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Houston Mozart Doubleheader:
Bold Intent Undermined by
Ahistorical “Abduction”

by Harley Schlanger

March 2008

Abduction from the Seraglio
By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie
Houston Grand Opera (HGO)
Jan. 25 - Feb. 9, 2008

The Magic Flute
By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emmanuel Schikaneder
Houston Grand Opera (HGO)
Jan. 18 - Feb. 2, 200

The pairing of the two Mozart operas, “Abduction from the Seraglio,” and “The Magic Flute,” by the Houston Grand Opera, is an example of inspired programming. It is most unfortunate that, despite the overall excellence of the production of “The Magic Flute,” the performance of “The Abduction” was off the mark — not due to any shortcomings in the cast, or the orchestra, but due to an egregious error, which is commonly made in contemporary productions: that is, to re-situate the opera, taking the action out of its historic setting, and placing it into a more modern one, in this case, in the 1920s.

Though today’s audience in Houston may not object to the change, and may even like it, the decision to do this undermines the special character of this opera, and does fatal damage to Mozart’s intention.

To understand why this is so, it is necessary to know something about the creative revolution, in both music and drama, unleashed by Mozart, which is realized in these two operas. It is also essential to see how this creative revolution resulted from Mozart’s courageous intervention into his times, which is brilliantly reflected in these two masterpieces.

The two operas frame the last decade of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life in Vienna, with the first premiering in July 1782, a little more than a year after he moved there, upon leaving the services of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Count Colloredo; and the latter completed during the last months of his life, opening in September 1791 — he died on December 5 of that year.

It was a decade of great change and turmoil, both politically, and in the world of music. Europe was shaken by the great republican hopes engendered by the American Revolution in the beginning of the decade, and the demoralizing barbarism of the French Revolution at the end. The Hapsburg Emperor of Austria, Joseph II, who presided during the decade, introduced a series of reforms, which highly destabilized the aristocracy in his empire.

The most significant of these were specifically designed to reduce their power, which he initiated as soon as he became sole ruler, upon the death of his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, in 1780. Despite these efforts, which were in keeping with the spirit of his times, he had become disillusioned and frightened by the end of the decade, especially demoralized by the turbulence in France, which culminated in the overthrow of his sister, Marie-Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI.

He died shortly after that, in February 1790, and was buried under the epitaph, “Here lies a prince whose intentions were pure but had the misfortune to see all his endeavors fail.” One of those endeavors, which most assuredly did not fail, was his effort to promote German culture, through his sponsorship of the German-language Nationalsingspiel theater. Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” was written as part of that project.

Vienna and the Turks

Though it is common to hear it stated today that Mozart was “apolitical,” a serious study of the operas composed during his decade in Vienna demonstrates the absurdity of that claim. One of his more recent biographers, Volkmar Braunbehrens, makes a mockery of that assertion in his excellent study, “Mozart in Vienna: 1781-1791.” 1.

The political battles and intrigues inside the center of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) empire, including Joseph’s battles to rein in the aristocracy, and matters of war and peace, were part of Mozart’s everyday concerns. According to Braunbehrens, “Mozart followed these historical developments with lively interest. All of his Viennese operas contained so much politically inflammatory material that they barely conformed to the requirements of the censor and sometimes offended aristocratic sensibilities.” 2.

The approval of the German text for “The Abduction” came from the Court, likely with backing from Joseph II, in the spring of 1781. The librettist, Johann Gottlieb Stephanie, was an actor and playwright at the Nationalsingspiel Theater, and he and Mozart began work in the midst of a campaign, by Tsarina Catherine (the “Great” ) of Russia, to bring Joseph into an alliance for a war against Turkey. Joseph and Catherine had met a year earlier. To cement their alliance, her son, the Grand Duke Paul, was making a visit to Vienna in September 1781. Mozart’s opera was originally scheduled to be a part of his welcome to Vienna.

Though this did not occur — largely due to inadequate time allowed for composition and preparation — Mozart did not wish to participate in beating the drums for war. In fact, his disapproval of the visit of the Grand Duke was expressed in his name for him: he referred to him as the ” Grand Beast.”

Mozart was well aware of the efforts to whip up support among the population for a new war against the Turks. The anti-Turkish sentiment was further fanned by preparations underway for a major celebration in 1783, to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Austrian victory over the Turks in 1683, with the breaking of the siege of Vienna. His opera, with its surprising ending, which promotes “a dialogue among cultures” rather than a “clash of civilizations,” was thus targeted at undermining the drive for a new war.

It was therefore not surprising to Mozart that there was an organized campaign to sabotage opening night, with an effort to disrupt the performance by hissing. He wrote to his father, about the second performance, that “there was an even stronger cabal yesterday than on the first evening. The whole first act was accompanied by hissing, but they could not prevent the loud cries of ‘bravo’ during the arias....” 3.

He wrote later that the “Abduction” “is making such a sensation in Vienna that people refuse to hear anything else and the theater is always packed.”

Despite the efforts of the Tsarina, with backing from sections of the Hapsburg Empire’s nobility, to bring Joseph into war against the Turks, there was no war, until the end of the decade, when a weakened Joseph capitulated, and personally led troops into battle.

Revolution in Music and Opera

In the midst of this period of political turbulence, Mozart was also at the center of a revolution in music. In November 1781, as he was engaged in composing “The Abduction,” he began an intense, immensely fruitful collaboration with Franz Josef Haydn, in a salon sponsored by Baron Gottfried Bernhard von Swieten.

On Sunday afternoons, Mozart, Haydn and other leading musicians gathered in von Swieten’s home to play music, in particular, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. With Mozart at the clavier, they worked through Bach’s most important compositions, which von Swieten had brought to Vienna with him, after having served as envoy from the Hapsburgs at the court of Frederick II (the “Great” ) in Berlin. It is reported that they played and sang “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” “The Musical Offering,” and “The Art of the Fugue.” 4.

This collaboration served as the basis of a musical revolution, through their study of Bach’s fugues, and Bach’s development of counterpoint — which, in Bach’s works, was quite different than the formal rules of counterpoint set down by Fux, which his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach belittled as “dry mathematical stuff” ; and through the development of the “motivfuhrung” principle, of the underlying unity of a musical idea, which drives a piece from the beginning to the end. 5.

This revolution is evident in the advance of Mozart’s compositions in the 1782-86 period, especially in the six “Haydn” string quartets (K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464, 465), as well as in his dialogues with Bach in C minor (Fugue in C minor for two pianos, K. 426; the Sonata for piano, K. 457; and the Fantasy for piano, K.475).

But this transformation was clear, also, in opera, beginning with “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (K. 384), which was revolutionary in the richness of its orchestration, and in its vocal counterpoint. For example, the Quartet at the end of Act Two, “Ach Belmonte! Ach mein Leben!” , offers a foretaste of the powerful transformation of opera, through the employment of increasingly complex polyphony, which hit its full stride in his next major operas, “The Marriage of Figaro,” and ” Don Giovanni.” It is through the dense, rigorous contrapuntal development between several different species of voices — in this example, two tenors and two sopranos, singing separately, yet together, of their hopes and fears, with the complexity of the music driving the drama, enhancing it in a way that had never been seen on the stage before — that Mozart achieves a unity of effect, which lingers in the mind for days after one has attended the opera!

What makes these operas even more powerful, as a means of uplifting the audience and giving them a glimpse of true human potential, is the change in Mozart’s approach to drama. His operas were not meant solely to entertain, but to transform his audiences. This intent was shaped by the revolution in drama introduced by Gotthold Lessing, through his work in developing a German-language theater, centered around the plays of Shakespeare, and his own plays. Emperor Joseph II had met Lessing, and discussed with him this idea, which he attempted to realize in creating a National Theater, which introduced a new form of German-language opera, the “singspiel.” 6.

The singspiel is the German equivalent of a form of comic opera which had become popular in France and England, in which singing was interspersed with spoken dialogue. Mozart utilized and developed this form in both “The Abduction” and “The Magic Flute.”

Mozart had direct experience with Lessing’s concept of the German-language theater while he still lived in Salzburg. From September to November 1780, a troupe of actors came to town, performing four plays a week there. The featured player in this troupe was Emanuel Schikaneder, who was known for his portrayals of Hamlet and Macbeth, as well as his productions of Lessing’s plays, which the troupe performed while in Salzburg. The Mozart family attended every performance, and Schikaneder became a regular at their household dinner table.

His acquaintance with Mozart was renewed at the end of the decade in Vienna, when he convinced Mozart to compose the music for a libretto he was working on, “The Magic Flute.”

Poetry As the “Obedient Daughter” of Music

The Abduction from the Seraglio” offered Mozart an opportunity to develop new ideas in opera. From the beginning, he worked closely with the librettist, Stephanie, to insure that his freedom of composition was not hindered by the libretto, allowing for the exposition of a new relationship between poetry and music. In a letter dated October 13, 1781, he wrote that, “in opera the poetry must be the obedient daughter of the music.... An opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, and the words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme.” He added, “The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix; in that case no fears need be entertained as to the applause — even of the ignorant.”

In the same letter, he added a shot at the formalists who dominated his profession, who were unhappily provoked by the way he joyfully broke their rules: “If we composers were always to stick so faithfully to our rules (which were very good at a time when no one knew better), we would be concocting music as unpalatable as their libretti.” 7.

By combining his new powers in musical composition with his concept of drama as a medium of transformation, he put on stage characters which evoked profound emotional responses from his audience. His characters are not fixed, but develop, capable of reacting to events as they unfold in the drama. Braunbehrens notes correctly that, from “The Abduction” forward, Mozart’s characters “do not represent a single character trait but are complex figures with positive and negative sides, true to life and multifaceted.” 8.

Thus, the audience in Vienna in 1782 was hit hard with a series of dramatic ironies, when “The Abduction” premiered. The noble hero, Belmonte, was not always so noble, as is evident when his servant, Pedrillo, mocks him for believing that he, as a servant, is incapable of knowing what love is; the women were not at all submissive; and, most important, the Turkish Pasha who had captured the women was not an evil stereotype, but was capable of great mercy. This latter point would have been especially unnerving to patrons of the war party in Vienna, as the surprisingly humane generosity and wisdom of Mozart’s Pasha Selim runs counter to the image of the Turks as blood-thirsty Muslim barbarians, which was promoted by those promoting a new crusade.

For “The Abduction” to work, as Mozart intended, this last irony must be presented in its fullest sense. Even for those wary of a war with the Turks in 1782, there was an awareness of a real potential danger looming. Turkish armies remained deployed throughout the Balkans, and stories of past atrocities were well known. To portray the Pasha as a man of reason and compassion, who could rise above the desire for revenge — a desire which everyone in the theater would understand and identify with — is to create an emotional and intellectual shock, one which would provoke a discussion among theater-goers, which could possibly make it more difficult to manipulate them to blindly march off to war.

That is precisely what Mozart intended.

Photo by Andrew Cloud
To set the opera in the 1920s, on the Grand Orient Express, takes the opera out of all context. Shown above: Heidi Stober (Blonde), Nicolas Phan (Pedrillo), Paul Groves (Belmonte), Tamara Wilson (Konstance) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Osmin) in Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio.

To set the opera in the 1920s, on the Grand Orient Express, as the HGO production did, completely eliminates this intention. The nation of Turkey in the 1920s no longer presented an existential threat to Europe, as the Turkish Empire had in Mozart’s day. It is unfortunately the case that this unwarranted attack on historic specificity is not limited to the HGO. Braunbehrens writes that this is characteristic of most modern productions of “The Abduction,” as “it is no longer staged so as to reveal its musical and dramatic relevance. A historically authentic production would have to restore and convey the political explosiveness of the material.” 9.

In our era of Bush and Cheney, to decide to stage “The Abduction” authentically, as a challenge to the hegemonic axioms of the post-911 “Clash of Civilizations” outlook, would be an act of courage which Mozart would appreciate.

Authentic “Magic Flute”

The disappointment from the HGO’s performance of “The Abduction” was ameliorated somewhat by the wonderful production of “The Magic Flute,” which ran at the same time. Mozart’s mature artistic powers are evident in this opera, which he composed in a collaboration with the aforementioned Schikaneder.

photo by Andrew Cloud
Mozart’s “Magic Flute” represents more than just a fairy tale or a promotion of Freemasonry—it’s Mozarts optimistic commitment to the ideals of the American Revolution. Above: Patrick Carfizzi as Papageno in Mozart’s “Magic Flute.”

There is a tendency to present this opera either as a kind of fairy tale—and there are elements of a supernatural children’s morality play in it — or with a heavy emphasis on its Freemasonic symbolism, which is also a part of the story. Some allegedly reputable, though uninformed, critics go so far as to dismiss the story as nonsense, even as they praise the music.

However, familiarity with Mozart and his times, as provided in this review, should point the aspiring seeker of truth in the right direction. The “Magic Flute” aimed at something more universal than a symbolic promotion of Freemasonry. It is an expression of Mozart’s optimistic commitment to the ideals of the American Revolution, and his belief that people — even aristocrats — can change. Though Tamino was born a Prince, it is his willingness to allow his beliefs to be challenged — for example, that Sarastro was an evildoer, as the Queen of the Night and her entourage had insisted — that qualified him to become a leader in Sarastro’s Temple of Reason. A Prince who ruled by virtue of reason, rather than through the arbitrary laws of primogeniture, was a crucial goal for republicans in Europe.

photo by Andrew Cloud
Eric Cutler as Tamino and Albina Shagimuratova as the Queen of the Night.

With the death of Emperor Joseph II, the Viennese society which he had tried to change, and which was being organized by Mozart and his collaborators, was on a downward trajectory, as a British-directed operation aimed at extirpating any sympathy on the continent for the American Revolution was in full swing. Among the institutions under attack by the imperial secret police was the Freemasonic lodge, of which Mozart was a member.

Rather than retreat from the revolutionary ideals, which had become a threat to the reign of monarchs, Mozart elevated them, and presented them to large and enthusiastic audiences in the Theater auf der Wieden, which was run by Schikaneder. His optimism about the nature of man, his belief that an individual can be moved to act for the good out of love of his fellow citizens, and would risk everything for truth, was poured into this opera, as a continuous musical development, which seizes the full attention of the audience from the opening chord, and holds it to the final declaration of the triumph of wisdom and beauty.

The cast in the HGO production was up to the challenge. Eric Cutler as Tamino demonstrated the full range required for the role, from the hapless and not-so-courageous Prince, who faints when confronted by the dragon at the outset, to the confident leader who emerges from the trials at the end. Patrick Carfizzi, who made his debut as Papageno in Houston, brought out the pathos of his character, the equivalent of a Sancho Panza, who becomes the unwilling accomplice of Tamino. Carfizzi’s singing complemented his acting in the role, both of which were excellent.

Rebekah Camm as Pamina, and Albina Shagimuratova as the chilling Queen of the Night continued the tradition in Houston of young artists “graduating” from the Houston Grand Opera Studio program, to perform major roles. Both handled the demanding arias well, with Shagimuratova demonstrating both superb vocal agility and tuning in the Queen’s “Zum Leiden” aria.

The HGO orchestra, under the direction of Steven Sloane, played with admirable transparency, paying close attention to the changes in tempo demanded by Mozart; and the choral sections, directed by HGO’s chorus master Richard Bado, gave the priests of Sarastro’s Temple both the enthusiasm and the gravitas required to win over the audience to the lofty ideals they were praising.

Related Pages:

“Don Giovannni”: Beauty and Pathos Of Mozart Undermined By Director's Conceit (Los Angeles Opera)

“Marriage of Figaro": An Opera for Our Time (Michigan Opera Theatre)

Mozart's Don Giovanni from a Houston Opera (PDF)

Anathema of Venice: Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart’s American Librettist

Schiller Institute Art, Music and Book Reviews



1.Braunbehrens, Volkmar, “Mozart in Vienna: 1781-1791” (Grove Press, New York, 1989 - first published in German, 1986).

2. Braunbehrens, ibid., p. 5.

3.Quoted in “Letters of Wolfgang Mozart,” edited by Hans Mersmann (New York City: Dover Publications, 1972), p. 198.

4. The story of the Mozart-Haydn collaborative studies on the Bach’s work, which was done at the salon of von Swieten, is a central theme in David Shavin’s “Mozart and the American Revolutionary Upsurge” (Fidelio Magazine, Vol. I No. 4, Winter 1992).

5. For a full discussion of this musical revolution, see Lyndon LaRouche, “Mozart’s 1782-1786 Revolution in Music” (Fidelio Magazine, Vol. I No. 4, Winter 1992).

6. For more on the significance of Lessing, see Shavin, ” Mozart and the American Revolutionary Upsurge,” under the subhead “Lessing, Mendelssohn and the moral purpose of drama.”

7. Letter from Mozart of Oct. 13, 1781, quoted in Braunbehrens, p. 78.

8.Braunbehrens, p. 79.

9. Braunbehrens, p. 85.