Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as Stage Director

Sitting in his living room in Brookline just outside of Boston in 1980, Boris Goldovsky and I were listening to a recording of Don Giovanni. I had just completed a six-week stint with his touring company. After the tour, he invited me to join him in the presentation of two lecture-demonstrations, the first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the second not far from his home in Massachusetts. As we listened to the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Goldovsky sat back in his chair and sighed heavily. “It’s all there,” he said quietly. “All you have to do is listen to the music and Mozart will tell you what you ought to be doing on the stage.”

As one of the most influential figures in the American opera scene, Goldovsky shared his insights with millions of listeners each week during the Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. Even more significant was his contribution to the arts through the establishment of the Goldovsky Opera Company. It was here that young, aspiring singers, such as myself, were taught the invaluable concepts of dramatic and musical interpretation that would provide a foundation for future operatic pursuits. He was the first to plant the seeds which would eventually take root as my career in Europe began. Years later, they would germinate as I became a seasoned performer. Now, they have come to full fruition as I, following in the steps of Goldovsky himself, direct the incredible operas of Mozart.

That evening in his home, my vision was opened as Goldovsky illuminated Mozart’s rhythmic and dynamic variations. I heard Mozart direct Donna Anna to back away as she notices a corpse and then realizes, to her horror, that the corpse is her own father’s. Her anger, her tenderness, her sudden outburst of anguish and her ultimate loss of consciousness; all are clearly directed through the master’s music. I began to discover that countless musical guidelines were at the disposal of any stage director or singer who had the ears to listen and the imagination to follow Mozart’s guidelines.

Trying to isolate specific examples of stage direction and character interpretation found in Mozart’s operas is like trying to isolate the most beautiful leaf in a colorful autumn landscape. However, three of my favorites are: the opening measures of the first Fiordiligi-Dorabella duet (no. 4) in Così fan tutte, the final measures of Don Ottavio’s aria “Il mio tesoro” in the second act of Don Giovanni, and the beloved Tamino aria in the opening scenes of Die Zauberflöte.

To illustrate, I have chosen complimentary blocking suggestions for each of the three examples below.

‘Così fan tutte’

The marked dynamic and rhythmic contrast between the masculine trio in the opening scene of Così fan tutte and the graceful Dorabella-Fiordiligi duet that follows provides the perfect canvas for a stage director to paint what Mozart has musically directed. This scene is organized into musical couplets or motifs which mirror one another. In order to facilitate the entrances of both sisters, Mozart chooses a motif for Fiordiligi that is subsequently repeated a major second lower for Dorabella (see Ex. 1).

Mozart provides opportunity in the next two measures (see Ex. 2) for the singers to pause and look at their lockets, which contain portraits of their sweethearts.

The next three measures (see Ex. 3) of thirty-second notes express the movement of the sisters as they scurry to their positions for the next set of motifs.

Just before Fiordiligi begins her solo section of the duet, Mozart invites her to sit down on the ascending thirty-second note chromatic scale. Dorabella follows with the descending chromatic scale in the next measure (see Ex. 4). Another possible choice of action could be to have the sisters gather their skirts on the ascending scale and then sit down as the scale descends.

As the same motif found in the sixth and seventh measures of the introduction is repeated and her solo begins, Fiordiligi invites her sister to look at the image in her locket. Obviously Dorabella isn’t paying attention, so Mozart interjects the text “guarda” (take notice!) in the middle of the motif (see Ex. 5).

Fiordiligi emphasizes the request for her sister to take notice of the portrait of Guglielmo in the final flurry of notes in the last measures of her solo (see Ex. 6).

‘Don Giovanni’

Another marvelous example of Mozart’s stage direction can be found in the second act of Don Giovanni. Don Ottavio’s aria “Il mio tesoro” is distinctly divided into two repeated sections. In the first section (“Il mio tesoro intanto”), Don Ottavio expresses his concern for Donna Anna and requests that his friends take care of her. In the second (“Ditele che i suoi torti”), he resolutely sings of his promise to seek revenge for her father’s death. Although there are many musical directives present in both, the exit postlude in the second section is our focus.

As a symbol of determination, I imagine Don Ottavio drawing his sword. Rather than bringing the aria to an abrupt end as Ottavio sings his last note and returns the sword to its scabbard, Mozart masterfully guides the singer through his exit with a nine-measure orchestral postlude. Through the repetitive motif in the first two bars of the postlude (see Ex. 7), the orchestra underscores Don Ottavio’s determination with a repetitive motif as he energetically begins to leave the stage in the opposite direction of Anna’s earlier exit.

On the downbeat of the following measure, just before the violins play the descending eighth-note pattern (see Ex. 8), Ottavio suddenly remembers Anna and tenderly turns to face the direction in which she exited. The soulful, repetitive motif directs him to take two or three steps in her direction.

Just as quickly, the trill (see Ex. 9) reminds Ottavio of his duty as Mozart directs the singer to suddenly turn with renewed determination to make his powerful exit during the last two measures.

‘Die Zauberflöte’

Shortly before leaving the stage, one of the Three Ladies gives Tamino a portrait of Pamina. The beginning of the famous aria following “Dies Bildniss ist bezaubernd schön” (this image is mystifyingly beautiful) is a simple e-flat major chord played eight times in all three inversions (see Ex. 10).

The repetitive dotted rhythm of these inversions allows Tamino to register not only his first view of the image, but also the ensuing realization of this mysterious maiden’s beauty.

Another gift that Mozart gives attentive tenors to help with interpretation and development of the aria is the glorious full-measure rest following Tamino’s inquisitive words, “O, wenn ich sie nur finden könnte! … Was würde ich?” (Oh, if I could but find her! …What would I do?). (See Ex. 11.)

All too often this incredible moment of mounting emotion passes unnoticed as singers drastically shorten or totally ignore the rest. It is exactly during this full measure that Tamino makes one of the most important decisions of his life. And it is exactly at this point that the tenor should show the poignant transformation from uncertainty to resolute determination, with the answer to his question, “Ich würde sie voll Entzücken an diesen heissen Busen drücken, und ewig wäre sie dann mein” (I would passionately hold her to my burning bosom and she would be mine for eternity). Mozart’s genius for the dramatic is wholly crystallized in this single measure of perfect silence.

These are but a few examples of what Goldovsky meant when he sighed and said that every measure, every motif, every harmonic or rhythmic pattern, every melodic line, and every rest assists the attentive artist in knowing what he or she ought to be doing on Mozart’s stage.

Goldovsky made two additional comments that evening that, with each passing year, have had a profound effect on my life as a singer and director. “The older I get,” he said as he shook his head, “the more I appreciate and the more I am inspired by the genius of the great Mozart.”

A few moments passed. He smiled and shook his head again. “And every time I listen to Mozart, I hear something new.” And so it is. Each and every time I sang a role in one of Mozart’s great masterpieces, I learned something new about myself, about the character I was interpreting, and about Mozart. The older I become, the more I realize that I have just begun to scratch the surface of the depth found in the music of the great stage director Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Lawrence P. Vincent

Lawrence Vincent began his opera career in New York City with the Boris Goldovsky Opera Company. In 1982, he was engaged as lyric tenor in Trier, Germany and in 1987, was offered a solo opera and operetta contract with the Vienna Volksoper. From 1991 until 1996, he was a member of the prestigious Vienna State Opera solo ensemble. As a result of his “extraordinary contribution to the arts,” Dr. Vincent was awarded Austrian citizenship in 1994. He is presently a professor of music and director of opera at Brigham Young University.