Opera in Conversation: 'Mozart and Comic Opera' Takeaways

Jan 21, 2020

Mozart’s hilarious sit-com The Abduction from the Seraglio lights up the Orpheum Theater for two performances only, February 7 & 9! Tickets start at $19: operaomaha.org/abduction

Thank you to all who attended our first Opera in Conversation for Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio on January 21 and thank you too to Maestro Gary Thor Wedow, conductor of Abduction for his wonderful insights, and Kurt Howard, Opera Omaha’s Producing Director for leading the conversation. If you were not able to attend on Tuesday evening, this blog will bring you up to speed!

The conversation covered three main topics; an overview of Mozart’s music, a deeper look at the music of Abduction, and finally some thoughts about what makes this production in particular so special.

Maestro Wedow’s means of understanding the music of Mozart centers around an analogy. To Wedow the composer’s music is a like a car with an Italian body and a German engine; the body of a red Ferrari underpinned by steadfast Mercedes-Benz engineering. In this analogy, the body is the melody. Mozart wrote elegant, flowing melodies with a distinctly Italian sensibility, likely as a result of his training and touring in Italy as a teenager. Underpinning these melodies, however, is a rigorously theoretical, expertly designed harmonic foundation – the Mercedes-Benz engine in the analogy. Mozart was composing in the late 1700’s, therefore the influences of the baroque period which had just recently ended were still strong. In baroque music, composition was as much a science and a divinely-inspired activity as it was an expressive art form, and this can be seen in Mozart’s music.

Relatedly, music and dance were seen as an innate part of the human existence, hence dance music was also very popular at the time. In fact, as Maestro Wedow discussed, dances appear in most of Mozart’s operas. In Don Giovanni, for example, a minuet (difficult, high-class dance), contradance (middle-class dance), and Deutsche dance (easy, lower-class dance) all happen simultaneously in one scene. The Abduction from the Seraglio also contains a number of dances, similarly representative of different social strata. During the course of the opera, we hear everything from minuets to German folk songs, and event an Irish jig! Belmonte and Constanze, both of whom are members of the upper class, are represented by the noble dances like the minuet, while Pedrillo and Blonde, who are lower-class, are represented by the rowdier folk dances. At this point in our discussion, Maestro Wedow was kind enough to give us a demonstration of each of these dances – with a willing victim…ahem, participant from the audience!

The next topic of discussion focused more specifically on the musical characteristics and influences in Abduction. It is important to start this section, as the Maestro did, with a brief history lesson. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Vienna, the center of the Habsburg Empire and the city where Mozart spent most of his later life, had an ever-changing relationship with the neighboring Ottoman Empire, which stretched from southeastern Europe to the Arabian Peninsula. In the 1600’s, this relationship was marked by a number of battles, at which the Turks would employ their military bands called Janissary bands. These bands played marches with aggressive rhythms intended to frighten the enemy. Over time these Turkish musical sounds became a source of fear for those in Vienna.

However, a decisive victory for the Habsburgs in 1683 created a huge shift in the Vienna-Ottoman relationship. Peacetime rather than wartime became the norm, and as a result Turkish cultural influences and orientalism became popular in the Habsburg Empire. In the 18th century, a whole subgenre of Turkish operas boomed in Vienna as Turkish music moved from the battlefield to the theater. Turkish characters in these operas were often enlightened, in stark contrast to the boorish stereotypes that had pervaded about them in the 17th century. The portrayal was never quite equal however – Janissary marches retained their militaristic character in the theater setting, usually placed in contrast to the ‘refined’ dances of the European nobility.

Mozart’s music in Abduction follows these trends. His Turkish musical influences include brash high woodwinds, loud brass, and thundering percussion including the Turkish Crescent or ‘Jingling Johnny’, a Turkish instrument made of a tall pole with crescents and bells attached – listen out for this unique instrument in Opera Omaha’s production! Similarly, the Turkish parts of the score employs ‘easy’ keys such as C major, while the music of the noble characters, Belmonte and Constanze, uses flat keys which Mozart considered to be more romantic.

Our first Opera in Conversation for The Abduction from the Seraglio closed with a brief discussion of Opera Omaha’s production in particular. Director Alison Moritz’s production shifts the entire setting to interwar Weimar Germany, a world inspired by classic Hollywood movies like Casablanca and The Man Who Knew Too Much and stars like Humphrey Bogart and Doris Day. Join us at the following two Opera in Conversation events, where we will discuss this new production in more depth and look specifically at the costumes and the film influences on Moritz’s vision for this opera!

Jack Hardwick
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

Register for Opera in Conversation: The Costumes of The Abduction from the Seraglio with Costume Designer Neil Fortin here.

Register for Opera in Conversation: Romantic Comedies with Alison Moritz, Director and Diana Martinez, Film Streams here.

Register for Midday Music: The Abduction from the Seraglio here.

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