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).