Every Voice with Terrance McKnight: Abduction from the Seraglio

Terrance McKnight:  This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight on WQXR. It’s a radio special that looks at the representations of blackness in Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio.  Growing up I played two instruments. Trumpet and piano, and both instruments eventually led me towards the experience of classical music, going to the concert hall, but for many years, I avoided opera.  Maybe that’s true for you too. These days, what I’ve  come to enjoy about opera  is how that window into the past is also reflective. It allows us to see modern society through the lens of yesterday. The good, the bad and the other.

MUSIC: Ouvertüre [Die Entführung aus dem Serail, K.384]

Abduction premiered in the summer of 1782. Mozart was having the time of his life.  He’d recently gotten married, left his hometown of Salzburg for the capital city of Vienna, and struck out on his own and became a freelance composer, with his heart set on writing operas. And in Vienna, became a freemason and landed financial backing  from the big boss, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who was a fan of opera and of Mozart. So he commissioned an opera from Mozart.  The subject of this commission wasn’t exactly what Mozart had in mind when he moved to Viennna but he needed the coins. So in keeping with the Emperor’s wishes, Mozart composed a rescue opera in German. 


MUSIC: Solche hergelaufne Laffen


Five years before moving to Vienna, Mozart spent the summer in Paris where he’d gone looking for employment, he didn’t find the job of his dreams, but he did make a significant contact.  Joseph Boulgone, was an important musical figure in  France. He was an associate of Marie Antoinette.  Joseph Boulonge, was a bi-racial composer whose father was a French aristocrat, he was afforded the freedom of education with limited social mobility. Nonetheless he and Mozart shared a residence in Paris in the summer of 78.  I imagine they talked more than music, when Mozart went back home to Vienna, he began working on an opera called Zaide.  It’s what he took with him when he went to Vienna.   Can you guess what that opera was about? 


Peter Sellars: It is about a slave revolt. 

Terrance McKnight:  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, it is about a slave revolt and he is very specific about it. 

Terrance McKnight: Theater and opera director Peter Sellars.

Peter Sellars: For a long time, Mozart just couldn't get what he wanted to see on stage.  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  sweatshop in Queens. We worked with freetheslaves.com  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 really deeply. And set Mozart's anti-slavery music.

MUSIC:  Ouvertüre cont’d.


Terrance McKnight:  Anti-slavery? Joseph II was liberal, but he wasn’t that liberal.   He did abolish aspects of serfdom, he ushered in religious freedom and opportunities, he talked about equality, he admired the democratic ideas espoused by the newly formed America. And his approach to governance embraced enlightenment but to advocate for the liberation of enslaved Africans, c’mon. What was more politically correct for that time was what made it to the stage instead of Zaide. An opera depicting two European women who’ve been captured, and  sold into an islamic harem. Pasha Selim’s harem.  Pasha was Turkish, he owned a few slaves.  One is a nameless Black man who is mute- and doesn’t utter a word.  The other enslaved man seemingly of African descent - his name Osmin. 

MUSIC: Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden…Verwünscht seist du

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,

Sir Williard White: 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.

Terrance McKnight:  That eunuch, Osmin, along with the nameless black mute, was performed forty times within the first decade of the opera’s first performance. 


Livermore Valley Opera preforming “Abduction…”


Pasha / Nathan Stark : Uh, you know, I think one of my favorite past times is to see somebody get lashed and, and flogged 

Terrance McKnight: Baritone Nathan Stark as Pasha Selim

NATHAN: 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 actually cries out. I needed somebody who was 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.

Terrance McKnight: What Mozart put on stage regarding Osmin’s treatment was a reality for enslaved people throughout the west. In French, English and Spanish colonies, that attitude expressed by the Pasha was real, not merely a stage portrayal.  There were codes that governed the institution of slavery.  Unwritten laws in other places throughout the West weren’t much different. Enslaved people were severely punished, and killed, for running away, talking back, striking back, gathering with other enslaved folks, and just learning to read or write. And by 1782 there were millions of Osmin’s serving in the Caribbean Islands, North or South America as well as a few dozen right there in Vienna. We’re producing this radio special because Mozart’s opera isn’t a museum piece, it’s staged around the world and the attitudes and ideas that were propagated in Western art and literature during that time still haunt us.

Pasha Salim: Osmin, he’s an idiot,  He’s loyal to a fault. He just needs to, uh, to stay away from the women though. He has a little, weak spot for women.

Konstanze:I find him terrifying and I don't know how Blonde is able to put up with him.

Terrance McKnight: Jennifer Welch-Babbige as Konstanza, one of the European women being held captive by Pasha Selim and guarded by Osmin.


MUSIC:Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir...O Engländer! Seid ihr nicht Toren

Blonde: Um, He’s so boorish and the way he just tries to woo me is just god awful.  Of course he’s definitely trying to do - every minute he’s trying to seduce or come onto me. 

Terrance McKnight: Soprano Jennifer Welch Babidge as Blonde, the Englishwoman who was being guarded by Osmin in Mozart’s opera. 

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.

OSMIN: 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. 

MUSIC: Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden…Verwünscht seist du

BLONDE:  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 my Lady Constanza and she will talk to Pasha, who will then set him straight.


OSMIN:  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. This is the, this is the failure of the human dream - always to be better than the next one. 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.

MUSIC: Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir...O Engländer! Seid ihr nicht Toren

Terrance McKnight:  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. In real life that punishment was called bastinado.  It’s a form of punishment or torture that involves whipping the soles of a person’s feet - extremely  painful because of the mass of nerve endings in the soles.  In the opera, Osmin threatens the European men with that form of torture, but he didn’t have the authority to make it happen.


MUSIC: Marsch, marsch, marsch! Trollt euch fort!

Terrance McKnight:  This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight on WQXR. It’s a radio special that looks at the representations of blackness in Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. 

MUSIC: Ach, Belmonte! Ach, mein Leben!

Terrance McKnight:  This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight on WQXR. It’s a radio special that looks at the representations of blackness in Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio.


MUSIC: Arie Ho, wie will ich triumphieren


Ambient Train Noise


VOX Pops: Talking to 3 Harlem Youths


You guys know anything about opera?




My mom listens to opera


The one that’s got really good vocals. 


No that’s good, I’m serious


Would you ever go see an opera? Would you ever go see one?




It depends


If somebody gave you a free ticket to go to the Metropolitan Opera, would you go?




Do you all listen to any classical music at all?   

Nah I don’t listen to classical music

I listen with my mom.

You do? What kinda classical music do you listen to? What kinda stuff? Stuff with words in it? Stuff with instruments? 

It’s words!

It’s words…strings?? 

Lady by Lincoln Center: I’ve been to the opera at the met. It’s glorious, everybody should go once. Um, i wish more people would go, i know it’s expensive to go, and it would be cool if there was a way that was less expensive for more people in the community to be able to get to opera, but like, hey, lots of times it is not in English and it’s hard to understand what’s happening, but the met has these cool little things where they translate it for you on the seat in front of you so you can follow along.  And always the performances are gorgeous and the sets are gorgeous and the costumes are gorgeous and all the people who work there do really hard work and like … it’s worth going just to appreciate THAT. So even if you can’t follow the story, the music is beautiful. And everything else you’re watching is beautiful, so everyone should go to the Met!  

Terrance McKnight:  This radio special is derived from a 16 part podcast series we produced on the topic of representations of blackness in operas. Being so heavily involved in classical music I wanted to find a way of enjoying the art form in the same way as the opera enthusiast we just heard from.  It’s difficult when the person on stage that most resembles the person you see in the mirror each morning is the mute in the opera. The buffoon, the slave, the vixen, the deplorable one in the opera.  So since Abduction was politically correct and socially acceptable for 18th century Viennese audiences and beyond, how about we have to keep up with our own time.  And when political correctness is so hotly contested, how about we go for socially acceptable, or just do the right thing. 


As of late, the largest classical music institution in the country has been making some moves, The Metropolitan opera house has revamped some of its offerings that should embrace more of our diverse communities.   This is something that Peter Sellars, the opera and theater director, loves talking about.


Peter Sellars: It's abnormal that a repertoire is made out of pieces from the past. Normally Verde and Mozart. There were only contemporary operas, so the only solution to what we're talking about is that all opera has to be contemporary again, and every once in a while you do an old piece. Sure. But no, it's about now it's made by now it sounds like now it moves like now, it talks like now, it's now. And that's not just the future, that's the present.


Classical music got stuck because in 1925, who sold the most records in the world? It’s Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, 1925. Now, why won't those people be invited to the Metropolitan Opera House? Excuse me. And why did we say that Stravinsky and Schoenberg are the only important composers when Bessie Smith is alive. What are you talking about? There's a historical backlash. Opera lost it big time and didn't just freeze those two people out. Froze composers out of the opera house for two generations. So opera has a lot of catch up to do, and catching up means new pieces. Catching up means, let's hear it now and let's hear it with all the power and beauty and vision that opera is capable of. And let's not just go try fix the past, let's actually address the present in real terms. 



Terrance McKnight:  This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight on WQXR. It’s a radio special that looks at the representations of blackness in Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. 


Terrance McKnight: I grew up playing trumpet and piano, at some point early in my studies the symphony orchestra came into focus, we’d go hear the orchestra in elementary school but the only man who looked like anyone in my family sat towards the back of our orchestra in the string section.  Now, here's the thing, those environments, those orchestras, they are part of our education system. So what do our kids take away from these experiences when they don’t get to see representations of themselves? Or they ONLY see representations of themselves? What does that say about the beautiful diversity of their classrooms? 

VOX Pops: Talking to 3 Harlem Youths


Do you listen to any classical music at all?


Nah, I don’t listen to classical music


I listen to it with my mom


You do? What kind of classical music do you listen to? Stuff with words in it, is stuff with just instruments in it?


It’s words


Strings? Orchestra? Do you all play any instruments?


No, I do dance


Okay, what kind of dance do you do?


I do African, ballet, jazz, hiphop…


Do you know that some operas have ballet in it…




Terrance McKnight: We gotta do something about that.  I try to make the experience feel more like an American experience, And for a lot of African Americans musicians , that experience involves church.   It’s where I first started playing music and it’s something I have in common with some of the singers  who took part in this series.

MUSIC: Amazing Grace Organ


CHAUNCEY: My mom and dad were both musicians in the church. My mom, she carried the choirs and played piano. My father played guitar and drums and bass, and so we, we sang and did music, um, in our home and, and church. That's what I knew growing up.

LIMMIE:  My dad was a, a preacher. Yeah. I was a pk and, uh, so we grew up in the, in the church. 

JANINAH: You know, I sing and love Abyssinian Baptist Church.

 SHARON: I grew up in Beulah Baptist Church in Vine City. 

LIMMIE: We sang in the choir, children's choir, and as we got older and the, you know, the teen and adult choirs and, uh, You know, I sang solos as a, as a youngster, uh, which is how I learned that I could, could sing, in church in the Sunshine Band, as they, you called it

CHAUNCEY:  when I first started to study music. I felt it was so compartmentalized that this is gospel, this is classical music, and this is what you have to leave to, to study classical music. Um, I feel on the contrary is you bring your full musical experience with anything you do as you grow as a musician and as an artist. 

CHAUNCEY: I feel I was informed brilliantly as, as in the music world, in the Pentecostal Church, how I grew up in Alabama as a southern, um, Black man. Um, I, I always thank, I always thank my mother for the training that we had in church. There was discipline there. So that set my, sort of, my discipline up to, to receive and to, um, have the exchange of presentation.

LIMMIE:  It, it wasn't until after I had gone off to college that, that I started incorporating it into, Uh, the music I would sing in church. Um, I think partially that was because I didn't, I knew most people wouldn't quite get it because it was, it wasn't something that they were used to hearing.


LIMMIE:  It wasn't a style that they were used to hearing and, and, uh, you know, in the Pentecostal church. Um, and it was, it was more of just, uh, I. As I began to learn more about my own self vocally and musically, I was able to, to better incorporate the classical style into, into gospel music, um, and to to use my classical technique to enhance the gospel singing.




Terrance McKnight: You know who else might have something to say about the direction of opera … is someone who has been silent for the past 250 years. As we wrap up this episode, I wanna go back to a character that we really haven't discussed. A character in Mozart's abduction from the Seraglio. He’s described as a slave, a Black mute. He didn’t say a word.   He was the silent witness in this opera. He witnessed everything, the violence, the cruelty,  the kindness, the empathy,  the notions of who deserves to be free and who doesn’t.  


MUSIC: Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden…Verwünscht seist du


Terrance McKnight: Oh I bet he has something to say. Now during his lifetime Mozart  was associated with at least two Black men. Perhaps he wanted us to see this character, this mute, minus all the centuries of demeaning racist stereotypes that were so popular in Western thought, art, literature, and pseudo science. Maybe Mozart wanted us to take a look at opera through the eyes of this mute, and when we do that, we might all start to see and hear his voice, and the many voices of humanity that go unheard, and when we do that, what we’ll hear is Every Voice. 


I'm Terrance McKnight. Thanks for being with us on this journey. We got a lot of folks to thank as we wrap up.

MUSIC: Bassa Selim lebe lange

Terrance McKnight: Uzee Brown Jr. Limmie Pulliam, Peter Sellars, Raehann Bryce Davis, Thomas Hampson, Kevin Maynor, Malesha Taylor, Dr. Melvin Foster, Jennifer Welch Babbige, Dr. Sharon Willis, Nathan Stark, Sir Willard White, Maribeth Diggle


Outtake from Livermore Valley Opera production of Abduction from the Seraglio ….


Do you have any more? 

Now, don’t drink too much or it will go to your head…

Don’t worry about me, i’m as sober as can be! But remember, little brother, don’t you give me away!

I better get him out of here… 

Alright, little brother, time to go to sleep

To sleep! But it’s still early!!

Come on, we don’t want the Pasha to surprise us.

Oh no, not the Pasha! 

Goodnight, little brother. Good night *LAUGHS* 


And also thanks to my colleague Nimet Habachy.


Oh so many folks… Sylvia McNair…


Sylvia McNair: When we’re talking about race in opera. You know, they say that sunshine is the best disinfectant possible. We are pulling these issues out from the shadows. We’re taking them out from beneath the rug where they’ve kind of being buried, hidden. We need to bring them out into the light. Look at it. Talk about it. Which is what you’re doing.

Thanks to our artist, Erin K. Robinson who did the illustration for the show. 

Theodora Kuslan, and everybody on the whole team at WQXR and NY Public radio who made this show possible. 


And a huge thanks to the NEA, the national endowment for the arts - you know, that’s where our tax dollars go. 


I gotta thank my good friend Harry Belafonte. The late Belafonte who’s life and career inspired so much of the work that I did I always thought man what if Belafonte is listening to my show I gotta get it right. 


And of course, thanks to you for listening. 

Terrance McKnight: 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 Alan Goffinski. And our original music was composed by Brother Jermey Thomas featuring Dr. Ashley Jackson on harp, and brother Titos Sompa on percussion and vocals.

Our Project Manager is Natalia Ramirez, and our Executive Producer is Tony Phillips. The Executive Producer for WQXR Podcasts 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.

Thanks to the Met archives for the invaluable research data. A huge amount of gratitude to Livermore Valley Opera for sharing their performance. 

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. 

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

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