ISTANBUL: Just a century after Austria repelledOttoman troops from the gates of Vienna a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, newly arrived in the city, wrote an opera about the feared former foe set in a pasha’s harem.
Besides the requisite arias and comic duets Mozart also tried to include the piercing timbre of the Ottoman janissary bands, whose earsplitting drums, cymbals and whining reeds had once accompanied the sultans on their expansive sweep across southeastern Europe.
The result, his 1782 “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” is the most famous example of opera’s long fascination with Turkish culture, in which composers have seized on Turkish characters or settings to invoke passion and melodrama and mimicked Turkish melodies and instruments.
In celebration of this trend the Turkish state opera has brought the Ottoman-inspired works of Western classical composers as well as of Turkish opera composers to some of Istanbul’s most famous outdoor settings this month – including the sultans’ former homes, the Topkapi palace and Yildiz palace.
The festival sees Turkish opera singers in sumptuous costumes portray some of Western music’s most famous Turkish characters – such as Mozart’s Osmin, the aggressive but comic keeper of the harem.
Mozart’s operas provide the most positive depictions of the Ottoman world. At the end of “The Abduction from the Seraglio” Pasha Selim grants freedom to two foreign women in his harem, abducted by pirates, and caught trying to escape with their former lovers.
In his other Ottoman inspired opera, “Zaide,” a benevolent sultan frees his concubine and a Christian slave who have fallen in love.
“Mozart gives a wonderful example of problems we still see today,” pointed out Yekta Kara, the artistic director of the festival, “fear of other cultures, lack of tolerance and the need to show understanding.”
Gioachino Rossini’s “Maometto Secondo” by contrast, sees the armies of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople, lay siege to a Venetian city.
On realizing that the mysterious noble she loves is in fact the sultan in disguise, the daughter of the city’s governor despairs and as the city falls she commits suicide.
Western composers’ experience of Turkish music stemmed mostly from encounters with the Ottoman Janissary bands or Mehter bands who once gave ardor to invading armies, but who later accompanied diplomatic missions.
A modern version of the Mehter band still exists today and performs at Istanbul’s Military Museum.
“Mozart and his contemporaries tried to use that sound not just in a military context but also as a general signifier,” said Matthew Head, an academic at London’s Kings College who has written on Turkishness in music.
“There are two ways in which scholars look at this theme. The first is whether composers got the music right. The second is what does it all mean? Is it an insult, a celebration, a gesture of friendship or just fun?”
Head believes Mozart’s intentions stem from his delight in masquerade and disguise, rather than simply the desire to plead for more understanding of the eastern other.
“You also can’t escape the fact that Mozart strongly associates Turkishness with primitive, military masculinity which forms the opposite of the subtle and the vocal.”
Osmin, a comic figure, sings for example of how he has studied how to behead, hang, impale, burn, bind and flay and he urges the pasha to burn the would-be escapees.
“The Abduction from the Seraglio” ends instead with a choir extolling the Pasha’s good character.
“People fear the other, desire to keep the other out,” said Kara, “and I think on both sides there is even a fear of foreigners taking and playing ‘our’ music, but we desperately need these meetings in order better understand one another.”