mi­na and phys­i­cal strength, but also grace and poise, as well as the abil­i­ty to main­tain a flu­id, long line. In Lohen­grin, Wag­n­er wrote roles that make their great­est effect, not through sheer lung pow­er but with the abil­i­ty to infuse a beau­ti­ful vocal line with all the nuances and yes, charm, a singer would use to bring to life an opera by Belli­ni or Donizetti. This in the process of con­struct­ing an opera made up of arias, ensem­bles, cho­rus­es and finales, which — when prop­er­ly per­formed — send shiv­ers of delight down the spines of bel can­to fans.

Wag­n­er him­self was thor­ough­ly famil­iar with bel can­to opera. As a young con­duc­tor he had pre­pared and led count­less per­for­mances of the reper­to­ry. While con­duct­ing in Riga, he even went so far as to doc­tor up a per­for­mance of Bellini’s Nor­ma by writ­ing an addi­tion­al aria for bass and male cho­rus, “Nor­ma, il pre­desse.” (Dur­ing his ear­ly years in Paris, Wag­n­er tried to talk the great bass Lui­gi Lablache into adding the aria to his por­tray­al of Oroveso, but this idea was turned down on the grounds that Nor­ma was too well known by the pub­lic to insert extra music.) In Paris, Wag­n­er often heard the great singers of his time, such as the tenor Gio­van­ni Bat­tista Rubi­ni, and the per­for­mances left an indeli­ble impres­sion on the young composer.

R[ichard] sings a can­tile­na from I Puri­tani and remarks that Belli­ni wrote melodies love­li­er than one’s dreams,” Cosi­ma Wag­n­er wrote in her diary on August 3, 1872. “The melody recalls Rubi­ni to him, how won­der­ful­ly he sang it, and he observes: ‘Our Ger­man singers have to go about it in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way, because they have not got this gift.’ ” In March 1878, Wag­n­er enter­tained guests by play­ing parts of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Mon­tec­chi, La Straniera, and Nor­ma. “There is real pas­sion and feel­ing here, and the right singer has only to get up and sing it for it to win all hearts,” Cosi­ma quotes her hus­band as say­ing, “I have learned things from them which Messrs. Brahms & Co. have nev­er learned, and they can be seen in my melodies.”

Indeed they can. Take Elsa’s entrance aria, “Ein­sam in trüben Tagen.” Like many bel can­to entrance arias (Lucrezia Borgia’s “Com’è bel­lo,” for instance), on paper it looks sim­ple, but to make its effect, it must be not only beau­ti­ful­ly sung but mined for every emo­tion­al and musi­cal nuance, a dif­fi­cult feat. Oth­er­wise the aria falls flat.

In the best bel can­to tra­di­tion, Wag­n­er uses the vocal line itself to describe Elsa’s char­ac­ter. Her pure, trust­ing nature and lack of world­ly expe­ri­ence is reflect­ed in her rather nar­row vocal range: only from E‑flat above mid­dle C to A‑flat at the top of the staff, a note she sings only twice dur­ing the entire aria. Yet her sim­ple vocal line is stud­ded with grace notes — begin­ning in the very first mea­sure — and Wag­n­er con­struct­ed the aria to pro­vide numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties for por­ta­men­to, and for a sopra­no to col­or phras­es by using crescen­do and dimin­u­en­do, as well as by tak­ing sub­tle lib­er­ties with the rhythm, to vary their shape.

Rosa Pon­selle

A prime exam­ple of a singer doing exact­ly what needs to be done to bring the aria to life is to be found at the end of Rosa Ponselle’s 1923 record­ing. Though Pon­selle nev­er sang the role onstage, she record­ed the aria in Ger­man and, on the basis of this excerpt, could have been a superb Elsa. In the last phrase, “was ich bin!,” Pon­selle lingers on the E‑flat at the top of the staff (“was”), then slow­ly reduces its vol­ume, before using a por­ta­men­to down to the G (“ich”) and gen­tly lean­ing into and caress­ing the last note (“bin”). With just these three notes, there can be no doubt that Elsa is already in love with her cham­pi­on, even though he has not yet appeared. It is superb dra­ma, con­veyed sole­ly through the voice.

Ortrud too gains con­sid­er­able pow­er when she approach­es her phras­ing from a bel can­to stand­point, rather than being con­tent mere­ly to be a vocal blow­torch. Lis­ten­ing to Lohen­grin excerpts per­formed by the Vien­na State Opera dur­ing a vis­it to Paris in 1933 (Vol­ume 16 of the Vien­na State Opera Live series from Koch/Schwann), I was stunned by Gertrude Rünger’s great Act II out­burst, “Entweite Göt­ter!” Where many Ortruds sim­ply bel­low the F‑sharps at “Wodan!” and “Freia!” in mono­chro­mat­ic fash­ion, leav­ing the depic­tion of the dra­ma to the orches­tra, Rünger hits the cli­mac­tic notes clean­ly, exact­ly on pitch, ele­gant­ly. (Remem­ber, Ortrud is a noble­woman, and her fam­i­ly ruled the coun­try for gen­er­a­tions before the upstart Chris­tians took over.) Rünger then bor­rows from Wagner’s dynam­ic mark­ing for the tim­pani, mak­ing grad­ual crescen­dos on both of the F‑sharps. This gives her per­for­mance an astound­ing sense of pow­er in reserve. Just by her vocal inflec­tion on those two notes, Rünger lets us know her Ortrud still has plen­ty of tricks up her sleeve.

In the operas of Rossi­ni, Belli­ni, and Donizetti, the singer’s voice was supreme. The orches­tra was used to sup­port and frame the voice, nev­er to com­pete with it, a method Wag­n­er incor­po­rat­ed in Lohen­grin to a sur­pris­ing degree. Of course, it is Wag­n­er, so the Lohen­grin orches­tra is an impor­tant part of the dra­ma. But even a cur­so­ry glance at the score shows a con­sid­er­able amount of a cap­pel­la singing, which Wag­n­er uses to great dra­mat­ic purpose.

Take Lohengrin’s entrance. After being her­ald­ed by a rous­ing eight-part cho­rus and for­tis­si­mo orches­tra, Lohengrin’s first phrase is sung — a cap­pel­la. In fact, most of his farewell to the swan is unac­com­pa­nied; what dis­creet orches­tral col­or Wag­n­er uses is marked pianis­si­mo and is sup­posed to dimin­u­en­do fur­ther from that pianis­si­mo. Clear­ly Wag­n­er meant to use Lohengrin’s first thir­teen mea­sures to seduce the audi­ence by pure­ly vocal means, by the way the tenor shapes his phras­es, by the ele­gance and grace with which he sings Wagner’s embellishments.

Anoth­er exam­ple of Wagner’s use of a cap­pel­la singing appears at the begin­ning of the Act I finale, short­ly before Lohen­grin and Tel­ra­mund fight their duel. Here, Wag­n­er had the audac­i­ty to write an a cap­pel­la quin­tet! As if it were not tough enough for the singers to stay square­ly on pitch, Wag­n­er makes it even tougher: Ortrud, who has been stand­ing around ever since the cur­tain went up (about fifty min­utes before), final­ly sings for the first time all evening — a cap­pel­la. When Wag­n­er brings in the first male cho­rus, then the orches­tra, the effect is noth­ing short of hair-raising.

But then, Wag­n­er also clear­ly under­stood the won­der­ful bel can­to tra­di­tion of the two-part oper­at­ic finale, that mass­ing onstage of cho­rus and prin­ci­pals, all of whom give voice to their (sep­a­rate) feel­ings at that moment, first in slow tem­po, then much more quick­ly. One of the tricks bel can­to com­posers used to build excite­ment dur­ing the finale was to give one or two of the prin­ci­pal singers a long, flow­ing melody that would float ecsta­t­i­cal­ly above the pul­sat­ing rhythm of the cho­rus, orches­tra, and chop­pi­er vocal lines of the oth­er soloists. Donizetti used the device to great effect time after time — at the end of Act II of Lucia di Lam­mer­moor, for instance.

Wag­n­er fol­lows this exam­ple at the end of Act I, dur­ing the gen­er­al rejoic­ing that fol­lows Lohengrin’s defeat of Tel­ra­mund. He gives Elsa a broad vocal line (even embell­ish­ing her music at one point with a turn) that effec­tive­ly dom­i­nates the oth­er­wise intense­ly rhyth­mic finale. In per­fect Belli­ni or Donizetti fash­ion, Wag­n­er keeps stretch­ing the length of Elsa’s phras­es, final­ly ask­ing her to stretch one word, “Alles,” for sev­en and a half mea­sures as she holds a high B‑flat for four of the mea­sures, then moves step­wise (still singing the first syl­la­ble of  “Alles”) down to C. It’s all about beau­ti­ful singing, and an Elsa in radi­ant voice, cou­pled with the right con­duc­tor, can bring down the house every time.

Per­haps it is in the bridal-cham­ber scene of Act III that Wag­n­er wrote Lohen­grin’s most heart­felt music. The inti­ma­cy he wrote of the duet for Elsa and Lohen­grin, “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” calls for the purest bel can­to singing from the tenor and sopra­no. For the duet to make its max­i­mum effect, both singers must use the same sense of ruba­to that Maria Callas did in her 1949 record­ing of “Qui la voce.” It is the sub­tle speed­ing up or the slight hes­i­ta­tion a mas­ter singer uses that tru­ly brings the melody to life.

Franz Völk­er as Lohengrin

There are two record­ings of “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt” that illus­trate this vivid­ly, both based on the deserved­ly leg­endary 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mances of Lohen­grin with Franz Völk­er and Maria Müller. The com­mer­cial record­ing (on Teldec CD) is con­duct­ed by Heinz Tiet­jen, and the sound is more than good, But to be real­ly swept away by the pow­er of Wag­n­er at his bel can­to best, lis­ten to the thir­ty min­utes worth of excerpts from the live July 19, 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mance (avail­able on var­i­ous labels). Under the mag­i­cal baton of Wil­helm Furtwän­gler, Völk­er and Müller sim­ply are Lohen­grin and Elsa, over­whelm­ing­ly in love. Their music pul­sates with emo­tion: the vocal lines have a truth and life that are almost unthink­able today. The care­ful­ly con­trolled, dreamy qual­i­ty of the per­for­mance reminds us pow­er­ful­ly that once upon a time the Ger­mans were viewed as a roman­tic peo­ple, not a bru­tal, mil­i­taris­tic soci­ety. Lis­ten­ing to Völk­er and Müller sing “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” one can eas­i­ly under­stand why tenors like Enri­co Caru­so, even Fer­nan­do De Lucia, would chose to sing the part of Lohen­grin — in Ital­ian, of course. (Though Caru­so nev­er record­ed any of the arias, De Lucia record­ed an Ital­ian ver­sion of “Mein lieber Schwan.”) One can also under­stand how Jean de Reszke could, and did, suc­cess­ful­ly alter­nate per­for­mances of Lohen­grin and Faust, or Lohen­grin and Roméo et Juli­ette, at the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House.

And lis­ten­ing to the ebb and flow of the melod­ic line as glo­ri­ous­ly spun out by Furtwän­gler, Völk­er, and Müller, one is also remind­ed of the sheer pow­er a melody can have — and how often in Lohen­grin Wag­n­er made his dra­mat­ic and emo­tion­al points by com­pos­ing some of the most beau­ti­ful bel can­to music ever written.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the March 14, 1998 issue of Opera News magazine.

 The art at the top is The Arrival of Lohen­grin in Antwerp, a mur­al by August von Heck­el (1882 – 83).


The Devil Gets His Due


The world of opera is gen­er­ous­ly pop­u­lat­ed by an assort­ment of unsa­vory, even nasty and some­times down­right evil char­ac­ters, some of whom employ mag­ic and the super­nat­ur­al in their quest of wreak­ing hav­oc on the unsus­pect­ing. But even though opera as a genre does not flinch from explor­ing The Dark Side of life, there are remark­ably few operas in which the Dev­il him­self actu­al­ly appears onstage. Two of them — Gounod’s Faust and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress—enter the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s reper­toire this spring, offer­ing audi­ences the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pon­der what would seem to be a conun­drum, Why is it that the attain­ment of our heart’s deep­est desire is only pos­si­ble by enter­ing a pact with the Dev­il which, inevitably, leads to our eter­nal damna­tion? Why does it seem that behind every delight and plea­sure, ret­ri­bu­tion lurks in one form or another?

Faust pre­miered in 1859 and quick­ly became so extra­or­di­nar­i­ly pop­u­lar as to almost be ubiq­ui­tous, even inau­gu­rat­ing the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House on Octo­ber 22. 1883. For sev­er­al decades audi­ences could not get enough of watch­ing the aged philoso­pher Faust sell his soul to the Dev­il in exchange for a sec­ond chance at youth and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to expe­ri­ence the bliss of desire. (In Goethe’s orig­i­nal, more pro­found telling of the sto­ry, Faust bar­gains not specif­i­cal­ly for youth and young love but says,  “If to the moment I should say:/Abide, you are so fair – /Put me in fet­ters on that day,/I wish to per­ish then, I swear.” Per­haps Gounod’s libret­tists felt their audi­ence could more eas­i­ly relate to the desire for a sec­ond chance of youth and romance than to the more amor­phous quest for the sin­gle per­fect moment.)

A dev­il­ish Mar­cel Journet

The opera might be called Faust but the juici­est role is Méphistophélès who, sum­moned by Faust, makes his appear­ance to five for­tis­si­mo chords played by the entire orches­tra. “I am here. Is that so sur­pris­ing?” Méphistophélès asks the aston­ished Faust. “Does my appear­ance dis­please you?” And imme­di­ate­ly the orches­tra begins giv­ing us clues about what kind of guy this par­tic­u­lar Dev­il is. His first ques­tions are all fol­lowed by four soft, quick notes from the flutes, bas­soons and fourth horn, accom­pa­nied by two eighth notes by the strings. The music is play­ful, ele­gant, slight­ly mock­ing, the essence of a man very much in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion and thor­ough­ly enjoy­ing it.

It is true that Faust takes the ini­tia­tive by sum­mon­ing Méphistophélès, and it is Faust who asks what the price will be for the Dev­il work­ing his super­nat­ur­al pow­ers on the philosopher’s behalf. He does not go blind­ly into the deal with Satan, he knows exact­ly what the price will be before he signs away his soul. He is ful­ly aware of the con­se­quences and even hes­i­tates at the cru­cial moment — Méphistophélès has to sum­mon a vision of Mar­guerite to nudge, or entice, Faust into the final step. But once Méphistophélès steps on stage, he dom­i­nates the action and delights in it, while seduc­ing us into enjoy­ing his delight.

Pol Plançon

There are bass­es who have tried to make Gounod’s Méphistophélès a car­i­ca­ture of loath­some evil, the vocal equiv­a­lent of the Bible’s descrip­tion of the Dev­il in I Peter 5:8 as being “like a roar­ing lion, [who] walketh about, seek­ing whom he may devour.” But how many peo­ple would will­ing­ly hang around a roar­ing lion set on devour­ing them? Far more entic­ing is the Apos­tle Paul’s ver­sion in II Corinthi­ans: “Satan him­self is trans­formed into an angle of light,” which is much clos­er to Gounod’s Dev­il. An “amal­gam of debonair grace and cyn­i­cal men­ace,” is the way crit­ic Paul Jack­son summed up the role, and lis­ten­ing to record­ings of great Méphistophélès like bass Pol Plançon (who sang the role 85 times at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan between 1893 and 1908) one can under­stand why every­one is so tak­en in by the guy. A crit­ic for The New York Times describes Plançon’s Méphistophélès as “a boule­vardier,” a man about town, the kind of guy Faust, actu­al­ly, would like to be in his sec­ond youth, which is why he leans on the Dev­il for help, advice and instruc­tions when it comes to woo­ing Marguerite.

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion between the Dev­il and his vic­tim is even more close­ly drawn in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which pre­miered in 1951, almost a cen­tu­ry after Gounod’s Faust. In the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry opera there is no mag­ic potion, no overt sum­mon­ing of the Dev­il. Tom Rakewell mere­ly says, “I wish I had mon­ey,” and instant­ly a stranger appears and informs the young man he has been left a for­tune by an uncle Rakewell nev­er knew. Per­haps it is Rakewell’s unthink­ing youth which blinds him to the true iden­ti­ty this mes­sen­ger, but Stravinsky’s libret­tists W. H. Auden and Chester Kall­man give man the name “Nick Shad­ow,” which leaves no doubt in the minds of the audi­ence as to the man’s iden­ti­ty: “Old Nick” being one of the Devil’s many names, and “Shad­ow” being the dark side of every human being.

Those unpleas­ant and immoral aspects of our selves which we would like to pre­tend do not exist or have no effect on our lives — our infe­ri­or­i­ties, our unac­cept­able impuls­es, our shame­ful actions and wish­es — this shad­owy side of our per­son­al­i­ty is dif­fi­cult and painful to admit,” writes Rob Hopcke in A Guid­ed Tour of The Col­lect­ed Works of  C. G. Jung.

The shad­ow is, in truth, a dev­il­ish form,” observes June Singer in Bound­aries of the Soul, “and just when you think you know who he is, he changes his dis­guise and appears from anoth­er direction.”

Igor Stravin­sky

Tom Rakewell, who has no desire to work for a liv­ing and plans to rely on the favor of For­tune, only has to express as wish and his shad­ow, Nick Shad­ow, grants it. Every wish appears, as if by mag­ic, just by the wish­ing itself. But none of the wish­es last, and Tom ends up dying insane in Bedlam.

Per­haps one of the rea­sons our delights fade, and some­times have unpleas­ant con­se­quences, is to be found in the root of the word itself. “Delight” comes from the same root as “to snare” or “to bind,” and is close­ly relat­ed to “a noose.” Our delights can hang us, and we do it to our­selves by remain­ing uncon­scious of the roots of our desires, even if we blame it all on the Devil.

In the first scene of  The Rake’s Progress, Nick Shad­ow thanks Rakewell for tak­ing him on as guide and says, “for mas­ter­less should I abide/Too long, I soon would die.” What a con­cept, that the Dev­il needs us or he dies? In the Epi­logue, Shad­ow explains, “Day in, day out, poor Shadow/Must do as he is bidden.”

Nick Shad­ow needs Tom Rakewell as much as Rakewell needs Shad­ow for the ful­fill­ment of his wish­es. Méphistophélès needs Faust as much as Faust needs him. What a para­dox. Or is it?

If I can stay with my con­flict­ing impuls­es long enough, the two oppos­ing forces will teach each oth­er some­thing and pro­duce an insight that serves them both,” notes Robert A. John­son in Own­ing Your Own Shad­ow. “This is not com­pro­mise but a depth of under­stand­ing that puts my life in per­spec­tive and allows me to know with cer­tain­ty what I should do. That cer­tain­ty is one of the most pre­cious qual­i­ties known to humankind.”

This arti­cle appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2003.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is Eugene Delacroix’s “Faust and Mephistophe­les,” 1826 – 27.





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).