Mozart and His Operas
Learn more about the incredible life and the beloved operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91).
How Mozart Got His Start
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) lived at the pinnacle of music history’s Classical era, which was defined by elegance, beauty, refinement, and grace. He composed 22 operas, 10 of them as an adolescent. Mozart’s operas nevertheless seem astonishingly contemporary to audiences today, in contrast to many other operas from that era which often sound dated and stilted.
Austria-born Mozart is widely regarded as the best composer of operas and, by some, the best composer of all time. From the very beginning of his remarkable life, Mozart learned music with a natural grace and agility that amazed onlookers. He was the Tiger Woods of the musical world.
With his father’s encouragement, 4-year-old Wolfgang was already creating piano concertos. Soon after, he composed his first symphony. And at the age of 11, he composed the opera Bastien and Bastienne.
Young Mozart Goes on Tour
Wolfgang most likely would have been content to relax at home and create operas for enjoyment. However, Wolfie’s father, Leopold Mozart, had other plans. He transported the young prodigy and his older sister Nannerl all over Europe in order to showcase his brilliant son. Leopold promoted his son as a scientific phenomenon wherever they went. One of his advertisements read, “To all lovers of sciences: The greatest prodigy that Europe, or that even Human Nature has to boast of is, without contradiction, the little German boy Wolfgang Mozart.”, said one of his posters in England.
Wolfgang began working as the court organist and concertmaster of the Salzburg archbishop by the age of 13, a position he held for 12 years. But his constant travel and quest for better work irritated the archbishop. In the end, the archbishop fired Mozart, not knowing at all how politically incorrect it would look to people in the future.
When he was older, Mozart went to Vienna to try to make money. Vienna was a hub for music, but unlike the wildly popular tours he did as a child there, Mozart struggled to find (and keep) steady work. Without a reliable source of income, Mozart supported himself by writing operas.
Mozart fell in love and tied the knot with a young woman named Constanze Weber during this time period. She was the daughter of another popular composer, Carl Maria von Weber. Some historians believe he chose the name “Constanze” for the protagonist of his exotic, comic-rescue opera The Abduction from the Seraglio to pay homage to this joyous occasion. This opera has everything: catchy tunes with trendy Turkish-sounding effects, a zany narrative, and fantastic escape scenes.
In addition, The Abduction from the Seraglio was written in German, the language of the intended audience, rather than Italian, the language of most operas at the time. Joseph II, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, encouraged Mozart’s belief in composing music that would speak directly to the people.
Opera came naturally to Mozart
During his too-short 35 years on earth, Mozart wrote more than 600 works, including some of the most popular and beloved symphonic, chamber, and choral works, but he was particularly at home in the operatic genre. His tunes were uncomplicated, beautiful, and brimming with expression. He delighted in writing sections for multiple characters to sing at the same time, and he was especially adept at making the language clear. He also had complete command of the orchestra’s colors, and deftly selected groups of instruments to produce unique sounds and effects.
In addition, Mozart had an uncanny knack for choosing the juiciest plays (libretti) from which to make operas. One of his finest recommendations was a play written by Pierre de Beaumarchais called The Marriage of Figaro, a humorous (and contentious) send-up of modern society and politics. Figaro provides excellent examples of the real motivations that drive Mozart’s characters.
The city of Prague asked Mozart to write an opera for the wedding of the emperor’s niece a year after the first performance of Figaro. And what story did he choose to set to music for this holy marriage? The story of Don Juan, the most womanizing sociopath of all time. Don Giovanni was the name of the opera, and it was a huge success.
Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist
Of course, Mozart does not deserve full credit for his operatic masterpieces; he only composed the music. The remaining credit goes to the person who wrote the words (the libretto). Lorenzo da Ponte was Mozart’s best librettist (1749–1838). The duo collaborated on three operas: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. These three Mozart-da Ponte productions were the pinnacle of what was known as “opera buffa”—a type of farcical musical comedy.
The year before his death, Mozart wrote The Magic Flute. It’s a German Singspiel, like his previous hit The Abduction from the Seraglio, with spoken dialogue between songs. The Magic Flute is a tale of good and evil, moral redemption, juvenile bird catchers, and a Queen of the Night who makes the Wicked Witch of the West look tame in comparison. In this opera, more than any other, Mozart conveys a truthful and straightforward story. It is still a favorite today. Mozart passed away at age 35, shortly after the premiere.
Mozart’s operas embody the Classical style: elegant, graceful, refined, high-spirited, and unsentimental, but with a strong emotional undercurrent. Since his death, no one has matched Mozart’s combination of musical genius, compositional skill, and seemingly divine inspiration. And perhaps no one ever will.