History in the Making

February 9, 2010

Right before your very eyes. Not just the first guest-blog on RogerEvansOnline, but — much more important — the first virtual launch of an opera season. Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera Company is celebrating today’s announcement of the WTOC 2010 season by doing guest blog-posts and interviews in a few places across the blogosphere. Simply go to Kim’s blog for links to all the other blogs participating in this launch of what promises to be a terrific season. Lively opera productions (and imaginative media ideas) live at the Grammy-nominated Wolf Trap Opera Company!

Guest blogger Kim Witman writes about Mozart’s ZAIDE:

Twenty-four years ago, I was involved in a production of Mozart’s Impresario in which Zaide’s aria “Ruhe saft” was interpolated. Ever since then I’ve been looking for a way to get my hands on this exotic and problematic piece.

It’s sort of crazy that we split Mozart’s operas into “mature” and “juvenilia,” and that the dividing line seems to hover around the time the composer was 23 or 24 years old. The fact that the operas Mozart wrote while he was a teenager are still performed today is mind-boggling in itself. That spate of early works draws to a close around 1775 (when he was 19), and there’s a bit of a stall between then and 1780 (with Idomeneo, often cited as the beginning of the mature works).

During that five-year period, Mozart grew increasingly dissatisfied with his options in his hometown of Salzburg, and he spent a few years traveling across Europe in a futile attempt to find work elsewhere. He wanted to continue writing opera but had no prospects. He landed back home in 1779, and he teamed up with a trumpeter colleague (Schachtner, the librettist for Zaide) to write a Singspiel (an opera with dialogue, or a play with music, depending on your perspective … what in our time would be called musical theatre). He had no commission — that is, no one was paying him to write.

Musicologists who dabble in psychology believe that the kernel of this piece is autobiographical. It’s certain that Mozart felt captive in Salzburg, and the yearning for freedom that is expressed by the main characters in Zaide is visceral. Whether or not the hero’s name (Gomatz) is a near-anagram of the composer’s name, and no matter if the heroine (Zaide herself) is a representation of the ideal of German opera; the music in this opera is personal in ways that elude the Italian operas that predated it.

It’s in German, of course, written to be immediately understood by the intended audience. In addition to the predictably sung operatic material, there is spoken dialogue and melodrama (spoken text with music underscore). This presents our company with a distinct challenge: what language to use?

The argument for German: One of the core missions of our young artist program is opera in the original language. It’s not that we believe that singing opera in translation isn’t effective or defensible. It’s just that one of the things we do for our artists is provide language coaching (from native speakers, music staff and conductors) that prepares them to attack the challenges of singing in Italian, French, and German once they leave us. For although opera in English has a wonderful place on many stages, the vast majority of our singers’ careers will be spent singing in these other languages.

The argument for English: One of the primary tenets of Mozart’s approach to this piece is that he wanted his audience to understand it. Text in the vernacular is core to the Singspiel style. In addition, the spoken text is more difficult than sung lyrics for an American audience to truly track via supertitles (due to pacing and sheer quantity.)

So, to perform in German or English? Yes.

We shall sing in German, giving our artists a chance to refine their approach to the language, and giving Mozart’s melodic lines a chance to be heard exactly the way they were written. We shall speak in English, allowing the finer details of the plot to emerge for the audience, and honoring the composer’s intent to minimize linguistic barriers.

Is the polyglot approach a bit schizoid? Well, not at all or somewhat, depending on your perspective. But I’ve always found that the thinking about it is more jarring than the actual experience. It’s a compromise, to be sure, but one about whose assets we are confident.

Mozart didn’t finish this opera. He received an actual commission to write an Italian opera for Munich (Idomeneo), and soon thereafter he got his wish to write a Singspiel (The Abduction from the Seraglio) for Vienna. Life and opportunity intervened, and Zaide was shelved.

As always, we were led to this piece by the singers we heard in last fall’s audition tour. Zaide has been on the “short list” of operas we’d like to produce for at least 20 years. This June at The Barns, we get our chance.

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