Larry Wolff


On his book The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon

Cover Interview of March 21, 2017

In a nutshell

The Singing Turk explores the huge cultural phenomenon of European operas about Turks, flourishing especially during the eighteenth century, in the European age of Enlightenment. Though most people interested in opera are familiar with Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, this was just one among hundreds of operas about Turks — most of them forgotten — which were staged all over Europe from the 1680s to the 1820s. The Singing Turk, first of all, attempts to recover the dimensions of this lost repertory — including works by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Rossini, but also many other lesser known composers. While my research ranges around the opera houses of Europe, particularly important foci for me were the operatic centers of Venice, Milan, Vienna, and Paris.

The Ottoman empire was a great empire on three continents — including North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeastern Europe — and operas about Ottoman Turks in the eighteenth century were relevant to international relations; they were not just works of theatrical fantasy and entertainment. I try to place these operas in the context of European-Ottoman relations: relations of intermittent military warfare, but also of ongoing cultural and commercial exchange. I analyze how the figure of the singing Turk on the European stage illuminated certain issues that seemed particularly interesting to the enlightened European public — especially political issues concerning absolute rule, in the monarchical state and in the patriarchal family (or harem), but also issues concerning the control and display of extreme emotions in civilized society. Singing Turks on stage were seen and heard as the vocal avatars of absolute power and, at the same time, the emblematic voices of extreme emotion.

I’m interested in the ways that Ottoman Turkish instrumentation — especially “Janissary” percussion — was adapted to European orchestras for these operas, to mark their Turkishness, and I also study the special significance of the basso voice in expressing a sort of Turkish hyper-masculinity on stage. I explore how the singing Turk first came to the stage in the 1680s, immediately following the defeat of the Turkish army at the siege of Vienna in 1683. The Ottoman armies were then driven back into southeastern Europe, and this was the moment at which Ottoman power no longer seemed invincible, so that Turkish scenarios became plausibly entertaining on stage. I spend a significant part of the book reflecting on Rossini, the last great composer of “singing Turk” operas, and I’m especially interested in how Rossini’s Turks intersect with the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic moment in Europe. Rossini’s Maometto Secondo, his daring opera about Mohammed the Conqueror, the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople and toppled the Byzantine empire, was certainly also a post-mortem musical reflection on the Napoleonic project of continental conquest.  Finally, I consider how the phenomenon of the singing Turk vanished from the European operatic repertory after the 1820s, such that the standard nineteenth-century repertory includes no singing Turks at all.