As in all Mozart’s music, his operatic genius resides in the miraculous combination of a unique imagination and vertiginous risk-taking in his craft, all expressed with an apparently effortless fluency. But his imagination was informed too by experience. Mozart was a close observer of human nature, who, as Constanze reported, could seem to detach himself from his surroundings, but in fact missed nothing, and was never clinical. He loved the whole world of theater and the people who inhabited it, and his happiest conviviality came through mingling with them, whether the Cannabich company in Mannheim and Munich, or the devoted musicians in Prague, or Schikaneder’s troupe in Vienna. With all his performers his standards were extremely high, and his condemnation of musicians who did not match up to them could be absolutely withering. From his earliest years, it was reported how he even became impatient with his father when he played wrong notes; and he held the Court musicians in Salzburg in collective, undiluted contempt. He demanded much more of a performer than a brilliant technique, famously dismissing the dazzling Clementi as a "mere mechanicus."

"An opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, the words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme."

 

What he constantly sought was that extra ingredient of emotion and passion, not falsely or superficially applied, but fired from within the very soul of the interpreter. When he found anyone who could convey this, he was ecstatic. Aloysia [Weber] could, and so could the young Beethoven, who once played to him and completely captivated him. And for his beloved theatrical colleagues, in whose instruments (their voices) resided their passions and emotions at their most naked and vulnerable, he was especially inspired to make his most profound utterances. No character in a mature Mozart opera is therefore without interest. His creations are drawn with humanity, compassion, and razor-sharp accuracy, and are some of the most multidimensional as any on the stage, Shakespearean in their variety, Chekhovian in their complexity.

As Mozart composed his operas, and created recognizable human beings for the stage, two ingredients were essential to his process. The first was the libretto. For his earliest operas he was, like all his contemporaries, given a ready-to-wear libretto (generally taken off the shelf by someone else), and made his own setting of it. The great Pietro Metastasio, Court poet in Vienna for over 50 years in the mid-18th century, totally dominated opera composition in his time. He wrote over 30 texts for full-length operas, some of which were set as many as 25 times. There are therefore, staggeringly, over 800 different settings of Metastasio librettos. His great talent was to provide a cover-all style that was elegant, narrative, and reflective, and that could accommodate all manner of compositional interpretation. The text of Mozart’s “Non so d’onde viene” for Aloysia in 1778 was from a Metastasio libretto (Alessandro nell’Indie), and Mozart himself saw it as a challenge to produce something completely different from the setting by J.C. Bach that he knew so well and admired so much. But from 1780, he himself began to have direct input into the very structure of a libretto. First he collaborated with Schachtner in Salzburg on an aborted project, Zaide, K.344 (336b). Then for Idomeneo in Munich in 1781 he was deeply involved with Giovanni Battista Varesco in the shaping of the text and the pacing of the drama. And in Vienna his collaborations with Johann Gottlieb Stephanie, Emanuel Schikaneder, and especially Lorenzo Da Ponte were completely symbiotic. As he himself put it, "The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix?" (The image of this rare bird was to reappear in the opening scene of the Mozart/Da Ponte Così fan tutte, when Ferrando and Guglielmo parry their praises for their sweethearts.) Mozart was absolutely clear in his mind about the importance of a properly shaped text:

An opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, the words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme (which, God knows, never enhances the value of any theatrical performance, be it what it may, but rather detracts from it)—I mean, words or even entire verses which ruin the composer’s whole idea. Verses are indeed the most indispensable element for music— but rhymes—solely for the sake of rhyming—the most detrimental.

 

So Mozart’s artistic creation began before a note of music existed even in his own head. Second, and at the other end of the creative process, Mozart was deeply concerned with his performers’ interpretation. He had very decided views on singing technique, and to an extent was able to train it himself, as demonstrated by the little exercises that he wrote for Constanze as he prepared her for their performance of his Mass in C minor. He loved good cantabile singing (at which Aloysia so excelled), but not if it became a calculated device for its own sake. In Paris in 1778 he criticized his good friend Anton Raaff for falling into mannerism (“he overdoes it, and to me it sounds ridiculous”), though he roundly praised his bravura singing and especially his “excellent, clear diction, which is very beautiful.” All these attributes were important to him, as was the use of vibrato in a singer, which again he loved when it was natural and beautiful, but could not abide if overused. One of the Salzburg singers, Joseph Meissner, was held up as an example of how not to deploy it: “Meissner, as you know, has the bad habit of making his voice vibrate at times, turning a note that should be sustained into distinct crotchets, or even quavers—and this I could never endure in him. And really it is a detestable habit and one which is quite contrary to nature.” And he continued: “The human voice vibrates naturally— but in its own way—and only to such a degree that the effect is beautiful. Such is the nature of the voice; and people imitate it not only on wind instruments, but on stringed instruments too and even on the clavier. But the moment the proper limit is overstepped, it is no longer beautiful—because it is contrary to nature.”

So Mozart was a fierce taskmaster, who would never settle for anything less than total commitment to dramatic involvement and emotional truth. To sing beautifully was simply not enough.

 

Mozart’s passion for naturalness in interpretation was particularly strong in the performance of recitatives; and when he heard two melodramas by Georg Benda, in which the dialogue was actually spoken over instrumental accompaniment, rather than sung, he was extremely excited: “Do you know what I think? I think that most operatic recitatives should be treated in this way—and only sung occasionally, when the words can be perfectly expressed by the music.” But again he required that his singers should always “attend fully to the meaning and force of the words,” as he had instructed Aloysia, and was dismayed when, in the early rehearsals for Idomeneo, two of his singers—including, sadly, his good friend Raaff—failed to do this: “Raaff and Dal Prato spoil the recitative by singing without any spirit or fire, and so monotonously.” On the other hand, if anything was exaggerated or mannered, he was at his most forthright. Having met young Gretl Marchand on his visit with Constanze to Salzburg in 1783, he felt sufficiently strongly about her progress as a singer to offer her his own advice. And again the emphasis was entirely on naturalness and integrity:

Please give a special message to little Greta, and tell her that when she sings she must not be so arch and coy; for cajolings and kissings are not always palatable—in fact only silly asses are taken in by such devices. I for one would rather have a country lout, who does not hesitate to shit and piss in my presence, than let myself be humbugged by such false toadyings, which after all are so exaggerated that one can easily see through them.

 

So Mozart was a fierce taskmaster, who would never settle for anything less than total commitment to dramatic involvement and emotional truth. To sing beautifully was simply not enough.


Jane Glover is a conductor, writer, and broadcaster. Her book, Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music, is published by HarperCollins.