Mozart and Opera
March 3, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
It was Mozart’s 258th birthday at the end of January, and since I let the event go by without celebrating, I think it’s fitting to dedicate this blog—the next in a series on the development of opera—to Mozart’s contribution to the genre. Since everyone is likely familiar with his mature operas like, Le nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, and The Magic Flute, I thought I’d focus on Mozart’s first forays into the genre. As a child prodigy, he got a very early start.
Mozart composed his first opera-like performance when he was just eleven years old. I say “opera-like” because technically the piece was part of an oratorio, a vocal piece featuring recitatives and arias but which is unstaged and deals with religious subject matter. The Archbishop of Salzburg commissioned the then eleven-year-old Mozart to compose the first act of a three-act oratorio called Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (The Obligation of the First Commandment)during the Lenten season of 1767. (The other acts were composed by Anton Adlgasser and Michael Haydn.) In the years previous, young Wolfgang had wowed kings, queens, and other royalty all over Europe. There was no doubt that Mozart and his sister Nannerl were extraordinary instrumentalists, but there were apparently still some lingering doubts that Mozart was composing on his own without help from his father Leopold. When Mozart received the commission from the Archbishop, the story goes that young Mozart was given lodging for a week where he had no contact with Leopold to see what he could create with just pen and paper.
Mozart, of course, did brilliantly, especially considering his tender age. He showed sensitivity to the singers, set the text adequately, and expressed the emotion of the narrative—a reluctant Christian must decide between worldliness and holiness. Although not a perfect rendering of the material or a great example of what would become Mozart’s style, it is nevertheless a triumph for the eleven-year-old prodigy and a hint of things to come.
Mozart’s first semi-opera was an intermezzo—a short opera meant to be played in between the acts of another opera or play. This intermezzo, Apollo et Hyancinthus, was composed for University students in Salzburg to perform at the end of term. The libretto for this well-received piece was in Latin and it dealt with a mythological subject. The work, which premiered in 1767, is no masterpiece, but it shows Mozart’s ongoing development.
Mozart’s first true opera was an opera buffa (Italian comic opera) called La finta semplice. Bringing it to the stage was not easy as there were numerous political problems that Leopold Mozart took pains to negotiate. La finta semplice was a contracted to premiere in Vienna, but there were so many difficulties that when it finally premiered on May 1 of 1769 it was in Salzburg. Mozart altered one of his own early symphonies to act as the overture. The music of this opera shows freshness and sensitivity, but as a whole, it lacks the cohesion that would mark Mozart’s later masterpieces in the genre.
A number of lesser-known operas followed. Bastien und Basteinne is a Singspiel—an opera in German with spoken dialogue—that young Mozart composed for amateur performers in 1768. It was probably performed at a private home in that year, but its first confirmed performance occurred almost a century after Mozart’s death. Mitridate, Ré di Ponto, a three-act opera seria followed in 1770. Mozart was commissioned to compose the piece for Milan, and the opera made a splash, receiving twenty performances before fading into obscurity (it was revived in 1971, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death). A two-act Pastoral opera called Ascanio in Alba followed in 1771. It was commissioned by the Empress Maria Theresa for the occasion of the wedding of her son, Archduke Ferdinand. The Empress commissioned another opera for the occasion from older composer, Johann Adolph Hasse, but Mozart’s light entertainment overshadowed Hasse’s more serious offering. Hasse admitted as much and is quoted as saying of the then-fifteen-year-old composer, “This boy will cause us all to be forgotten.”
A serious one-act opera (sometimes classified as a “dramatic serenade”), Il sogno di Scipione, premiered in 1772. This time Mozart set the text of Pietro Metastasio, noted Italian poet and librettist. Metastasio was so skillful at his art, some of his libretti were set by more than one composer. Mozart’s next work in this genre was a three-act serious opera with a libretto revised by Metastasio, Lucio Silla. Although the music itself was well done, the circumstances of the first performance were challenging—the premiere started more than three hours late, and the tenor (a substitute) had little stage experience, consequently rendering some of the more serious sections laughable. The opera itself was successful, but for some reason or other, Mozart was never again asked to compose an opera for Italy, and in fact, never again had the opportunity to return to the country. If the rocky premiere was the cause, Mozart could hardly have been blamed.
At the age of nineteen, Mozart had already shown his ability to write opera in both a serious and a comedic style, and he’d already set texts in both Italian and German. He undertook another Italian opera buffa at the end of 1774, which premiered at the beginning of 1775, La finta giardiniera. The Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian III, commissioned the work for the Munich carnival season. In a letter to his mother, Mozart expressed pride at the staging of the opera, “my thirteenth,” according to his own count, saying, “After each aria there was great applause and shouts of ‘Viva maestro.’” He continued to compose for Salzburg, including the two-act opera Il rè pastore, with libretto by Metastasio and Thamos, König in Aegypten, a dramatic play with music by Tobias Philipp von Gebler.
In 1780, Mozart turned twenty-four, and it was in this year that he met his future collaborator (and fellow Mason) Emanuel Schikaneder in Salzburg. But Mozart was beginning to feel like a big fish in a small pond in Salzburg, and he was trying very hard to move on to bigger and better things. It was a struggle to break away from his hometown ties, but he must have longed for more artistic and creative freedom. Mozart composed Idomeneo for the Munich Court Theater, and a year later he penned Die Entführung aus dem Serail (a singspiel) for Vienna. It is in Vienna that we reach Mozart’s mastery of the genre, beginning with Le nozze di Figaro.
Mozart was thirty years old when Le nozze di Figaro premiered. He worked with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte; the two would go on to collaborate on Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Along with Le nozze di Figaro, these operas are the ones Mozart is most famous for, and with good reason. They are in many ways the pinnacle of Mozart’s artistry with the voice and the orchestra. He would go on to complete two final operas in the last year of his life: La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte. All of these late works have become part of the standard repertoire and any one of them could have cemented Mozart’s place in history as one of the greatest opera composers of all time.
It is important to remember that Mozart did not arrive at this artistic place without a long journey of creativity and self-discovery that started when he was just eleven years old. One wonders where that journey would have taken him if he’d lived into the nineteenth century and into the Romantic period. This is where we’ll pick up our history of opera next week. Happy belated birthday, Wolfgang!