Abduction from the Seraglio: A Blind Eye

Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight. It’s a new podcast from WQXR that interrogates the culture of our classical music scene and we look at ways to make it beautiful for all of us. In this series we’re looking at representations of blackness in opera. In this episode we’re talking about Mozart’s opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Seraglio flurry.  (Kevin, Peter, Sylvia, Tara, Nimet) 

Peter Sellars: Every one of Mozart's operas is uh, liberatory,  and I think for a long time, Mozart just couldn't get what he wanted to see on stage.

Terrance McKnight: Theater and opera director Peter Sellars.

Peter Sellars: There's beautiful music in the abduction, but it’s extremely awkward as a piece. And I've never done it cuz I just can't go in there. 

Kevin Maynor: Mozart, he's aware of the times in which he lived in

Terrance McKnight: Bass Kevin Maynor.    

Kevin Maynor: and he projects, uh, what we might need or encounter in years to come.

Terrance McKnight: The Abduction from the Seraglio was first heard in Vienna in 1782. Emperor Joseph II commissioned the opera from Mozart.


They were both interested in operas being sung in their native tongue. Joseph had recently come to power in Austria and Mozart came to the capital city to work as a freelancer, that’s how badly he wanted to do his own thing and tell his own stories. He showed in Vienna with an incomplete opera about a slave revolt but the opera wasn’t staged during his lifetime. I’m not certain why he wasn’t encouraged to finish that story but I can tell you this, it’s the same thing I’ve been saying through many of these episodes, when art and the politics don’t match, something’s gotta give, traditionally it’s the art. 

It’s not pretty but we’re trying to make things beautiful for all of us. 

Terrance McKnight: In the 17th through 19th centuries, when opera didn’t meet the politics and the social order of the day, most likely it wasn’t gonna meet the public. So here’s the thing with Seraglio. Joseph II was known as a liberal, he abolished aspects of serfdom, he ushered in religious freedom and opportunity, he talked about equality, he admired the democratic ideas espoused by the newly formed America. His approach to governance embraced the enlightenment but freedom didn’t apply to every human and those same restrictions are present in the opera he paid Mozart to write. 

Livermore Valley Abduction Instrumental Music

In Mozart’s opera you have two European women who’ve been captured, they were sold into Pasha Selim’s harem. Selim is Turkish, he owns a few slaves.  One is a nameless black man who is mute. The other is Osmin  who appears to be of African descent.  Listen to how Pasha talks about Osmin, and as you're listening, think about some of the things you’ve read or heard about;how black people have been viewed and treated for centuries. 

Nathan Stark: I think one of my favorite past times is to see somebody get lashed and, and flogged and, and, uh, You know, I think with, with, especially with Osmin, he's a strong guy, so it's, it's fun to see how much you can whip him until he, he actually cries out.


Terrance McKnight: That’s the stage, this is real life:

VOICEOVER: NY TIMES: March, 1921: A Negro was whipped and left almost dead upon the ground by a white man it is charged. The negro had disputed the word of the man’s book keeper in his saw mill. The negro has disappeared.


Terrance McKnight: Back to the stage.


Nathan Stark / Pasha:  He's been lashed many times. I sometimes do it for fun, uh, I dunno, for looking at me funny or dropping my, uh, meals when he brings them to me, or if he's late coming in with one of my wives when I've asked him to arrive.


Terrance McKnight: Pasha Selim riffing from the opera, this comes from real life:


VOICEOVER: Chattanooga news 1902: Advices just received from a country neighborhood in Amite county, state that an “old negro” was whipped nearly to death two or three nights since by the night riders for refusing to obey the order to leave the county.  


Livermore Valley Abduction Instrumental Music

Terrance McKnight: Amite County is where my parents grew up. It’s where my grandfather’s grandparents were emancipated in 1863. They were in Amite county when that happened. They probably knew that man, the county ain’t but so big. 

We’re looking at representations of Blackness in opera in this series. These operas aren’t museum pieces. They’re being performed somewhere in the world right now. Which means the stereotypes and attitudes from that time are being reinforced in modern productions unless the directors make adjustments. In 1782, there was a lot of human trafficking going on around the world and Vienna, the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor, saw some of that traffic. In Mozart’s opera, Osmin, the powerful but powerless eunuch is treated as less than human. He is surrounded by Pasha’s women but Osmin is expected to be void of feelings and the basic desire for love or affection. Listen to this double standard. 

Nathan Stark / Pasha:  I needed somebody who was a large person to keep away the other people who might be trying to invade my wives. 

Terrance McKnight: This is Pasha.

Nathan Stark / Pasha: And when I need  one of them, or two of them, or three of them, he brings them to me. He's a loyal servant, though he has a little weak spot for women. He just needs to, uh, to stay away from the women. 

Terrance McKnight: You hear that - that double standard? Osmin, perhaps three-fifths of a man?  is not supposed to want love or affection, while Pasha …well you heard him.  Him being in power makes allowances for his humanity or lack thereof. 

Jennifer Welch Babbidge / Konstanze: There's something different about him than from the other people there. 

Terrance McKnight: This is Konstanze, Pasha’s prisoner talking about the man who is trying to bring her into the fold of his harem. 

Jennifer Welch Babbidge / Konstanze: There is a different level of respect and of honoring people. Um, he doesn't seem deep down to be in some ways made of the same cloth as someone like Osmin or some of the other men.  

Nathan Stark / Pasha: I've never met a woman like Konstanze. I've never had somebody stand up to me, to be resistant to my gifts, to my love, to my advances. She's brave. I've never seen a female do this before and it's frustrating, but yet so enticing and so attractive, a powerful woman. It's amazing.


Jennifer Welch Babbidge / Konstanze:  I believe he wants to be kind, but he can pull the power card if he needs to. 

Met Opera Solche hergelaufne Laffen

Jennifer Welch Babbidge / Konstanze: I try not to interact with Osmin to be honest. Um, I find him terrifying and I don't know how Blonde is able to put up with him, but she's very strong and somehow she's able to manage him. But I'm really grateful that is not who I'm having to deal with.

Jennifer Welch Babbidge / Blonde: He's so boorish and so insolent that it's quite humorous to be honest. 


Terrance McKnight: This is Blonde the Englishwoman talking about Osmin. 


Blonde: Of course, he’s definitely trying to do, every minute he's trying to seduce or, or come on to me


Terrance McKnight: That’s the stage, this is real life



TONY: The Index Journal November 1919: Enraged at an insult alleged to have been made upon a young white woman of Columbia county yesterday, a party of men last night lynched a negro named Sam Mosely about ten miles south of this place. Nothing was known of the lynching until passers by noticed the body hanging to a tree by the road. 


Terrance McKnight:  It’s sometimes difficult to hear the distinction between the stage and the real world. Sometimes art imitates life and sometimes it provides us with a roadmap as to how life can be or should be, how people are to be managed and understood.  In the opera Blonde says to Osmin, one word from me and you’ll have fifty of the best on the soles of your feet.


Jennifer Welch Babbidge / Blonde:. If Osmin goes too far, all I have to do is to tell my lady Konstanze and she will talk to Pasha, who will then set him straight.


Terrance McKnight:  One word, one word, what’s that one word coming from Blonde that would set Osmin straight?….Fire? Fire! Maybe it’s fire…oh no, that’s not it…. it’s “help” that’s it. 


This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight, we’ll take a brief pause and come back and talk bastinado…..more to come…..


THOMAS:   This is bizarre… this is really bizarre 


Peter Sellars: ... More more more….. 


Jennifer Welch Babige: I’m Jennifer Welch Babige and you’re listening to Every Voice with Terrance McKnight.


Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight.  You know the term bastinado. It’s a term used in Mozart’s opera. It’s a form of punishment or torture that involves caning the soles of a person’s feet - extremely  painful because of the mass of nerve endings in the soles.  Osmin threatens the European men with that form of torture, but he didn’t do it.  Can you imagine a black slave beating a white man on a Vienese stage in 1782, no you can’t. Wasn't gonna happen. Even though they were prisoners and they were trying to escape, that wasn’t going to happen. Osmin had no real authority over them.   


Color and culture mattered then and it matters now. At the end of this opera, Pasha went above and beyond and declared freedom for all, all the Europeans that is, even for Konstanze, the one he loved, the one who had lied to him. 


Nathan Stark / Pasha:  Yes, I was fooled. But in the process I learned a valuable lesson about being a human being.  I loved Costanza so much that I was willing to sacrifice and let her go and be happy over my own desire to be with her.


Sir Willard White / Osmin: The women were privileged, they come along and they have more privileges than privileges than I had as a, as a man who gave good service and they, they were, um, on the verge of, um, leaving and they. They lorded it over me. And so I was angry that my, my position was, was being, well, not threatened, but it was, uh, made smaller because, um, they had more status than I had.


Nathan Stark / Pasha: He’s not quite bright. I think he’s an idiot actually. But he’s loyal and um he’s big on the outside but he’s an idiot. All that said, yes, I was tricked. Yes, I was fooled. But in the process I learned a valuable lesson about being a human being. 

Terrance McKnight: Pasha’s epiphany had no bearing on Osmin’s fate?  His authority over Osmin, it was consistent with the real world business at hand in which Emperor Joseph II and men such as Frederick Romberg, George Dixon, Heinrich Zimmerman and many others in Belgium were involved in the sort of international trade that certainly didn’t consider all human beings as completely human or equal. We’re still working on that ideal state of equality. Don’t turn a blind eye to inequity.  See something, do something.  


A huge thanks to the singers who joined us in character for this episode. Jennifer Welch Babige as Konstanze AND Blonde - hear her English accent? She’s from New Jersey. Sir Willard White as Osmin and NAthan Stark as Pasha Selim. We couldn't have done it without ‘em.


I sometimes wonder how you feel about the direction we take in this podcast.  It’s not always pretty. Honestly, having to do this every week, it hurts me as much as it’s gonna hurt you…some of y’all know what I’m talking about …if not just ask your Black friends…. This is every voice with Terrance McKnight.


Many cultures, many voices, one people


Every Voice with Terrance McKnight was written and produced by Terrance McKnight, David Norville, and Tony Phillips. Our research team includes Ariel Elizabeth Davis, Pranathi Diwakar, Ian George, and Jas Ogiste. This episode’s sound design and engineering was by Sapir Rosenblatt. And our original music was composed by Brother Jermey Thomas and Dr. Ashley Jackson on harp, and brother Titos Sompa on percussion and vocals. Music in this episode included selections “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” as preformed by The Metropolitan Opera and also thanks to Livermore Valley Opera use of their performance of “Abduction from the Seraglio.”

Our Project Manager is Natalia Ramirez, and our Executive Producer is Tony Phillips. The Executive Producer for WQXR Podcast is Elizabeth Nonemaker, and Ed Yim is the Chief Content Officer at WQXR.

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. You can find more information on the web at arts.gov.

If you enjoyed this episode, please take time to rate it, rate us, review up on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. I’m Terrance McKnight - We'll see you next time.

Voice: You’re listening to every Voice with Terrance McKnight 

Copyright © 2023 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.