by: Eric Skelly, January 7, 2008 10:01:00 am
When the curtain goes up on Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio or The Magic Flute, one of the first things we notice about Abduction and Flute once the overture is finished, is that there's dialogue in these operas. We won't hear the secco or "dry" recitative (the music that connects the opera's arias, ensembles and choruses) that we're used to hearing in Mozart's Da Ponte operas (Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, et.al.), where the recitative is accompanied by a solo harpsichord or piano. Here, the musical numbers are connected by plain spoken dialogue.
|From HGO's production of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio
Photo by George Hixson
Early on, like its contemporaries French op?ra comique, Italian opera buffa and English ballad opera, German Singspiel was a decidedly lowbrow entertainment. It featured light, farcical topics; texts borrowing heavily from popular entertainment or from the common vernacular; very simple music that anyone could sing (because the actors who were to sing it typically had little or no musical training); scores that made use of nationalistic folksong; and, of course, dialogue between the musical numbers.
|Christian Felix Weisse|
Johann Adam Hiller quickly became the Singspiel king (my term, not his). He was easily the most popular composer of Singspiels in his day, beginning with a new version of The Devil to Pay in collaboration with Weisse (1766), and going on to compose no less than 12 Singspiels.
|Johann Adam Hiller|
In southern Germany, however, the predominant influence came from Italy's more vivacious and virtuosic opera buffa. In 1778, a new National Theater opened in Vienna with a Singspiel of this sort, entitled Die Bergknappen (The Miners) by Ignatz Umlauf [Don't you just love that name?!] The National Theater was built by Austrian Emperor Josef II, who has achieved fame in our time through Peter Shaffer's fictional account of him ("Too many notes!") in the play and film Amadeus. Four years later, Josef II's theater saw the world premiere of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio.
Abduction, of course, was neither Mozart's first Singspiel, nor his last. His first was Bastien und Bastienne, which Mozart composed in the French op?ra comique style at the ripe old age of twelve (!). Twenty-six years later came Za?de, which Mozart did not finish, but from which survives the gorgeous soprano aria "Ruhe sanft mein holdes Leben." (Just pick your favorite lyric soprano's Mozart recital disc and you're likely to find this gem of an aria.) With its plot concerning escape from a Sultan's palace and its comic slave master, Osmin, Za?de looks as though it might have been a trial run for Abduction.
|From the San Fransisco Opera's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute
Photo by Larry Merkle
The Magic Flute and Beethoven's Fidelio are considered the crowning glories of Singspiel, operas which then led the way forward to German Romantic Opera (Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freisch?tz), and even further forward to Richard Wagner. Consider Senta's Ballad in The Flying Dutchman, with its folksong-like form and rhythms . . . or the heavy use of folksong, the cast of common folk characters, the comedic nature and the strong sense of nationalism in Die Meistersinger. Singspiel, that "lowbrow" 18th century musical entertainment, essentially gave birth to German Opera.