Orchestra Victoria Blog

Mozart and His Operas: The Trials and Triumphs

Posted on 6 October 2020 by Karen Schofield | Associate Principal Flute, Orchestra Victoria

I’ve always thought that there is something magical, verging on the supernatural in Mozart’s music. Indeed, it seems that Mozart led something of a prescient existence. As if predicting the end of his life, 1791 was one of his most fruitful years, in which he produced works that are amongst his most revered. These depict humanity in all its glory and grotesqueness and include two string quintets, the opera La Clemenza di Tito, the clarinet concerto and his Requiem. The same year, his collaboration with friend Emmanuel Schikaneder, director of the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, on the outskirts of Vienna, resulted in arguably his most famous work Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) The opera chronicles the adventures of young prince Tamino who is rescued from snakes by the Queen of the Night-whose daughter Pamina has been abducted. The opera is a hilarious, reverent, philosophical and quirky fantasy. But rather than talking about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Tamino and co, this article is dedicated to the trials and triumphs of Orchestra Victoria’s musicians in the context of Mozart and his operas.

Australian born conductor Dane Lam recounts a time he heard Mozart’s music described in the most perfect/immaculate phrase:

Mozart’s music is the imagery of God looking down at man from the heavens, surveying the glory and the gory, depicted in sound. Beethoven’s music is the image, expressed in sound, of man gazing back up at the heavens, shaking his fist.

In speaking to Violinist John Noble and Trombonist Scott Evans the Mozart/ Beethoven nexus was a topic of conversation. Scott believes that people generally credit Beethoven with the introduction of the trombone as a ‘solo’ instrument of the orchestra, when in fact, Mozart was the first to experiment with the timbre of the instrument in an orchestral setting. Scott laments that the trombone was perhaps seen as a ‘cumbersome, loud brute of an instrument’, but Mozart was the first to explore the lyrical qualities of the instrument. For example, the Trombone solo appearing in Sarastro’s aria from the Magic Flute, Scott describes as lyrical, beautiful and a real innovation in the function of the instrument. Scott continues:

This particular excerpt appears in most principal trombone auditions as a test of the trombonists’ sensitivity and lyrical prowess.

Principal Bassoonist Lucinda Cran also lauds Mozart’s progressive approach and exceptional ability in bringing out the lyrical qualities of the bassoon. Lucinda explains that Mozart really understood how to write for the instrument and that the bassoon parts in Mozart’s operas ‘feel like singing’. Another example of the enlightenment of his writing is that he explored and extended the role of the bassoon (which was traditionally used in the function of bassline) and used it in a lyrical context, the outcome of which was so effective that you will often hear the soprano teamed with the bassoon in a beautiful blend of warm and pure timbres. John echoes Lucinda’s observations about Mozart and his command of the lyrical, stating that ‘his mastery in colouring every mood is genius. This understanding of phrase through breathing enables him to deliver amazing lines through his other works. His symphonic, concerti, chamber and choral works have all been influenced by his mastery of the voice.’

Opera Australia's 2016 production of The Magic Flute

Photo Branco Gaica
The story continues...

Understanding Mozart’s mastery of breath and phrase is of profound importance in the performance of his operas. As a wind player, I have sat, mesmerised and in complete awe of my colleagues in the string section as they navigate the musical minefield that the recitatives of Mozart operas represent. They need to sit, poised for the impossibly difficult task of placing a semiquaver (sometimes less!) with Swiss-watch precision amongst acrobatic vocal feats-which are different every night and affected by hundreds of variables. And they have to play these short, stabbing motifs together, as a synchronised harmony, with absolute conviction. I asked John about this specific form of musician-torture and how the string section remained calm and assured in a situation that would keep me up at night with anxiety attacks.

John recounts:

I remember clearly my first experience of recit. I had no idea... We were at St Peters Hall in East Melbourne and Richard Divall was conducting. Prior to this, I used to think that we took timing directions from the conductor, boy was I wrong. I consistently came in too early, first to the annoyance of my desk partner, then the Concertmaster (Rob John), and finally to Richard himself. I quickly observed that everyone else was clearly focused on the Concertmaster’s gestures and Richard’s job was to show character of sound, articulation and dynamic. Everything else including when to place the note was being shown by our brave Concertmaster.

What does transpire, however, is that it is not the moments of anxiety one feels when performing these incredible works of art that remain the lingering part of the experience, rather the transcendental power of his music. Lucinda, John and Scott all relay commonalities of phenomenology when asked about their experiences of Mozart’s music.

John: ‘…listening to Mozart is an out of body experience. Performing with Sumi Jo, singing the Queen of the Night aria from the Magic Flute at the Sydney Olympics, my first Don Giovanni overture, even my first time playing a Mozart quartet in High School. When readdressing these works (with more and more experience) I realise the sheer genius behind his ink, and how what seemed so simple is in fact an intricate story that the performer is given the liberty to explore.’

Scott: “I was new to OV and on tour in Canberra. I turned up to the foyer of the Civic theatre, believing that I was required to rehearse Don Giovanni, however, it was a rehearsal for strings only. I went to leave but was knocked out by the overture, so I sat and listened for 3 hours.”

Lucinda: “I can’t pick a favourite moment, opera or aria. Mozart’s music is so incredible that whichever work we are playing, it instantly becomes my favourite and I wait until the next chance that I can roster myself on to play his works!”

The ultimate triumph of Mozart’s genius, however, must surely lie in the fact that he wrote a work called “The Magic Flute”. Here was a man that clearly recognised the superiority of the instrument and to a flute player, this is all the music to my ears that I’ll ever need!

With thanks to Lucinda Cran, Scott Evans, John Noble and Dane Lam 

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