Thursday, September 29, 2016

The 'why' behind Seraglio and Mozart's stew of Turks, sex and farce

Photo Credit: Michael Rollands

By Noel Morris

Islam, kidnapping, sex, and slavery — these are risky conversation topics for holiday gatherings. But not in 1782. Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio places the action outside a Turkish harem. It isn’t a probing exploration of religion or human rights, however, it’s farce. Based on Belmont und Constanze by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner, the Turkish palace is but a backdrop to the drama of two women, their lovers, and the powerful Muslim men who seek the women’s affections. It’s worth considering why Mozart chose this story.

For nearly 500 years, the Ottoman Empire had expanded its range, conquering and plundering whole civilizations. Twice, Turkish forces attempted (and failed) to take Vienna — the second siege lasted two months and ended in September 1683. Mozart’s father would have known people who lived through it.

Even as European slavers were shipping Africans to the Americas, North African pirates were selling Europeans to the Turks. Mozart knew of charities that paid ransoms to bring people home.

One might expect Mozart’s Vienna, then, to despise the empire to the south — but no—all things Turkish were in vogue. Tales of European ladies serving as sex slaves in exotic lands became popular fiction. People commissioned portraits of themselves clothed in fabrics from Istanbul. And merchants opened establishments serving a beverage called coffee. (Legend has it that the Viennese coffee craze began after the siege of 1683 when the fleeing army left behind bags of strange-smelling beans.) Mozart’s nod to Turquerie offers a lovesick Pasha and an extraordinary act of mercy.

Ears in the 21st century might strain to hear exotic sounds in Mozart’s score. In 1782, the Viennese recognized echoes of the Ottoman Empire. The bass drum and the jingling of cymbals, triangles and piccolos conjured the military bands that had terrorized their city in 1683. In Abduction, they spin a musical costume around Turkish characters.

Turning travel into music

Composing The Abduction came at a major intersection in Mozart’s life. At 25, the former child prodigy had just left home for good.

His father, Leopold, was a stage parent. A respected musician, he cultivated his son’s genius from an early age and touted him in courts across Europe. British scholar Daines Barrington presented an eyewitness account of meeting with the 8-year-old Wolfgang in 1764. Barrington selected a complex score in five parts and presented it to the boy seated at the harpsichord. Barrington wrote:

“The score was no sooner put upon his desk, than he began to play the symphony in a most masterly manner, as well as in the time and style which corresponded with the intention of the composer.”

Barrington’s account reveals something elemental about Mozart: He could instantly comprehend and master new musical styles. From his travels, he absorbed everything from Italian opera to the sacred music of J.S. Bach. As we see in The Abduction From the Seraglio and the operas to come, he throws that experience into his scores, giving opposing characters opposing musical styles.

Although Mozart remained deeply devoted to his father, he defied him twice in the year or so surrounding this opera’s composition. In 1773, Leopold had procured for Wolfgang a position in the court of his own employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg. While Leopold knew his place in the world, Wolfgang resented it. As a low-ranking servant, Mozart suffered many humiliations at the hands of his boss. By spring 1781, he begged for release. He succeeded in June, getting himself booted out of Salzburg — literally “with a kick in the arse.” He left for Vienna, seeking fame and fortune.

Creating a ‘singspiel’

By July, Mozart had secured a commission for an opera. Vienna’s Burgtheater, sponsored by Emperor Joseph II, offered him Bretzner’s libretto to The Abduction From the Seraglio, reworked by Gottlieb Stephanie.

The new opera was to be a “singspiel,” taken from the German words singen (to sing) and spiel (play). Singspiel juxtaposes dialogue and music, similar to the Broadway musical. Treating the job like an audition, Mozart wrote to his father:

“As we have given the part of Osmin to Herr Fischer, who certainly has an excellent bass voice (in spite of the fact that the Archbishop told me that he sang too low for a bass and that I assured him he would sing higher next time), we must take advantage of it, particularly as he has the whole Viennese public on his side. But in the original libretto Osmin has only this short song and nothing else to sing.”

Mozart changed the story to fit the singer. The Turkish overseer became a major comic character: stupid, surly, malicious. And the music fits the character, lacking the elegance and harmonic complexity of his European captives — which is not to say it’s easier to sing. Osmin’s Act 3 aria "O, wie will ich triumphieren” is famously difficult and showcases Fischer’s ability to sing a low D.

While composing Abduction, Mozart ponders the conundrum of writing beautiful music about anger.

“Passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of exciting disgust, and as music, even in the most terrible situation, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener.”

Mozart’s solution is to give the singer more notes. When his noble heroine Konstanze is confronted by a fate worse than death, she lets it fly, singing a flurry of runs, trills and leaps. Her feisty servant, Blonde, defies Osmin in similar virtuosic fashion, singing, I am an Englishwoman, born for freedom.” (It’s interesting that Mozart’s egalitarian-minded servant is English, a safe distance from Austria, given that he was composing at the command of the Austrian Emperor).

The Abduction From the Seraglio, which opened July 16, 1782, was a hit. Profits poured into the Burgtheater, from which Mozart received a modest flat fee.

Less than a month later Mozart defied his father once more and married Constanza Weber. That he courted Constanza while creating the operatic heroine Konstanze was purely coincidence; that he delighted in the irony was pure Mozart.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tom Goes to the Opera: letting go

Stephen Key, 2016
In week two, Tom dives deeper into his role as the Pasha, and experiences rehearsals a little differently than what he's used to. Illustrations provided by his son, Stephen Key.

OK, one week in to rehearsal for The Abduction from the Seraglio, and the attitude of “Just-do-it!”, “Go-for-it”, “Grow-or-go!” is absolutely necessary. It’s like preparation for a sporting event. We have now been guided through Mozart’s entire opera by our Director, Chris Alexander, and we cover seduction, betrayal, capture, escape, exile, love offered, love refused, love embraced - with life or death consequences – to mention a few plot points – and it’s a comedy!

Without trying to give any spoilers, I will just say that we did have to spend about ten minutes figuring out a bedroom scene gone really badly so that there’s a dagger on the ready from a part of my costume that is something I’ve never worn before onstage. This all has to be exact to the underscore of the orchestra, clear to the audience what’s happening, positioned in such a way that the singers can breathe and project, and, most importantly, very passionate. Of all the things opera
Stephen Key, 2016
singers may have to suffer, boredom is not one of them.  

"If acting in this musically charged world is a sport, it's probably more like diving - the art of letting go in a beautiful way to forces much greater than self."

The music empowers the actor with a quick and immediate understanding of character, plot, objective and action. When I make my first entrance in this opera, about 30 people are singing for cool breezes to blow my way and I’m being followed by a boy waving a palm frond to make sure that I’m cool (evidently things go badly for the people if the Pasha gets overheated), and when I raise my hand, they rush out backward to leave me alone with the beautiful Konstanze. It doesn’t take much discussion around the rehearsal table to understand who’s got the power in this palace. If acting in this musically charged world is a sport, it’s probably more like diving – the art of letting go in a beautiful way to forces much greater than self. -Tom Key

Stephen Key, 2016 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tom Goes to the Opera: The week of "wow"

As an actor, Theatrical Outfit Artistic Director Tom Key has appeared in over 100
productions from off-Broadway to Los Angeles. He also co-authored the hit off-Broadway musical, Cotton Patch Gospel, with the late Harry Chapin. Suffice to say, it seems like he's done and seen it all...except opera!

Every week, Tom will share his inner monologue as he experiences the process of rehearsing and performing in an opera for the first time, as Pasha Selim in The Abduction from the Seraglio

Week #1

Wow.  My first day of rehearsal, for my first role in an opera, and the word of the day is “wow." 
"I have a blinding flash of the obvious: I’m going from the audience into the very same room with these artists who make the 'wow' art form."
The first opera I ever saw was in NYC when I was 14-years-old and it was Aida in the old Metropolitan Opera House. When I realized that those were real elephants on the stage and when I heard the first voices fill, not only the auditorium, but my very soul, that was a “wow” day too.  Now, today, in a brightly lit Atlanta Opera rehearsal hall at 11 a.m.
Key at a fitting for his Pasha costume
when we are assembling for the first time in a “meet and greet” with the staff and one another, I have a blinding flash of the obvious: I’m going from the audience into the very same room with these artists who make the “wow” art form. There won’t be a football field’s distance and an orchestra between us. We’ll all be wearing contemporary clothes.  

Then, it begins and I’m actually face to face meeting opera singers, our opera director, Chris Alexander, shaking their hands, and talking with them. There’s my friend and colleague, Tomer Zvulun, who wildly invited me to this party, and there’s an absolutely fascinating presentation by Chris of his vision for this Mozart comedy, and I have to keep checking to make sure that my jaw is not dropped and that my eyes aren’t open four centimeters wider like they probably were at Aida. My running inner dialogue is something like, “this is so great— I can’t believe I’m here—when they start to sing right next to me will I explode?” Three things anchor me into behaving like a reasonably cohesive professional: Tomer’s welcoming joy for all of us, Chris’s absolute mastery for storytelling, and the fact that the refreshments for this first day morning reception included chocolate cake. Opera people have great priorities. Wow.

Read Tom's bio

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Pick Up Your Q: Soprano Sarah Coburn

Before heading to Atlanta to perform in The Abduction from the Seraglio, soprano Sarah Coburn took some time out of her busy singing schedule to chat with us about her life as a singer and learning the difficult role of Konstanze.
THE ATLANTA OPERA: Did you grow up in a musical family?
SARAH COBURN: Yes, my mother’s side of the family is very musical. My grandmother was a jazz singer and my aunt is a fabulous pianist. My sisters have amazing voices. Every holiday we sang and played. It was mostly barbershop quartets or country music, like the Judds or Vince Gill. Not a bit of opera, though!
AO: Who or what influenced you to become a singer?
SB: I didn’t plan on becoming a singer, although I always planned on majoring in music in college. I studied music education and was encouraged by my voice teachers to think about pursuing performance instead of teaching.
AO: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that Konstanze is one of your favorite roles to sing. What is it about this part that interests you? 
SB: I have? I have never sung this role, so that comes as a shock to me! This is my role debut and it is quite daunting. Konstanze is a role that commands great respect and even fear! Ha! Seriously, it is a great challenge, and one I am thrilled to accept. The role requires a great deal of stamina and virtuosity. I have sung Blondchen in the past, and I always hoped I would have the opportunity to sing Konstanze.
AO: Indeed! This is considered by some to be Mozart’s most vocally challenging music for soprano. Where do the challenges lie in this role, and how do you deal with them? 
SB: The challenges lie in the lengthy arias, and the fact the two of them are back to back. The arias are exercises in breath control, dynamic control, and support in a difficult tessitura. I love them, though.
AO: What’s your regimen for staying healthy when you’re on the road?
SB: Sleep, water, exercise, and I must warm up properly every day before singing. I am not too stressed about everything being in perfect condition in order to sing well; I can’t be — I have three little kids! 
AO: Is this your first time in Atlanta? Do you have any plans to explore the city while you’re here?
SB: I have never spent time in Atlanta. Right now, my goal is to sing the role well and take care of my kids. Exploring the city will come after opening night!