Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail was chronologically the first performance of an opera by Mozart, and it took place at the ”Burgtheater” in Vienna on the 16th of July 1782, significantly linked to the early years of reformist fervour, the enlightenment of Josef II, by now free of the restraints put on him by his scolding mother, Maria Teresa. The license of tolerance in fact, and the abolition of censure, dates from this exact two year period.
“Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail“, because it’s a german opera, and because it’s an example of nationalist-german “Singspiel“ was seen & desired by the Emperor as significant in the light of this period of a reform in taste, and also a sign of his enlightened government. German “Singspiel” as a novel theatrical style had to be part of the new enlightened social fabric, using the stage as a way of looking to overcome the prejudices and false beliefs that darken it.
Utilising a sociological category or “approximation”, “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail” takes the opportunity to create an intimacy between the audience (in a social concept), and a “different culture”, and that this is often viewed in an insulting way, if not to be said, hatred: in this case the “different culture” is Turkish. Subsequent to the great scare in 1683, which saw the Turks take Austrian territory almost as far west as Vienna, the effect was that, barely three years later, in 1686, in German theatres, in Hamburg, the first “Turken-singspiel” was performed. It was “Kara Mustapha” by Johann Wolfgang Franck, based on a text by Lucas von Bostel. From that time onwards the Turks whiled away their time on the German stages and in particular the great Tamerlane which carried on for more than 35 years, and one of those was Alessandro Scarlatti. The exotic, eastern hues filled up the theatre platforms and the Turks were insulted by everyone. The first “approximation” to the Turk is in “Nathan the wild”” by Lessing, an opera about the noble Saladino; or in “Iphigenie in Tauride” by Goethe with the character of the well-educated ruffian Thoas. In grand opera the approximation of the Turk comes on to the scene much more gradually, but already the enlightenment can be felt in the singspiel by Gluck “The pilgrim of Mecca” which is a portrait of a sultan’s nobility. Probably this work by Gluck influenced “Zaide” by Mozart, which can be considered as the antecedent of “Die Entfuhrung”.
Mozart creates a Turkish character that reasons with the heart, thereby contributes to Josef II’s plan of enlightenment, and this even taking into account the persistence of prejudice, so much so that in his opera we find the characters of the noble bass Selim, and also Osmin, the Turk par excellence to which Mozart assigns an extraordinary sense of humour which is certainly not politically correct. Thus, with one eye on the theory of the Emperor’s enlightenment and taking into account the wicked beliefs held by many of the public at that time, Mozart creates his first singspiel , a style which will later find a more mature formulation in the later work “Die Zauberflote”.