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

A close-up

If you opened the book to page 162 you would see a portrait print of Ludwig Fischer, the basso in Vienna for whom Mozart composed the great Turkish role of Osmin the pasha’s overseer. Osmin rages against the European foreigners and tries to obstruct the “abduction” from the seraglio, but he is finally dismissed by the magnanimous Turkish pasha at the finale, and thus prevented from taking his bloodthirsty vengeance against the European captives. It was the “bottomless deep” of Fischer’s low-notes that inspired Mozart to invest himself musically in the creation of this role, and, turning the page to 163, you’ll find me quoting Mozart’s long letter of 1781 in which the great composer reflected upon how Osmin’s extreme rage and ugly vengeful emotions could be contained within a musical structure that would still seem beautiful to the public. The Abduction from the Seraglio was actually the most popular of Mozart’s operas during his lifetime, precisely because it was written for a public that craved Turkish subjects; for Mozart it was his second effort at a Turkish opera, after the unfinished Zaide. And he would return to Turkishness again in Cosi fan tutte with the lovers comically disguised as Ottoman Albanians.

“A person who gets into such a rage oversteps all order, measure, and object,” wrote Mozart in the long letter to his father about Osmin. It was perhaps the most detailed letter he ever wrote analyzing the music of one of his own operatic characters. Music, of course, had to maintain order and measure in Mozart’s world of classical harmony, and Mozart himself was constantly trying to tame his own rages in real life.  He was an angry young man in 1781, only 25 years old, and it was just then, in a rage, that he broke with his patron the Archbishop of Salzburg and began to try to support himself as an independent musician in Vienna, trying to please the public with operas like The Abduction from the Seraglio. On the following page, 165, I quote Mozart’s reference to “this stupid, coarse, and malicious Osmin,” but I argue in the book that Mozart really recognizes something of himself in Osmin, and that’s what makes the character so brilliantly human and helps to bridge the cultural divide between the Turkish and European characters in the opera. On page 166, I show a rare illustration of a costume design for Osmin, created for a production in Koblenz in 1787, and it shows clearly that for all his coarseness and comical malice, he was certainly a figure of some operatic dignity on the stage.