Mozart’s Operatic Poets

MSA Session at Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center
“Mozart’s Operatic Poets”
Sunday, 7 August 2016, 3:00–4:30 p.m.

“It will cost him much running around and arguing until he gets the libretto
into the shape that he desires for his purpose.”

Thus wrote Leopold Mozart to his daughter Maria Anna (Nannerl) on 11 November 1785, concerning her brother Wolfgang’s work on Le nozze di Figaro, highlighting the fact that the seemingly miraculous perfection of that opera did not come about without the composer’s direct intervention in the drafting of its text. In keeping with the performances at Mostly Mozart this year of both Idomeneo and Così fan tutte, the MSA will convene a panel of three papers that address the theme of “Mozart’s Operatic Poets”.

  • Laurel Zeiss (Baylor University) – “Words Susceptible to Music”
  • Martin Nedbal (University of Kansas) – “Mozart and Da Ponte for Czechs and Germans: Così fan tutte in Prague, 1791-1831”
  • Ed Goehring (University of Western Ontario) – “Mozart and His Librettists: A More (or Less) Perfect Union”


Laurel Zeiss (Baylor University) – “Words Susceptible to Music”

In an early version of his Memoirs, poet Lorenzo da Ponte states that in addition to creating compelling characters and situations, a librettist must make “his verses easy, harmonious, and almost singing of themselves.” Elsewhere he asserts that librettists must create “words susceptible to music, things that can only be supplied by verse, never by prose.” Mozart echoes Da Ponte’s remarks in a number of his letters. “Verses,” he writes in one, “are indeed the most indispensable element for music.” The composer argues that an opera’s text should be “natural and flowing.” “Harsh” sounds can ruin the desired effect.

This presentation will briefly explore how Da Ponte and other librettists make operatic texts “almost singing of themselves” through meter, rhyme, and assonance. It will then demonstrate that Da Ponte’s and Mozart’s comments extend even to passages that many modern writers either gloss over or treat as prose: an opera’s recitatives. These flexible speech-like passages are fashioned from versi sciolti, a form of blank verse whose irregular accents and seven- and eleven-syllable lines imitate the unstructured, unmetered cadences of spoken Italian. Yet versi sciolti remain verse — poetry whose construction is, as Da Ponte claims, “susceptible to music.” Examples from Idomeneo and Così fan tutte will illustrate how their librettists (Varesco and Da Ponte, respectively) incorporate poetic and rhetorical devices such as rhyme, rhythm, anaphora and alliteration to shape scenes and how Mozart responds musically to these literary techniques. Particularly during the orchestrally accompanied recitatives, orchestral anaphoras entwine with poetic ones, musical punctuations clarify the syntax, and harmonies mesh with rhyme schemes. Examining the poetry of these passages and how they are set to music provides another door through which to better understand the musical and dramatic content of Mozart’s operas. This is particularly true for Idomeneo, which contains numerous orchestrally accompanied recitatives.

Martin Nedbal (University of Kansas) – “Mozart and Da Ponte for Czechs and Germans: Così fan tutte in Prague, 1791-1831”

One surviving poster and a printed libretto show that Mozart’s Così fan tutte was produced by Domenico Guardasoni’s Italian company in Prague sometime in 1791, and newspaper reports suggest that for the next few decades it was much more successful in the Bohemian capital than elsewhere. My recent discovery of the conducting score that Guardasoni ordered from the Vienna Sukowaty workshop sheds new light on the dramaturgical and musical changes Guardasoni executed in Prague, possibly after consultation with Mozart, during his 1791 visit for the premiere of La clemenza di Tito. But the score also reflects how Così was transformed by the next three Prague opera directors. Wenzel Müller and Carl Maria von Weber transformed the work into a Singspiel, following Viennese models. Whereas Müller’s 1808 Prague production emulated the 1804 production of Così as Mädchentreue at the Vienna court theater, Weber’s 1815 production made use of Friedrich Treitschke’s imaginative 1814 revision, titled Die Zauberprobe, created for the Theater an der Wien. Besides the two Singspiel versions, the Guardasoni score also contains the first Czech translation of the opera (considered lost until now), which premiered in 1831 under the directorship of Jan Nepomuk Štěpánek. The score reflects not only the unusual popularity of the opera in Prague in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but also the problematic nature of its text, which prompted Prague and Viennese adapters to execute wide-ranging changes. In connection to the reviews of the Prague Così performances in contemporary press, moreover, the score illustrates the city’s multicultural atmosphere in the early 1800s when the German- and Czech-speaking communities attempted to transform Mozart’s Italian operas into national artworks.

Ed Goehring (University of Western Ontario) – “Mozart and His Librettists: A More (or Less) Perfect Union”

A drama, says Aristotle, must be unified, lest the displacement of any single element cause the whole to be “disjointed and disturbed” (Poetics, 8). That injunction has been a lodestone for theorists of spoken drama and then opera into very recent times. Indeed, when regarded not as an iron law but as the expression of an experience, Aristotle’s dictum gives voice to those moments where everything harmonizes, where the bon mot finds its bon ton, where composers have discovered the music inherent in their stories.

But what happens when opera fails of that ambition, as, inevitably, it must? Words are, after all, different from melodies, and the rules governing poetry are not those of music.

Over the last several decades, a new participant has entered into this conversation about the possibilities of a musical drama. Let’s call him the Disappointed Idealist. Scanning the horizon and discerning no perfect harmony, he concludes there can be no harmony at all. Part of this presentation will show some video excerpts from Mozart opera productions that give visible form to this metaphysics of disharmony, where the opera director seeks to expose the impossibility of finding a concord between music and text.

As for Mozart himself, neither his correspondence nor his compositional practice suggests attendance at the school for disappointed idealists. He played more the truant, and his companions were pragmatists. Their aim was to make a good effect on stage–“exigencies opportunistically embraced,” as one critic excellently puts it. Paradoxically, the operatic pragmatist also turns out to be the superior metaphysician, for opera presents a creative opportunity precisely because there cannot be a perfect setting of a text. This presentation will conclude by looking at places in Mozart’s operatic ensembles where he conjures up an enlivening, satisfying solution from out of opera’s impurity.