Muslims, Christians and Mozart: Seeking Harmony at the Met Opera

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SHAFAQNA – When the curtain goes up on Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (“The Abduction From the Seraglio”), we are on the Mediterranean coast in the Ottoman Empire, at a palace where European captives are being held as slaves by a Muslim pasha. When the Ottoman Turkish overseer, Osmin, enters and sings about his rage against the Christian prisoners, he fantasizes about hanging them, impaling them on hot stakes and beheading them.

Mozart and his librettists wrote a comedy. But it is hard to listen to Osmin’s aria today and not think about contemporary nightmare scenarios of hostages and global conflict. An evening with “Abduction From the Seraglio” — first presented in Vienna in 1782 and opening Friday, April 22 at the Metropolitan Opera in a revival conducted by James Levine — reminds us that in the 18th century, when the vast Ottoman Empire was governed by the Turkish sultans in Istanbul, Mozart was one of many European composers fascinated by the relations, encounters and conflicts between Christians and Muslims.

It was an age of warfare against the Turks, full of the tensions between the Muslim and Western worlds. But “Abduction” may be an opera for our own times, too: an intriguing if disturbing model of how to understand — through the structure of music — the anger of an enemy and how to explore harmoniously the reconciliation of cultural difference.

An etching depicting Mozart, center front, watching a production of “The Abduction From the Seraglio” at the Royal Opera House in Berlin. Credit Imagno/Getty Images
Europeans being held captive in the Muslim world was a common occurrence in Mozart’s time. Alongside the Atlantic slave trade, there was a Mediterranean slave trade, driven by the Barbary pirates of North Africa who operated within the domain of influence of the Ottoman Empire. Religious and philanthropic associations were active all over Europe, raising money for ransoms, and publishers hawked both moving memoirs of female captivity and, later, pornographic fictions on the same theme.

Sex trafficking is, of course, not what one usually thinks about when listening to Mozart’s brilliant overture, with its musical explosion of what would have been viewed in his time as characteristically “Turkish” percussion — cymbals, triangle, bass drum — that the composer used to wake up the audience and compel attention. But female slavery, however evasively dramatized in this comedic presentation, forms the back story of “Abduction,” in which Konstanze, a Spanish lady, and her English servant Blonde have been kidnapped by pirates and sold to Pasha Selim. Many productions, including the Met’s, don’t dwell on all this, but the director Calixto Bieito shocked the opera world by emphasizing the brutality of trafficking in a harrowing, violent 2004 Berlin staging.

At the same time that Mediterranean piracy was an 18th-century reality — delivering thousands of European captives into Ottoman servitude and, not to be forgotten, numerous Muslim captives into Europe — operas about Turks were a cultural phenomenon, with hundreds of productions featuring turbaned sultans and pashas enslaving hundreds of sopranos in their harems. In 1683, just shy of a century before the premiere of “Abduction,” the Viennese withstood a Turkish siege. Ottoman military bands played authentic Turkish percussion to terrify the residents — the same percussion that Mozart later imitated for its entertainment value in “Abduction.”
The siege was broken with the arrival of a Polish army, and the ensuing victories of the allied Christian troops pushed back the borders of the Ottoman Empire. This made the Turkish military seem less fearsome than before, and European opera houses rather suddenly began staging operas about Turks.
There was an almost instantaneous operatic treatment in Hamburg in 1686: Johann Wolfgang Franck’s “The Lucky Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa” and “The Unlucky Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa,” composed for performance on successive evenings. (The Grand Vizier who led the Ottoman troops was put to death after the failure of the siege.) Most important, however, was the 1689 premiere, in Venice, of Marc’Antonio Ziani’s “Il gran Tamerlano.” This was the predecessor of Handel’s “Tamerlano,” which was produced in London in 1724 and portrayed with deep sympathy the defeated Ottoman sultan Bajazet, whose heroic sufferings as a captive of the conqueror Tamerlane were a common operatic subject throughout the 18th century. Rameau included a section called “The Generous Turk” in his “Les Indes galantes” (1735), while Gluck and Haydn both composed operas on roughly the same libretto, “The Unexpected Encounter, or The Pilgrims to Mecca,” Gluck’s in French, Haydn’s in Italian. Grétry’s “Caravan of Cairo” was such a huge success in Paris in the 1780s that the Metropolitan Museum of Art preserves French fabric samples printed with scenes from the work.

Operas about Turks could be serious or funny, but, curiously, those that depicted Europeans in Ottoman captivity were almost always comedies that ended happily, with the emancipation of the prisoners, usually by an unexpected act of magnanimity from the Turkish authority (like Pasha Selim in “Abduction”). Some actually reckoned with the brutal realities of trafficking and slavery, if also in comic fashion: The bass Ludwig Fischer, who starred in Georg Joseph Vogler’s “Merchant of Smyrna” as a gleefully evil slave dealer, was also Mozart’s first Osmin.
Osmin, the pasha’s overseer and the guardian of the harem, dominates “Abduction” with extravagant musical rages that reach down to the depths of the bass vocal range. Mozart was thoroughly invested in exploring through this character the ways that music could express extreme emotions while still remaining musical: “A person who gets into such a violent rage oversteps all order, measure, and object,” he wrote in a 1781 letter. “He no longer knows himself. In the same way the music must no longer know itself — but passions violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of disgust, and music must never offend the ear.”

While Mozart lived in a century of intermittent European wars against the Ottoman Turks, as well as a century of captivity and slave trade on the Mediterranean, he couldn’t help being interested in exploring the ways in which the two sides were closer than they realized. In the original libretto for “Abduction” (which had already been set by a different composer in Berlin in 1781), the tenor hero, Belmonte, was revealed to be the long-lost son of the Ottoman pasha, and though this plot twist was eliminated in Vienna, Mozart does allow a certain intimacy between the two cultures. Though the captive Konstanze declares that she would rather submit to “every kind of torture” than surrender sexually to the pasha, she also seems drawn to him (“admire you, yes, but love you, never”), and her stunningly difficult ornamentation of her aria recalls Osmin’s in its extremity. (Later in his career, Mozart would use the same kind of soprano dazzle to portray the fury of the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute.”)

Belmonte seeks to rescue (or “abduct”) Konstanze from the pasha’s harem, but when they are caught escaping, the pasha turns out to be a “generous Turk” in the 18th-century tradition. The lovers are neither beheaded, nor hanged, nor impaled, but are set free to return to Europe and love each other. Mozart’s finale celebrates the magnanimity of the pasha as a way of flattering the Austrian Hapsburg emperor (who was actually in the audience at the Vienna premiere), with an opera that offered a model of enlightened despotism relevant to Muslim and Christian rulers alike. Mozart acknowledged what the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called the “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic world and the West, but he also understood that that “clash” was qualified by numerous points of contact and familiarity. In “Abduction,” when the European captive Pedrillo offers alcoholic temptation, and once the Quranic prohibition has been considered and discarded, Osmin, the angry overseer, becomes entirely amiable, joining Pedrillo in a tribute to Bacchus and a toast to all women, blondes and brunettes alike.

In the spirit of the Enlightenment, and within the genre of comic opera, Mozart really could imagine a brotherhood of Christians and Muslims. After all, even in an age of violent conflicts, harmony was what he understood best.

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