One of the chief joys of working on Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio is that the composer’s music feels perennially fresh and immediate, while offering flashes of universal insight into the human condition. Mozart has a place in a select pantheon of cultural figures who have created truly timeless works that seem evergreen, even as society continues to change rapidly.
But, in 1782, Mozart was responding to very specific political, social, and cultural forces as he prepared Abduction from the Seraglio for its premiere in Vienna. First of all, the opera itself is a Singspiel – a form of popular entertainment that combined accessible musical forms with comedic spoken dialogue, designed to engage the German-speaking public as a stepping stone to a truly German national opera.
Also at that time, the Viennese population was celebrating the centennial of Turkish defeat in the Siege of Vienna. Not only was it fashionable to appropriate Turkish musical gestures (such as cymbals and Janissary marches), but it was also common to characterize the defeated Ottomans using demeaning stereotypes that referred to their bloodthirstiness or licentiousness.
And, of course, women played a very different role in society at that time, with much of their worth being tied up in the economics of marriage and fidelity.
Lastly, Mozart was composing under the auspices of a very particular patron – Emperor Joseph II. As in most operas of the time, the authority figure in the opera (in this case, Pasha Selim) was seen as an extension of the Emperor itself, and therefore had to be properly exalted and glorified before the opera’s final bars.
Below, a photo of the final scene in the interior of the nightclub: all praise the Pasha for his compassion.
I’m an opera geek through and through, so learning the cultural and historic context of a piece like Abduction is incredibly fun for me. But, opera lovers today face a big challenge – how do we continue to enjoy the historic core repertoire even as our contemporary society changes? In the case of Abduction, it isn’t easy to laugh at centuries-old jokes about beheadings, religious extremism, women in forced captivity, and authoritarian control.
The design team and I wanted to find a way for current audiences to enjoy the wit and humanity of Abduction as a form of popular entertainment, with references that would be immediately accessible and enjoyable. So – we’ve shifted the visual language of this projection to a world of good guys and bad guys, dramatic rescues, and zany hijinks: 1940s Hollywood.
This production plays with the exoticism used in American cinema during the era of classics such as Casablanca and Road to Morocco. It may not be the traditional interpretation of “Turkish delight” as you’ve enjoyed it in the past, but our hope is that it is still nostalgic and glamorous, and that we can illuminate parts of this opera from a new perspective while remaining true to the source of it all – Mozart’s joyful, life-affirming music.
Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio is September 21, 25, 27 and 29 at the Kauffman Center. Tickets start at $29, available at this link.