Race and Slavery in Mozart Operas: A Letter to the New York Times

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Mozart conducting his Entführung aus dem Serail

Mozart conducting his Entführung aus dem Serail

A most welcome contribution from Ralph P. Locke, Professor Emeritus of  at the Eastman School of Music:

An unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times, directed my attention to a review and an article by Zachary Woolfe concerning recent productions he has seen in France of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte. The content of these articles will be clear enough from Professor Locke’s letter and his own commentary.

For my part, these texts stimulated a reflection on just what we experience when we see an opera today, whether at a European festival, the Met, or, say, the Boston Lyric Opera? Most opera companies today believe that it is necessary to mediate in some way the audience’s connection with a classic opera. This could involve a simple updating of the costumes and sets, or it could involve a more systematic remodeling of the opera’s implied or literal content, as expressed by the libretto and the music. Some directors resort to this as a tool to make the deeper import of a work more tangible to their audiences—and, of course, to themselves—or  they can go further and impose an interpretative superstructure that constitutes a whole new version of their own. This is commonly designated by the  German term Regieoper these days, most often with a denigrating slant. Opera has its own compromised reputation as what Brecht called a “culinary” art form, that is, a decadent elitist ritual, intended for audiences of wealthy connoisseurs who appreciate nuances in singing, orchestral playing, and perhaps dramatic values, up to a point. Directors of the Regieoper persuasion tend to subvert this with violent or otherwise unpleasant details intended to shock the complacent audience into a supposedly intensified consciousness of what is wrong with the world (for more on Regieoper, see Andrew Porter’s 1992 (!) article).1

Operatic productions are beset with even more variables than a production of Shakespeare, beginning with simple matters, like the capabilities of a singer, budget, or time constraints up to the philosophy of the masterful stage director, beginning with the premiere performance. Even academic purists can accept the fact  that the world of the theater is an impure and unstable place. Professor Locke is wise in reminding us of the importance of knowing the work before seeing it on stage. It falls on the program annotators and critics to point out what cuts have been made, what alterations and “intepretations,” and to give the audience, within the space allowed, an idea of what the original was actually like, and what were the intentions of its creators, as far as it is possible to perceive them.

Professor Locke has deep experience with the issues raised in the New York Times articles. He is the author of Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), in which he takes an unflinching look at the cultural premises of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and he was awarded the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award in 2007 for his translation and commentary on an astonishingly prescient essay by the twenty-three-year-old Franz Liszt about the mutual duties of the artist, society, and the state in their common goal of improving human life, “Liszt on the Artist in Society,” in the essay volume of the 2006 Bard Music Festival2—a subject which most definitely intersects with the issues raised by Mr. Woolfe. Following this, he was interviewed by Greg Sandow and expanded on the subject in this video created by the Eastman School of Music, best available in indexed form here:


Ralph Locke and Greg Sandow. Click on the image to watch the video.

Ralph Locke and Greg Sandow. Click on the image to watch the video.

Regarding, Così fan tutte, Julian Rushton said, in his article on the opera in Grove, Così fan tutte is likely to remain a disturbing experience because of, not despite, its aesthetic attractions. […] Mozart found in it ways to seek out hitherto unplumbed depths in the human psyche, making the uncut whole, for an increasing number of commentators, the profoundest of his Italian comedies.”3


A Scene from Così fan tutte by Johann Peter Lyser, 1840.

A Scene from Così fan tutte by Johann Peter Lyser, 1840.


Race and Slavery in Mozart Operas: A Letter to the New York Times

A few weeks ago (17 July 2016), music critic Zachary Woolfe wrote an article in the New York Times about some recent opera productions:


(Title of the article, in the online version of the newspaper: Can Opera Become an Agent of Change? Title in the printed version: Can a Tool of Power Bring Change?)

This article is a kind of follow-up to his extensive review, on 2 July, of a recent Aix-en-Provence production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. In that production (by film director Christophe Honoré), the opera was updated to Eritrea in the 1930s, when that land was still an Italian colony. The two soldiers/lovers—Ferrando and Guglielmo—disguise themselves, not as Albanians (as the opera’s libretto specifies), but as sub-Saharan African mercenaries, with very dark makeup on their faces and bodies:


(Online title: Mozart Reimagined in a Violent, Racist World. Title in the print version: A Mozart Comedy Set in a Racist World.)

When I wrote my letter to the New York Times’s Arts Section, I was responding only to the later (more general) article.  I chose not to focus on Così fan tutte (in part because I had not seen the production in question) but rather on the other Mozart opera discussed in Woolfe’s later article, Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Woolfe specifically objected to the work’s frequent comic tone:

While “The Abduction From the Seraglio” is a fulfilling work of art, its score lively and brilliant, it can be hard to know whether it’s even performable today. Set among the European captives of a Muslim pasha in the Ottoman Empire, the opera makes comedy out of sex slavery. Its Turkish characters are either domination-obsessed psychopaths or blank mouthpieces for Western ideals of enlightened monarchy.

He proposed that opera houses should “make reparations” for the damage done by such works through the years: 1) by updating /altering a now-problematic work (his example is a recent production of Die Entführung in Lyons) or 2) by presenting a new work that can help us, more directly, “to reflect on cross-cultural tensions and liaisons.” Woolfe’s example of the latter is an opera by Palestinian-French composer Moneim Adwan that was recently presented at Aix: Kalila wa Dimna.

In my letter I focus on Die Entführung but also discuss a Mozart opera that Woolfe did not mention: Die Zauberflöte.


To the Editor of the Arts Section (New York Times):

Zachary Woolfe (Sunday, July 17, “Can a Tool of Power Bring Change?”) proposes that operas from earlier eras were a “tool of [elite] power.” An opera house today, he feels, is morally bound to alter works substantially—or to replace them with new works—in order to “make reparations” for the damage that those works have done over the centuries. His examples include operas by Mozart.

The Abduction from the Seraglio—Woolfe claims—“makes comedy out of sex slavery [in Turkey].” But comedy can take many forms. In Blonde’s duet with her captor Osmin, the Englishwoman undermines—through sharp-witted verbal and musical ridicule of her self-appointed “master”—his smug demand that a mere “slave-woman” obey his every wish. Here comedy is put to the service of social critique. More generally, Mozart’s operas are attuned to the evils of male privilege and domination, whether in Europe (as in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro) or elsewhere (as in Abduction and The Magic Flute).

As for slavery generally, a notable scene in Abduction is omitted from most productions. It involves a “mute black man” who is apparently a slave. His situation is not treated at all comically. The Magic Flute contains two remarkable spoken scenes (likewise rarely included) in which three male slaves—apparently Egyptian—complain bitterly about their cruel slave-driver, Monostatos. And yet, despite their sufferings, the slaves show empathy for the captive (and “white”) princess Pamina.

Great operas are often richer in nuance and complexity than commentators—and certain strongly interventionist stage directors—seem to realize.

Ralph P. Locke
Clarksburg, Maryland
(professor emeritus, Eastman School of Music/University of Rochester)

The letter was not printed.  (There was in fact no Letters column at all in the Arts section on the following two Sundays.)

I feel that musicologists and music critics have a special responsibility to help audiences understand what they are seeing and hearing in an opera—what is in the original text, what has been removed, altered, added. I do understand that wholesale reworkings of, say, Shakespeare plays are normal in the theater and on film. But most audience members can easily consult a copy of Hamlet on their shelf, in a library, or online, in order to see what the original text prescribes. An opera score, by contrast, is written in music notation, is often in a foreign language, and is often not to be found in people’s homes, nor in any but the largest public libraries or music schools.  (The online scores at IMSLP.org are not always the best or fullest editions, and some important operas cannot be found there at all.)

I hope that my remarks will encourage operagoers to do what they can to inform themselves about the original work, and not to take any one production—in the theater, on DVD, on YouTube, or on CD or download—as representing what that work originally was . . . or might be for us today.

  1.  Porter, Andrew. “Mozart on the Modern Stage,” Early Music 20, no. 1 (1992): 133-38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3127673
  2. Franz Liszt and His World, ed. Christopher H. Gibbs and Dana Gooley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).  pp. 291-302
  3. Julian Rushton. “Così fan tutte.” The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed August 10, 2016, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O003389.
About the author

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (located in Rochester, New York, USA). He is the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by the University of Rochester Press. His writings include Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (2009) and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015) (both from Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book. His essays and reviews can be read in American Record Guide and at OperaTodayMusicology Now, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His 18 articles for New York Arts have included pieces on slavery in Mozart’s operas and on a 3-CD set of surprisingly inventive works by Marie Jaëlla major composer and pianist closely associated with both Saint-Saëns and Liszt. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.


Readers Comments (1)

  1. William Carragan August 10, 2016 @ 12:06

    I strongly support this essay. Regie inevitably presents the ideas of the producer, not the ideas of the librettist and composer. As such, Regie is false to the social conscience of those who created the work in the first place. Particularly with Mozart, Rossini, and yes, Wagner, the conscience of the creators is quite sufficient to bear powerfully on our modern sensibilities. The distortions of Regietheater would not be tolerated in a production such as NPR’s Downton Abbey or Bleak House, where scrupulous authenticity is one of their greatest strengths. It is time to give the egos of the Regie directors a long vacation.

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