Zachary Woolfe, classical music editor of the New York Times, wrote a heated review last month of a Mozart opera at a festival in France. The article provoked a noted Mozart authority, Professor Ralph P. Locke, to send a dissenting letter to the Times, questioning the extent of Woolfe’s knowledge of Mozart. The Times did not publish it.
So Professor Locke has circulated the letter, none too privately. He makes several good points. Not fit to print in the Times, apparently.
To the Editor of the Arts Section (New York Times):
Zachary Woolfe (Sunday, July 17, Can a Tool of Power Bring Change?) proposes that operas from earlier eras were a “tool of [elite] power.” An opera house today, he feels, is morally bound to alter works substantially—or to replace them with new works—in order to “make reparations” for the damage that those works have done over the centuries. His examples include operas by Mozart.
The Abduction from the Seraglio—Woolfe claims—“makes comedy out of sex slavery [in Turkey].” But comedy can take many forms. In Blonde’s duet with her captor Osmin, the Englishwoman undermines—through sharp-witted verbal and musical ridicule of her self-appointed “master”—his smug demand that a mere “slave-woman” obey his every wish. Here comedy is put to the service of social critique. More generally, Mozart’s operas are attuned to the evils of male privilege and domination, whether in Europe (as in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro) or elsewhere (as inAbduction and The Magic Flute).
As for slavery generally, a notable scene in Abduction is omitted from most productions. It involves a “mute black man” who is apparently a slave. His situation is not treated at all comically. The Magic Flute contains two remarkable spoken scenes (likewise rarely included) in which three male slaves—apparently Egyptian—complain bitterly about their cruel slave-driver, Monostatos. And yet, despite their sufferings, the slaves show empathy for the captive (and “white”) princess Pamina.
Great operas are often richer in nuance and complexity than commentators—and certain strongly interventionist stage directors—seem to realize.
Ralph P. Locke
(professor emeritus, Eastman School of Music)