James Conlon Talks Mozart and The Abduction from the Seraglio

A scene from James Robinson's "Orient Express" production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

A scene from James Robinson’s “Orient Express” production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

“Nothing is as ugly as vengeance, whereas the quality of great souls is to be humanely kind and forgive without selfishness.” (Act III, The Abduction from the Seraglio*)

In the final months of his life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart completed two operas, written simultaneously in 1791: The Magic Flute, a German Singspiel (“singing play”) alternating musical numbers with spoken dialogue; and La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), an Italian opera seria. He might just as well have given his earlier Singspiel, 1782’s The Abduction from Seraglio, a different title: The Clemency of Pasha Selim. After all, the planned abduction fails to materialize. And of the many issues addressed in this work, the rejection of vengeance and the power of forgiveness are at its center, embodied in the person of Pasha Selim.

Impatient to impress Kaiser Joseph II, one of Europe’s greatest Enlightenment monarchs, Mozart jumped at the opportunity to “lift the national German stage to recognition in music!” He showed that not just he, but German music, could be freed from the virtual monopoly of Italian opera. Taking the popular form of Singspiel, he merges it with Italianate sophistication. This, in time, would lead to The Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Fidelio and the 19th-century German genre of Spieloper (“opera play”).

A scene from James Robinson's "Orient Express" production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

A scene from James Robinson’s “Orient Express” production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

Mozart was 20 when British historian and man of letters Horace Walpole reiterated in a private letter what was to become his famous epigram: “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” The highly cultured Walpole might even have heard about the young genius from Salzburg.

Comedies make us think through provoking laughter and humor. Tragedies and melodramas make us feel, and sometimes weep. In the 18th century, Italian opera was compartmentalized: opera buffa made us laugh, opera seria made us think. Most importantly, they both pleased the ear. Mozart clouded this distinction by elevating the level of comic opera to deal with more serious subjects.

Accepting and building on the principles of opera buffa, the composer imported elements from opera seria. And then, striking out on his own, he produced timeless works of probity and beauty, explorations into the complexity of human relationships, societal stratification and humankind’s place in a metaphysical and transcendent universe. He introduced psychological gravity and emotional depth into stock characters and situations. He accomplished all of this through the power of his music, often surpassing the quality of the librettos from which he was working. He maintained the centrality of the art of singing, but gave it an immense variety of new musical functions. Of equal importance, he injected the orchestra and its polyphonic/symphonic compositional world into a theatrical form that was about to discover the potential of marrying their worlds.

Each of Mozart’s operas looks at love and society, the tension between the classes and the battle of the sexes. In The Abduction from the Seraglio, he looks at two pairs of lovers—one noble, one working class—both with rival men pursuing the women. Mozart advocates for the unfeasibility of forced love and the futility of jealousy and possessiveness.

Search and rescue, as it is in Voltaire’s Candide, is the skeletal structure of this opera, which serves metaphorically for dramatizing six characters in search of fulfillment. Belmonte, a young Spanish nobleman, is in search of his beloved, abducted and detained in a Turkish palace seraglio. Konstanze (meaning “constancy” or “fidelity”) is in search of rescue and the freedom to live out her sublime and faithful love. Her servant Blondchen (“Blondie” in the vernacular) is a bright and spirited English girl who challenges everyone to treat women with respect (uncommon fare in 1782). Blondchen’s lover Pedrillo is Belmonte’s Spanish servant, captured with the women and sold into servitude in Pasha Selim’s palace. His search is for freedom. Osmin, overseer of the seraglio, the harem, is a blustering but loveable low-culture stereotype seeking his ideal woman: a submissive slave who meets his every demand. Pasha Selim is a high-culture paradigm of the noble Turk. He seeks a loving union, with man and woman equal in spiritual, intellectual and physical harmony.

A scene from James Robinson's "Orient Express" production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

A scene from James Robinson’s “Orient Express” production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

The symmetry is perfect, with three nobles—Belmonte and Konstanze (Spanish; shipwrecked; Christian) and Pasha Selim (North African; exiled by Spanish invaders; Muslim)—and three servants, Pedrillo and Blondchen (Spanish and English; shipwrecked; Christian) and Osmin (Turkish; Muslim). Both Christian women are betrothed to the Spaniards and wooed by the Muslims, each according to their class.

Mozart reshuffles the cards and deals a new hand to his public. Through his character portrayals, he ennobles the servant class, not by changing their status but by endowing them with a rich and complex humanity. He humanizes the nobles by removing them from their pedestals and divulging their flaws. He reveals the mechanics of a male-dominated society, laying bare the struggles between the sexes. He defends the interests of the servant class and rarely misses an opportunity to uphold the dignity of women. As in all of his works, he advocates for love, compassion and forgiveness. He has a sharp eye for opportunities to turn prejudices, stereotypes and presuppositions on their heads.

In Abduction, Mozart accomplishes this through his most astonishing creation: the Pasha. He is at the center of the drama but is musically mute; his part is played by an actor. He is the author’s admonition to the public that if you look beyond preconceived notions, you will discover virtue and dignity where you are least inclined to see it. Righteousness may be embodied in the enemy, in another culture, language or religion.

To appreciate the full force of Mozart’s powerful statement, it is necessary to situate his Viennese audience in its historical context. Vienna’s preeminent position in the world of European music reflects the power it held as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It was cosmopolitan, bustling with trade, immigration and foreign contacts. Through exploration, trade and travelers’ stories, the Empire provided ample material for the new taste for exoticism. It excited curiosity and even, unintentionally, openness to new ideas. Enlightenment writers picked up on the tales told by missionaries, soldiers and traders, and started to read into them. Perhaps, they conjectured, the conquered were more civilized than the conquerors, the “savages” and “pagans” more moral than those who wanted to reform them. They suggested there were ethical lessons to be learned from other religions and cultures.

None of this was lost on young Mozart when he wrote Abduction. The Ottoman Empire was stopped at the gates of Vienna almost 100 years earlier. For the Viennese, the Turks were still a threatening enemy. In the theater, fear and loathing often were mitigated by rendering the enemy, in turn, insignificant, evil or simply comic. “Turkish” music (which came to mean anything that sounded foreign or exotic) was fashionable and exploited by both Mozart and Beethoven.

What was highly unusual if not shocking for those seeing this opera in 1782, was the surprise ending. The hated, feared and disdained Islamic-Turkish Pasha Selim shows himself to be the moral hero of the story.

The reviled “Moslem foreigner” is both ennobled and ennobling. He is the first in a line of Mozartian characters who “instruct” us in moral imperatives and the meaning of love. Sarastro, at the end of that line, leads The Magic Flute’s Tamino and Pamina into wisdom, through fire and water, so they may rule as a couple (and as equals!). Far more cynically, Don Alfonso “tutors” the two young couples in Così fan tutte, leading them to a less naïve and better informed choice of life mates.

Pasha Selim, like Sarastro, is at first perceived as an evil and tyrannical authority. But with the passage of time his depth is revealed. The Pasha has all of the means and, in the context of his society, the right to force Konstanze to accept his love. But he wants her to truly love him, not just to submit. She is steadfast in her refusal, explaining that her heart belongs to another. He suffers the pangs of unrequited love, yet chooses not to use violence to attain his prize. When he discovers the plot to abduct Konstanze, an offense punishable by death, his first reaction is outrage. The perpetrator is Belmonte, the son of his worst enemy, the man who forced him to leave his native country. To punish Belmonte would give him a double satisfaction: to kill his rival in love and to take revenge on his greatest enemy by executing his son—an eye for an eye, a son for his lost happiness.

He has the power to avenge himself, destroy his rival and force himself on the object of his desires, and all of it in accordance with the laws of the land. In a surprise turnabout, he pardons everybody, grants them clemency and restores their freedom. He shows himself to be the morally uplifting force of the story. He recognizes—and teaches us about—the imperative of true love, the power of forgiveness and the luminous quality of magnanimity.

He is, in fact, the mouthpiece for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose middle name translates to an imperative sentence: “Love God.” Mozart’s own imperative? “Love true love.”

For more information about and to purchase tickets to The Abduction from the Seraglio, click here.

James Conlon is celebrating his tenth year as the Richard Seaver Music Director at LA Opera.

*The word “seraglio” (pronounced se-RAHL-yo) refers to the separated living quarters reserved for wives and concubines in an Ottoman household. It derives from the Turkish saray (meaning “palace”) or Persian sara’i (“house” or “inn”), perhaps with a Late Latin influence from serraculum (“enclosure”). “Seraglio” can also be translated as “harem,” a word derived from the Arabic harīm, meaning “forbidden”.

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