Abduction from the Seraglio: A Dream Interrupted
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. (terrance, peter, willard, jennifer, nathan)
Peter Sellars: Every one of Mozart's operas, of course, 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: I mean, 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.
Livermore Valley’s performance of “Abduction” plays
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: WHAT WE NEED (Solidarity). Many cultures, many voices, One people.
Terrance McKnight: Mozart landed his dream job when he turned 25 years old. This was 1781. And what was happening in the culture in 1781 wasn’t where he wanted his art to be. Opera was a major source of entertainment and he saw it as a space where he could tell stories and have conversations that were important and necessary. In order to do that he had to leave home in Salzburg and move to Vienna where he became a freelancer, giving concerts, and teaching and composing music.
Abduction from the Seraglio Overture
Plus, in Vienna, Emperor Joseph was there. He was a fan of Mozart, he was a big supporter of the arts, and he abolished serfdom and he did something that I find very uncommon for the time, almost unthinkable, Emperor Joseph the II was friends with an African man named Mmadi Make. Also known as Angelo Solimon. Make was brought to Vienna as a slave, given away as a gift. This dud was brilliant. He spoke six languages and became a tutor in Vienna. And he and the emperor spent casual time together in the 1780’s. Make was also a freemason and so when Mozart got to Vienna both Joseph and Make were there, and I imagine Mozart felt comfortable showing up with a very radical opera he’d written a few years earlier.
A few years earlier Mozart was in Paris looking for a job. His mother traveled was with him.
She died while they were there and so naturally it hit him hard and it caused a rift - some friction between Mozart and his father. Mozart ended up staying in Paris for a few months after his mothers passing. He wound up sharing a house with a then famous composer and violinist named Joseph Boulogne. Also known as the Chevalier de Saint Georges, Boulogne was Senegalese/French, but had access to some opportunities because his father was wealthy and European. So Boulogne was also close to Marie Antoinette and her brother was Joseph II. After that summer with Boulogne, Mozart went back home, back to Salzburg, and composed an opera called Zaide. When he moved to Vienna, he took Zaide with him and he presented it to the manager of an opera house. You’ll never guess what it was about.
Peter Sellars: It is about a slave revolt.
Terrance McKnight: Hold up, pump the breaks… what? A slave revolt? Slavery was the law of the land in some places, it was an economic engine for many places, it was like the way of the world. And Mozart wants to depict abolitionists? Freedom? A slave revolt on stage??
Peter Sellars: Every one of Mozart's operas is, liberatory. Zaide was his abolitionist opera, and he is very specific about it. For a long time, Mozart just couldn't get what he wanted to see on stage.
Terrance McKnight: Opera and theater director Peter Sellars.
Peter Sellars: We did a production that had Russell Thomas and Morris Robinson and Sean Pannikar, and a really beautiful cast, and we set it in a slave sweatshop in Queens. We worked with freetheslaves.net and every performance we had former slaves testify, what they've been through right now in this, in our lifetime, because slavery is a very real, real issue right now. So i wanted to contextualize that really deeply. And set Mozart's anti-slavery music.
Overture from Abduction from the Seraglio
Terrance McKnight: Focusing on those populations wasn’t in fashion in the 18th century, certainly not about their liberation. Their enslavement was Europe’s economic engine so “Zaide” didn’t suit the politics or pocket books of the time. Back then, and now, making fun of those seen as “ others” was fashionable and comedic opera was highly entertaining. So that’s what Mozart did in 1782, on a commision from Joseph II, Mozart composed a rescue opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio”, an opera depicting Christian Europeans, two women and one man being held in a seraglio, a harem in Turkey. Now they were being held by the Pasha Selim who had as his henchman, his gate keeper, his enforcer, a man named Osmin. Osmin had been brought to Turkey as an enslaved man, most likely of African descent. There was another black character in the opera was a mute, didn’t have anything to say. Osmin was thought to be a eunuch which would have made him non threatening to the Pasha’s harem of women, him being a eunuch would have affected his vocal chords and his voice would have been more like that of a castrato, a soprano voice, but instead Mozart gave him a bass role. And in a letter to his father Mozart said that Osmin’s rage is rendered comical by his use of Turkish music.
Solche hergelaufne Laffen
Sir Willard White: I had my dreams. I wanted to be as good as I could be, and I didn't know where I would go.
Terrance McKnight: This is bass, Sir Willard White, as Osmin.
Sir Willard White: The Pasha saw me one day and, um, liked my stature, liked what I stood for, liked the fact that I was strong, but not, challenging to him, but merely to defend myself. And, fortunately I was a eunuch…. fortunate for him. But, um, it was a situation that I had to give into in order to fulfill my path in this world. I had to be somewhat of a voyeur. and, uh, had to be content with another form of satisfaction, being able to see and talk about love because if I stepped out of line, I could lose more than my testicles
Janissary Music from Livermore Valley Opera’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”
Nathan Stark: He's not quite bright. I think he's an idiot actually. But, uh, he's loyal and, um, he's loyal to a fault.
Terrance McKnight: This is bass- baritone Nathan Stark, as Pasha Selim.
Nathan Stark: I needed somebody who was a, a, a large person to keep away the other people who might be, you know, trying to invade my, uh, my wives and needed him to protect them, uh, against anybody who'd be foolish enough to try to sneak in. But the wives, they tolerate him and he keeps them in order. And when I need one of them, or two of them, or three of them, he brings them to me. Hhe has a little, a weak spot for women. he's a loyal servant and uh, he just needs to, uh, to stay away from the women though.
Sir Willard White: The women were privileged people. I mean, one was the servant of the, of the, the other. And, um, the servant had a sort of similar position as myself, but in a different category.
Terrance McKnight: This is bass, Sir Willard White, as Osmin. He’s talking about Constanza and Blonde, two European women who’d been captured by pirates and sold to Pasha Selim. One of the women, Blonde, was in the service of the other. She was English and Osmin, the eunuch, was attracted to her.
Jennifer Welch Babbidge: He's very boorish and the way that he tries to woo me is just, oh, it's God awful!
Terrance McKnight: Soprano Jennifer Welch Babbidge as Blonde.
Jennifer Welch Babbidge: Of course he's definitely trying to do every minute he's trying to seduce or, or come on to me.
Sir Willard White: We worked together sometime, and I'm a, I'm very safe because there is nothing that could happen to her from me.
NATHAN: He's an intimidating figure. He can snap your neck in a second, and I've had him do it several times. He doesn't ask a lot of questions and, um, you know, He was brought to me as a slave. And,, I just saw potential in his size and his intimidation and I needed that to keep order in the palace.
Terrance McKnight: You’re listening to Every Voice with Terrance McKnight, we’ll take a short break and then hear more about God awful Osmin… and how Blonde the good Christian girl uses her…. English privilege to keep the big boorish brute Osmin in line.
Jennifer Welch Babbidge: I’m Jennifer Welch Babbidge and you’re listening to every Voice with Terrance McKnight.
Terrance McKnight: You’re listening to Every Voice with Terrance McKnight. This episode of the show is on Mozart’s opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio. He wrote it when he was 25 and had just moved to Vienna at a time when comic opera was in vogue. The opera was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, who was known for religious tolerance. In this opera, Mozart is confronting the social impact of the gulf that exists between two religious practices. Mozart also deals with the fiction of race in this opera and hierarchies associated with race and color. All of these things which still impact our society and feed the news headlines every day.
Sir Willard White: Yes. This is the, this is the human, um, failure. The human dream - always to be better than the next one. And, um, you know, she came from a society that because of her color,s he had a certain privilege. And I, because of my color, I was less privileged, but had acquired some privilege in this enclave of the Pasha’s realm.
Terrance McKnight: That’s Osmin, he’s talking about Blonda.
Jennifer Welch Babbidge: His mind's view is that because we're both servants, that I don't necessarily deserve to have this sort of respect, which I think is extremely wrong.
Terrance McKnight: In the opera, Blonda says that English women are born to be free.
BLONDE / Jennifer Welch Babbidge: You know, if he wants to make advances on someone of my kind, um, of my station, then he must do so with kindness. He must treat me with respect. He must honor my feelings. It's not all about his feelings or who he thinks I should be as a woman. I am an independent person who deserves to be honored and valued. And this is not his thinking in the slightest.
Luckily, my Lady Constanza is extremely kind to me, and we are, we are. Companions and friends. I work with people, I serve people, I help people, but I am not a pushover.
A woman is not to be won, she is not an object who is allowed to be owned, she is her own person. What I do understand is how people treat one another, and that is what I find just absolutely disgusting about Osmin and that is why I am so up in arms about the way that he treats me and women in general.
OSMIN: Mm-hmm. Well, I had to deal with Blonde quite a lot. And I grew to be fond of her. But, uh, you know, in the, in the, in my opening song when I talk about when you found a woman, you love her and cherish her and kiss her and never leave her alone, but, um, money is necessary, money is necessary. To keep her.
BLONDE / Jennifer Welch Babbidge: He's, he's, he's so boorish and so insolent that it's quite humorous to be honest, and I think that, to be truthful about it, his bark is probably worse than his bite.
Pasha is not like this at all. He is much more refined, as I have said, and he's got a kinder heart. Even though he's a part of the society, which I do not necessarily understand whether women seem to be subjected somewhat to men's frivolity, he is able to understand the good in human nature, and obviously. Obviously Pasha is the one who holds the upper hand here, and the one who has Pasha’s ear is my Lady Constanza. So if Osmin goes too far, all I have to do is to tell her and she will talk to Pasha, who will then set him straight.
Pasha / Nathan Stark : Uh, you know, 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, me, and, you know, he's, he's a, 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.
So, you know, he, I sometimes do it for fun just to see, uh, if, if we can break him and when we can break him. But, uh, yeah, he's been lashed many times. Uh, For, uh, I dunno, 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.
He's used to it, but he never likes it and I enjoy the fact that he doesn't like it.
Terrance McKnight: Pasha Selim musing over his authority and mistreatment of his slave Osmin. That’s from Mozart’s 1782 opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” but that attitude and perspective don’t seem that out of touch. Unfortunately that could’ve been someone this morning covertly caught on tape and posted social media. What Mozart put on stage regarding Osmin’s treatment, back then was a reality for enslaved people. In French and English and Spanish colonies there were codes that governed the institution. Enslaved people were severely punished, and killed, for running away, talking back, striking back, gathering with others, learning to read or write. And by 1782 there were millions of Osmin’s living in the Caribbean Islands, North or South America as well as a few dozen right there in Vienna. Difference now, Pasha Selim’s attitude isn’t laughable, it’s tragic and we just don’t accept it.
I like to say we bring the past into the present and the stage into the streets where we all walk work and live and love together. It’s not always pretty but we’re trying to make it beautiful for all of us.
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, Jas Ogiste. This episode’s sound design and engineering was by Alan Goffinski. 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 Ppera 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
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