Long after the death of Mozart, an unfinished opera was discovered among his papers, which bore some similarities to The Abduction From the Seraglio; the melodies and the harmonies were much praised, and as the libretto could not be found, both the title of the work and the conclusion of the drama have remained a mystery. For want of a better solution, the work was designated by the name of one of the principal characters, a name which is frequently found in French literature of the 18th century, the character always appearing as an enslaved prisoner of the Turks; similarly the Sultan is almost invariably called Soliman and the gaoler of the seraglio Osmin.Back to top
The plot of this drama, one of Mozart's most curious ventures, can be summarized in a few words. It is scarcely necessary to state that the Sultan is enamored of Zaide. Among the former's Christian slaves is a certain Gomatz, who is condemned to perform the most arduous tasks: worn out with fatigue, he collapses and falls asleep. Zaide, crossing the garden, spies him and immediately falls in love. But she does not want to disturb the poor Gomatz's sleep, and lays her portrait by his side. As soon as he wakes, the sight of the portrait awakens irresistible feelings in him. Allazim, his friend, procures Oriental garb as a disguise for the couple, and they manage to escape unnoticed. On discovering their flight, the Sultan is enraged, but Zaram - the Sultan's chief guard - calms him down, assuring the Sultan that everything will be done to return the fugitives. Accordingly, the couple are soon brought back to be judged, bound hand and foot. The Sultan is determined to put them to death, We do not know whether the clemency of the sovereign, as earnest as his wrath, will prove to be the deciding factor.
It was upon this frame that Mozart's old friend and dining companion, Schachtner, wrote the script of a play, the like of which he had certainly seen in the plays performed in Salzburg by the companies of B?hm and Schikaneder. We must not forget that Schachtner had already translated Bastien and Bastienne into German. Indeed, the Salzburg repertoire included a number of French works and Zaide, along with the next tragedy Idomeneo, was surely conceived here in France. But Schachtner made this a German Singspiel; and despite the title of "operetta" given it by Mozart, this is a genuine drama, a tragic adventure, which gives us a marvelous impression of what Mozart wished to accomplish with words intercut by music; this melodramatic form which had so infatuated him at Mannheim the previous year. This was more than a mere trial effort: we know from his correspondence that Mozart had already composed the "duodrama" Semiramis, which is now unfortunately lost to us. And we also learn from Mozart's correspondence that he never lost sight of what he called his operetta, but on reaching Vienna he finally judged it too serious and unusable.
He stopped working on this opera with only one or two scenes to complete. Admittedly, there were organizational problems, but despite having eleven years to finish it he never did so. Indeed, he abandoned the score definitively and never once returned to it. He died, leaving Zaide among his papers and letters, separated from the libretto, which contained the spoken dialogues.Back to top
To imagine a reconstruction, we must imagine the source itselfA story where two young people fall in love with one another, when the young man is a slave of the Sultan and the young girl is the favorite of this same Sultan, who respects and admires her. They decide to flee together and return to their homeland, with the help of a Dignitary. They are recaptured and condemned, until a discovery is made: the idea of the family tie, the brother, the sister, and the father. In the literature of pathos and adventure of Mozart's century, this was not an uncommon story-line, but there is an uncertain and unnerving element in Mozart's music; the young couple love each other too strongly to be mere brother and sister; and there seems to be a mystery hidden in the over-powerful figure of the Dignitary. It has often been suggested that Mozart wished to revise the story; gone are the brother and sister, replaced by two lovers. But we cannot know for sure exactly what Mozart had in mind.
Reliving Mozart's emotionsIn the score, the theme of the two young lovers is linked to the discourse on fraternity, in an exchange between the orchestra and the text. There is a great deal of tension throughout, the two lovers finally pleading not for clemency, but for death as a kind of liberation. Pursuing this path still further, it seemed increasingly clear that Mozart had imprisoned himself in a disturbing web. Having given full mythical expression to the enchanting power of love, the absolute mythical sacredness of fraternity, the certainty with which the sentiments and private passions of men can coincide with moral codes, he was troubled by the understandable rage of the Sultan than by the proximity of incest. The solitude of the characters eventually takes on an impressive authority. The theatrical gesture of survival and physical liberty of the young couple, and would leave the rest of the drama hanging in the air. There thus remained the shadow of an idea, which Mozart wanted to take the time to think over, when he found the necessary conditions enabling him to approach this theme unashamedly, while remaining true to the characters.
The intention of Luciano BerioWhen the European Mozart Foundation approached Luciano Berio to participate in this venture, he prepared a critical study of Zaide, in which he sought not to integrate Mozart, but to express our quest, our respectful and almost secretive patience when confronted by this unfinished work. Berio's intention was linked to his work on the score of Schubert's Rendering, in which his own music intervenes at various points, emerging from Schubert's original components to express a musical language of our time, Berio's own language.
In Zaide, it is not the musical forms but the dramatic connections which are incomplete. Berio wanted to remain as faithful as possible to Mozart's score, making his own interventions quite separately. He therefore asked me to write a text for his music, and began by telling me of his reluctance for any text to be heard - in the proper sense of oral expression - other than that selected by Mozart.
The new text could be neither sung nor recited, and must therefore be written, to be read directly by the audience. The text would have to be written in the language of the audience, It was also essential that the new text form something more than mere subtitles to the action, explaining or seeking conceptual definitions; these words, these texts must be an integral part of the music, making the suggestion or allowing the suggestion to emerge - impregnated by drama and sound - that they are the interpretation of our "relation" to Zaide.
There was the sea...Like ourselves, faced with the lost story of Zaide. Then I thought of a story which goes astray, like a ballad or a dance which gradually empties itself of words, and I began: "Once there was a sea..." The further I advanced, the more I came to understand that to remain within Berio's composition, "abstract"' words were no longer sufficient, and that it was necessary to represent the actual people who would write these words. And so, for the first part, I imagined that someone was trying to write and to tell of this sea and this story. I remembered a documentary in which Picasso was drawing on a sheet of glass, the transparency of which revealed the original idea of the picture. It could have been the projection of a writing slate onto a people on the stage, who were seeking a beginning and a continuation, shying away from speech and words, taking their forms from a distant memory and drawing it into a collective memory, slowly unraveling words and phrases, But it is not only the vicissitude of Zaide, nor of her probable brother Gomatz, nor of the probable father Allazim and the Sultan Soliman which resurfaces: rather it is theatre, and Mozart.
Berio's music contains innumerable perspectives almost simultaneously: even in the sequences for solo instruments, one senses a multiple polyphony, as if one were reading an incalculable number of unexpected counterpoints; it becomes almost obligatory to envisage a multiplicity of themes and words: it is not only the relationship of the sea with the world of Zaide, but also that of the theatre with its strange and adventurous realities, with human cultures and hopes. It is also Mozart telling the whole story and the whole drama, stopping short at the most dramatic moment, in the most anxious suspense, right at the climax of the work.
And the words which are written one after the other, almost on top of each other, mixing their rhythmic values to construct a rhythm which may be read both horizontally and vertically. The words flow, march past and dissolve. Rhythm and memory capture the breathing of the music and the music carries us towards Mozart.
The young couple destined to perish, the broken-hearted Dignitary, the unpardoning Sultan, the curtain which remains open, Mozart's house where any further search is fruitless. The music turns back, like a mirror which recalls the beginning to us, dragging with it the flotsam of thoughts and words. The finale should be joyful. There were four solitudes. There was the Orient. There was the sea.
Mozart's fragmented, unfinished Zaide is a piece of modern art. I mean that in the simplest of ways. It is "modern" in that its structural essence is on exhibit. I can picture Zaide as an installation piece about Mozart's rational musical observations, cordoned off on a floor of the Museum of Modern Art, surrounded by several people pointing their fingers at its broken pieces. And at the center of this mound of ideas called Zaide is Mozart himself, appearing as all the characters. The installation is almost a selfishly cruel representation of a composer's state of mind. Seen at the end of the 20th century, in which crudeness and violence have become legitimate expressions of the artist's state of mind, Zaide does remarkably fit in, its bare sketches carved in stone and full of friction. But for some reason I imagine Mozart staring at the silent score, stifled by its generous possibilities. Unlike the contemporary artist, however, Mozart chose to abandon Zaide. Had he realized that it was precisely its unfinished condition that would have "enhanced" its statement as a "complete" work of art, Zaide, or the Zaide installation, might have ended up on the same floor as Duchamp's shattered "Large Glass", Joseph Allers' "White on White" and Magritte's "A pipe is not a pipe".Back to top
I have always wanted to stage a piece in which I could involve its author by placing him at the very epicenter of the dramatic conflict, in a kind of post-Pirandellian, post-Beckettian way. Zaide is, in many ways, a triptychal study for a self-portrait by Mozart. And in the midst of trying to resolve the conflict between Soliman and Gomatz, two characters who differed in age and race but could be described as being essentially the same person spiritually, at different stages in life, Mozart might have become engaged in the labyrinths of metalanguage. Modern authors have used metalanguage in order to help them understand what it is they understand. But this must not have been so easy for a figurative mind. I still see the unfinished Zaide opera as a premature modern installation, created well before its time. In fact, crudely parodying Pirandello, Zaide is an "opera in search of its time." As far fetched as these analogies may be, the "point of no return" in the arts was the revolution that Duchamp provoked in the field of "creativity" itself.
"Modernity" called for a crude stripping of most artificial rituals established throughout the century. Those rituals consisted, mostly, of finding shapes to express the figurative state of the mind. Duchamp shattered the very idea of figurativism and introduced to the limelight the concept of the uselessness of man-made things. The beginning of "intelligent art" undoubtedly, brought with it a fundamental notion from which it has not yet evolved: that of pragmatism. I cannot help but to see Zaide as a Duchamp "ready-made", its scattered pages found in the streets and assembled for a volume. Or a Beckettian piece of monologue, its incompleteness providing a bizarre sense of fulfillment. Like those two examples, Zaide is an opera that allows all of its components to become mere embodiments of the author's linguistic concerns.
Through Zaide, Mozart places himself and its director where every artist of this century has placed himself: at the very center of the investigative process in the best of the Chandler style. The staging fulfills the need for an outer language that describes the inner language. The director must find a metalanguage that encompasses Zaide's conflict. Within this frame of mind, curious observations are bound to arise. As, for instance, Mozart's strong resemblance to the character of Soliman on one level, and on another level, to that of Gomatz. Mozart playing against Mozart? Why not? Soliman, a sultan who's preferred slaves escape him and end up recaptured. Mozart, a composer whose main characters escape him and leave the opera unfinished. Gomatz, a young man who needs to experience freedom and is given the tools to do it, but can't because he sees his future in Soliman. Mozart, a young composer who needs to find a lead in his story, has all the tools but gives up in the end. Once an outsider to the infirmity during the gestation process of Zaide, Mozart was now probably its threatening virus.
There may be many reasons why the opera was left unfinished. Researchers' claims go from Mozart's mistrust in commercial viabilities to an overuse of Masonic symbolism. Only part of that is true in Zaide. The question of Soliman's absolution of the fleeing triangle arises. It is easy to fathom why the opera was not continued, since it would have forced Mozart to absolve Mozart, or Mozart to condemn Mozart. Whichever way, the story's umbilical cord had strangled it. Zaide, Gomatz, Soliman and Allazim occupied the territory of Mozart's brain far more intrusively than any other character has inhabited the brain of its creator. An excessive exposition of the artist through his work can be paralyzing. Soliman and Gomatz swallowed Mozart into the impasse of their unsolvable relationship. Zaide is a precious reminder that the creative process may just be a bigger riddle to its author that imagined. This riddle, however, has an extraordinary dark beauty in the fact that the works in question turn out to be inaccessible to the very people who create them.
The particular beauty of Zaide rests in its visible structure. Contemporary art want to make sure that all the tools it employs are visible, exposed, "denounced." No fairy tales are created today, unless to focus on the strings that make the fairy fly, or shed light on the cruelty of its narratives. Such objectivity is, oddly enough, possible with unfinished works. Their method of construction is still visible and hasn't been refined or adulterated by the author during the stages of self-consciousness. Zaide is a confluence of visible tools, all the way down to its borrowed symbolism, from ancient myths to cliches from foreign lands of Masonic rulers, initiation rituals or hearts of stone. The references are so abundant and touchable that they almost parody the addiction of self-examination prevailing in our contemporary days. A fragment, such as Zaide, cannot be ideologically traced back to its author. It stands nowhere. It advocates nothing. It may resemble its author or do justice to his style, but he is relieved from any social or aesthetic stances. Yet, it is astonishingly capable of evoking pure reason and pure emotion. Its structure comprehends its birth as well as its death. In that respect, Zaide is a perfect piece of modern art.