Abduction from the Seraglio: Freedom and Justice for Some
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.
So far we've looked at three major operas. These are some of the most performed operas around the world from the 18th and 19th centuries. Operas that are genre defining. Here’s what I’ve noticed in our interrogation:
Magic Flute Glock
Mozart’s Magic Flute from 1787 portrays an enslaved black man who is punished for nothing, he mindlessly dances, and is lustful towards women.
Livermore Otello Excerp
Verdi’s Otello from 1887: Otello was formerly enslaved, but gets saved by Christianity, becomes a heroic fighter, a warrior, and then he elopes with a white woman: Kills her and then kills himself.
Limmie Pulliam Singing Tomb Excerpt from Aida
And then there’s Aida from 1871, is an Ethiopian princess who gets captured and is enslaved in Egypt, she falls in love with her Egyptian captor and follows this man to her death.
Again, these aren’t obscure composers or operas. This is Mozart and Verdi, men that are considered the GOATS in the art form . And these representations get performed over and over and over around the world and they’ve made their way into other forms of entertainment and into our culture and into our psyche and into artificial intelligence. Can you imagine? In these episodes we’re illuminating these stories….just trying to make life s beautiful for all of us.
Terrance: Many cultures, many voices. one people.
Slavery for black people was a harsh reality in the 17th through 19th centuries. It’s just a fact. And all the operas that we’ve looked at so far, slavery has been the through line. But it’s also been the economic, psychological, and social throughline in European and American culture for centuries. And it shows up again in Mozart’s opera the Abduction from the Seraglio. Now when I began this series, I introduced a composer named Sharon Willis who has written 16 operas that deal with Black life. Dr Willis is an African-American composer and in one of her operas she tells the story of a formerly enslaved child, but unlike the depictions of the enslaved in the Mozart and Verdi’s operas, Dr. Willis’ character grows up to become somebody, to raise a family, someone who is proud of his culture, someone who makes a positive difference in his community, the kind of young man any of us would be proud of no matter what we look like or where we come from. In her opera “The Herndons” Dr. Willis tells the story of Alonzo Herndon. He’s an African American child who after emancipation, he gets a job, starts a business, a very successful business, starts a family. Here she is talking to us about Alonzo Herndon.
Dr. Sharon Willis: Alonzo Franklin Herndon married Adrian McNeil, we are talking about 1892. Alonzo himself had been a slave, but his master was his father. Through life he had a hard time. Even though he was fair enough to pass for white, he refused to do that. He honored his black ancestry because his mother was a slave and his mother's sister was also bore children for that same man. After slavery, he eventually walks 20 miles to Jonesboro Road, learns the barbering trade, cutting white people's hair downtown at 66 Peachtree Street. That building still stands today. And then he marries this elegant woman who taught at Atlanta University along with Dubois. And she's an aspiring thespian, but no one will have a Black woman of, or anyone of color. So she passes herself off with Creole or some, some French name, and she goes to Washington D.C. and she performs all these Shakespearean characters.
But then she is sadly diagnosed with Addison's disease and no one knows how to treat it. Kennedy had that - President Kennedy had that. And she dies from that. But she gets this news as she is teaching her students, and the doctor comes by and says - this is in the opera, this is my libretto - you're not gonna live much longer. I've just turned 42 years old. I have a 12 year old son to raise. I'm at the, that just at the beginning of my career. And you're telling me that I have less than six months to live. I'm building this beautiful mansion to live in, and it becomes her death chamber, and so she faces death on the wings of the dove. I shall ascend. My spirit, and that's what you hear.
MUSIC: On the Wings of a Dove live at The Greene Space
Dr. Sharon Willis: My stories, I want them to be inspirational. I want you to see that there's something redemptive about it. When we are perceived as buffoons or vixens or mammies, I have no use for that perspective when I am writing.
Terrance McKnight: We’ll take a short break and then we’ll introduce one of Mozart’s operas that spread like wildfire, and guess who gets burned?
Sir Willard White: I’m Sir Willard White and I will be Osmin on Every Voice with Terrance McKnight
Peter Sellars: Hello I’m Peter Sellars. You’re listening to Every Voice with the one and only Terrance McKnight.
Terrance McKnight: This series is about representations of blackness in opera. And we’ve seen the through line…slavery. One reason I’m going through this is to point out the way these Europeans enjoyed depicting black people over the centuries. Perhaps it’s empowering for some, for me not so much. Not at all. I don’t know, but those storylines did well at the box office back then and they still do now. But those black men and women over the past few centuries who did incredible things in spite of being oppressed, where are their stories? Why aren't we hearing about them? Why aren’t their stories popular in the public sphere? And in education?
Would you be interested in hearing some of those stories about some of those people? I thought you would. What about this man? Amazing dude!
Voiceover reads: Henry Anthony Jeter came to England in 1596, he was the property of Henry Bromley, an English aristocrat. Within four years he is Bromley’s gardener, Within six years, he’s self employed, within eight years he owns his own portion of land. He can vote in local elections and can stand in a jury. In 1626, Jeter wrote his own will and turned over his property to his children.
Terrance McKnight: 1596, that’s during the days of Shakesepare. Elizabeth the First.
Voiceover reads: “In 1601, Elizabeth issued a proclamation in which she declared herself highly discontent to understand the great numbers of Nagars and Blackmores, which as she is informed, are crept into this realm. Who are fostered and relieved i.e. fed here to the great annoyance of her own lead people that want the relief food, which those people consume. As also for that, most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his gospel.”
Terrance McKnight: That was during Shakespeare’s day? Anthony Jeter didn’t make it into any of Shakespeare’s plays. I wonder if William Shakespeare knew about that blackamoor?
Peter Sellars: You really do feel that Shakespeare didn’t have any black friends.
Terrance McKnight: That’s okay Peter! That’s director Peter Sellars y’all. Jeter is discussed in Onyeka Nubia’s book Blackamoores. Africans in Tudor England. Or what about this guy Joseph Emidy, you heard of him? He was a superstar violinist, conductor, he was born in Guinea, west Africa, he lived during Mozart’s time, or Angelo Soliman, he was a guy Mozart knew personally, they belonged to the same Masonic lodge.
Livermore Abduction Instrumental Excerpt
Soliman was a thought leader among the masons and he tutored the children of Vienese aristocrats. But then… it all went downhill for him, because he did what Otello did, he eloped with Miss Daisy. And when Soliman died, what the Emperor had done to him, oh you're not gonna believe it - unimaginable. Now this same Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, he respected most, to a degree…
Abduction from the Seraglio Overture
He commissioned Mozart to write an opera, guess which one? “The Abduction from the Seraglio, which has a Black man in it.
Sir Williard 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: Sir Willard White as Osmin, the eunuch, the black man in “The Abduction from the Seraglio.”
Sir Williard White: And the Pasha saw me one day and liked my stature, liked what I stood for, liked the fact that I was strong, but not, challenging him, but merely to defend myself. And, fortunately, I was a eunuch, fortunate for him. It was a situation that I had to give into in order to fulfill my path in this world. Become a eunuch.
Livermore Abduction Instrumental Excerpt
Terrance McKnight: That eunuch, traveling on the dead end street, is Osmin, from Mozart’s opera the Abduction from the Seraglio, Osmin showed up in 40 different cities within the first decade of the opera’s first performance in 1782. I guess it's another way of saying Mozart’s opera was very popular, forty performances in 40 different cities within the first decade. In the next episode of this podcast, we’ll delve deeper into the opera and Osmin’s fate.
I like to say we bring the past into the present and the stage into the streets, where we all walk, work, live, and love together.
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, Jas Ogiste. This episode’s sound design and engineering was by Alan Goffinski. And our original music was composed by Brother Jeromy Thomas and Dr. Ashley Jackson on harp, and brother Titos Sompa on percussion and vocals. And a huge thanks to Livermore Valley opera for providing us concert tape 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. Thanks for listening. Tune in next week. We'll see you next time.
Voice: You’re listening to every Voice with Terrance McKnight
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