Mozart and the Promise of the Enlightened Stage

(Mozart Society of America Session at 2016 ASECS)
The American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Thursday, March 31, 2016

Chair: Edmund J. Goehring (University of Western Ontario)


1. Katharina Clausius (Cambridge University), “Silent Poetry, Epic Opera”
2. Laurel Zeiss (Baylor University), “The Senses in Mozart’s Da Ponte Operas”
3. Larry Wolff (New York University), “Rage and Restraint in Mozart’s Turkish Scenarios: Not Only the Abduction, but also Zaide”


“Silent Poetry, Epic Opera: French Neoclassicism and the Problem of Prose Poetry in Mozart”
Katharina Clausius (Cambridge University)

With its bold combination of epic style and vernacular prose, François Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699) created a stir that preoccupied the literary, theatrical, musical, and art world throughout the eighteenth century. My paper places the novel at the centre of a crucial exchange between a French revisionist movement to redefine neoclassical theatre and Mozart’s early opere serie. While littérateurs like Antoine Houdar de la Motte and Voltaire argued publicly over the theoretical viability of prose tragedy on the back of Télémaque, the operatic stage was actively absorbing and experimenting with principles of de la Motte’s new brand of theatre: a less compounded application of the Aristotelian unities, a bolder approach to character portrayal, a painterly style of scenography, and an integration of tropes from the epic.

I trace two strands in the Enlightenment’s (re)vision of neoclassical theatre through two Mozartian case studies. First, I situate Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770) alongside the revisionist movement headed by de la Motte, for whom Fénelon championed a style of tragedy that reconciles neoclassical versification with the Enlightenment’s passion for prose. Second, I turn to Idomeneo (1781), which directly absorbs the visual prose style of Fénelon’s epic tale. The contentious notion of prose tragedy, I argue, finds new coherence and traction on the operatic stage. My paper thus aims to situate Mozart’s early opere serie amid the fraught literary inheritance of Fénelon’s Télémaque and its strained relationship between poetic pleasure and didactic prosody.

“The Senses in Mozart’s Da Ponte Operas”
Laurel E. Zeiss (Baylor University)

The senses play a pivotal role in the three operas W.A. Mozart composed with the poet Lorenzo da Ponte. Le nozze di Figaro turns on hearing. Characters accidentally overhear or mishear throughout the work; they also plead with one another to listen. Sight, or, rather, the inability to see, courses through Così fan tutte. Because the young lovers focus on idealized images, they do not truly ‘see’ until the end of the opera. Touch and taste figure prominently in Don Giovanni. These senses are associated primarily with the rakish title character and his exploits, yet hearing comes to the fore as characters attempt to bring him to justice. In all three operas, the senses become aligned with deception, yet they also serve to teach moral lessons. For those that would hear, Mozart’s music sends instructive messages as well, about the terrors of eternal damnation, the nature of class distinctions, the dangers of sensibility and the need for reason, and the power of music itself. The composer also seeks perhaps to refine his audience’s taste. 

“Rage and Restraint in Mozart’s Turkish Scenarios:  Not Only the Abduction, but also Zaide
Larry Wolf (New York University)

Mozart’s famous letter on Osmin’s rage, I would argue, is not something only relevant to Osmin and the Abduction, as its principles were already clearly indicated in the surviving fragments of Zaide.  In Zaide the lessons to be learned from Turkish models were attached to the musical roles of both Sultan Soliman and his underling Osmin (prefiguring the more famous Osmin of the Abduction).  The emotional dynamics of the sultan in particular, with Osmin for instructive contrast, emphasized the Turkish convergence of extreme power and extreme emotion, the problematic nature of such extremes, and the lessons to be learned from the psychological circumstances.  All this should be understood in the context of the history of manners, emotions, and the civilizing process during the course of the 18th century.