Understanding the Siege of Corinth: What Rossini’s (and Mozart’s) Turkish operas say about Western Relations with the Middle East

The Rossini Opera Festival will be featuring Le Siège de Corinthe this summer in Pesaro. It will be quite a historic event because in addition to the ROF debut of Luca Pisaroni it will feature “new” music not heard before in performance.

In anticipation of this performance we invited Professor Larry Wolff, Professor of History and Director of the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at New York University and author of the recently published “The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon“, to give us some insight into why composers have been drawn to Turkish characters and settings. What he says may change your understanding and appreciation of both Mozart’s and Rossini’s “Turkish” operas.


Q. Your recently published book “The Singing Turk”, has arrived at quite an interesting time! With ROF’s performance of Turco last summer, to their performances of Siege and Pietra this coming summer. And of course the Met’s L’Italiana last fall! What do you think continues to fascinate audiences with these themes today?

A. My book is an attempt to come to terms with a vast repertory of mostly forgotten operas about Turks, which played on the stages of Europe from the 1680s to the 1820s, responding to the rhythms of actual historical European relations with the Ottoman Turkish empire— and Rossini was the last great composer in this tradition, taking up with dazzling brillance the Turkish themes of the whole previous century in a series of operatic masterpieces. He gave Europe one last round of operas about Turks before the subject disappeared from the repertory of nineteenth-century composers.

[W]e’re missing an important aspect of the current crisis in Western relations with the Middle East, if we don’t understand how the Western cultural tradition of earlier centuries came to terms with the Ottoman empire…

We are not appreciating Rossini properly if we don’t recognize what a significant place these “Turkish” works occupy among his operatic compositions, and we’re not appreciating opera properly if we don’t understand that Rossini’s Turkish scenarios represent the culmination of a whole brilliant tradition of European operas about Turks. Finally, we’re missing an important aspect of the current crisis in Western relations with the Middle East, if we don’t understand how the Western cultural tradition of earlier centuries came to terms with the Ottoman empire, Europe’s most important Muslim rival, and how a composer like Rossini came to terms with Muslim Ottoman Turks in whom he recognized an undeniable resemblance to his fellow Europeans.

I’m really thrilled that Pesaro is producing these Rossini masterpieces on Turkish subjects just now as my book is being published— partly because I think this whole phenomenon of operas-about-Turks is a huge, neglected, and largely misunderstood part of opera history, but also partly because I think these operas are also very relevant for thinking about our currently problematic Western relation to the Muslim Middle East.

The most famous opera in this tradition is certainly Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, created in 1782, performed widely as Mozart’s most successful opera in his lifetime, and still performed everywhere in the world today. Rossini, however, was far more committed than Mozart to Turkish themes and invested his genius in a series of five such works over the course of his whole career as an opera composer.

What Rossini and Mozart both understood was that that a Turkish identity could function as a kind of alter ego for a European…

La pietra del paragone, in 1812, marks the beginning of the series, though it’s only tangentially Turkish. The hero Count Asdrubale comically disguises himself as a Turk in order to find out what his friends really think of him— a comic device not so far from the one that Mozart used in Cosi fan tutte, when he had his heroes disguise themselves as Ottoman Albanians. What Rossini and Mozart both understood was that that a Turkish identity could function as a kind of alter ego for a European, that just as a singer could costume himself in Ottoman robes and become a “singing Turk” on stage, so a European character could become a Turk for the purposes of the drama, while discovering not only something relevant about his friends but perhaps also something important about himself. In fact, the same basso, Filippo Galli, who sang in the first production of La pietra del paragone at La Scala in 1812, discovered his own “inner Turk” and went on to create the roles of all of Rossini’s other singing Turkish protagonists over the course of the following decade.

L’italiana in Algeri in 1813 came closest to Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, which Mozart composed in German and which Rossini partly reconceived in the spirit of Italian opera buffa. Both operas build their plots around the historical phenomenon of Mediterranean piracy— Europeans taken captive by Turks and in need of ransom or rescue. In Mozart the heroic tenor comes to rescue the soprano from the Ottoman pasha, but in Rossini it’s actually the glamorous heroine Isabella who rescues the tenor, along with all the Italian captives, from their Algerian captivity. In Mozart the pasha generously liberates his captives at the end, whereas in Rossini Mustafa Bey is comically enchanted, tricked and humbled by Isabella.

In fact, L’italiana in Algeri could be seen as a crude mockery of the singing Turk—because of the farcical comedy of Mustafa Bey— but Rossini’s contemporaries clearly recognized Mustafa as a caricature of self-important and sexist Italian masculinity! Indeed, in Rossini’s next Turkish opera, Il turco in Italia, he boldly offered an entirely romantic vision of the singing Turk, in the figure of Prince Selim— so seductively portrayed by Erwin Schrott in Pesaro last summer— who came to Italy, not as a military conqueror or a raiding pirate, but simply as a Mediterranean lover whose irresistible charm made every Italian encounter into a romantic conquest. It was something unprecedented in opera when Rossini musically imagined the spectacular erotic compatibility of a Muslim Turk and the Italian Fiorilla.

No less daring was Rossini’s last opera on a Turkish subject, or rather, his last pair of operas, Maometto Secondo, about the most fearsome Turkish military leader in Ottoman history, Sultan Mehmed or Mohammed the Conqueror, the man who conquered Christian Constantinople in 1453, overthrowing the thousand-years-old Byzantine empire. Maometto Secondo was then reconceived and recomposed as Le siège de Corinthe (The Siege of Corinth) in French for Paris. Maometto is a fearsome figure in the opera— capable of cruelty and violence— but also a troubled and sensitive lover, deeply in love with the European woman whom he can not simply conquer.

All in all, it’s a portrait of a powerful leader presented with almost Shakespearean complexity— and endowed with a charismatic basso musical voice. Luca Pisaroni who will sing the role in its French version as Mahomet this summer at Pesaro has already demonstrated the exceptional vocal charisma of Maometto in the Italian version, calling upon his soldiers to arise (sorgete!) while they salute him as the conqueror of the world (del mondo al vincitor), and he displays his spectacular pride in being the leader of so many heroes (Duce di tanti eroi).

Luca Pisaroni singing Duce di tanti eroi

[W]e should remember that Rossini himself considered his Turkish operas so relevant to his own contemporary circumstances that he purposefully made Le siège de Corinthe into a commentary on European affairs in the 1820s.

When Rossini remade Maometto Secondo as Le siège de Corinthe, he transformed it into a musical commentary on current events in the 1820s, the Greek War of Independence then being waged against the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans conquered the Greek lands in the fifteenth century, in the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror, and Greece did not become an independent European country until the beginning of the nineteenth century. If we think about whether we can consider Rossini relevant to our own contemporary encounter with the Muslim Middle East, we should remember that Rossini himself considered his Turkish operas so relevant to his own contemporary circumstances that he purposefully made Le siège de Corinthe into a commentary on European affairs in the 1820s.

Q. Were you driven by history or love of opera to write this book: or is it impossible to say?

A. The initial stimulus that started me working on this project came from current events. I started thinking about this about ten years ago when there was a lot of public discussion about the possibility of Turkey joining the European Union, and along with that discussion came the airing of the question of how to evaluate historically Turkey’s whole relation to Europe. That was what brought me to the question of Turks and how they sounded and appeared in opera, one of the quintessential artistic forms of European civilization. In fact, Turkish figures in European operas are not meant to be simply alien and exotic, but also appear as very fundamentally European. They differed in costume from most Europeans, but the range of emotions that they expressed in operatic music and the range of dramatic scenarios that they enacted on the operatic stage were all recognizably familiar to European publics.

That said, I also came to this project as both an historian and an opera lover. As an historian I’ve been working for the last twenty-five years on questions concerning east and west in Europe, beginning with a book called Inventing Eastern Europe, about how Europeans came to think of Europe as divided between an East and a West, a distinction which emerged most clearly in the eighteenth century, which also happened to be the age of the singing Turk. Inventing Eastern Europe was also the first book in which I tried to write about opera in a limited way, taking on the mock-Albanians in Cosi fan tutte.

I puzzled over the question of how alien those Ottoman Albanians would really have seemed to European publics, and why Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte thought it was a plausible disguise…

I puzzled over the question of how alien those Ottoman Albanians would really have seemed to European publics, and why Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte thought it was a plausible disguise— change of costume, plus fake moustache— for the guys in the opera. I was interested in how close the Albanians really were both to the Austrians in Mozart’s world and especially to the Venetians in Da Ponte’s world. It was the same sort of exotic disguise— different but not too different— that Count Asdrubale would don in Rossini’s La pietra del paragone, then showing that he was familiar with European legal language, even if he bungled some of the terms— most notably “Sigillara”!

I’ve also loved opera my whole life (I was first taken by my parents to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in the old Metropolitan Opera House, when I was only six), and, in writing this book, it was both interesting and challenging for me to try to bring together my scholarly perspective as an historian with my personal love of the musical form. I came away from the project with a much more powerful sense of the ways in which opera was embedded in political history— for instance, Rossini’s complex treatment of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror was decisively shaped by the historical fact that the composer had lived through such a turbulent age of European conquest: the age of Napoleon. The dominant political figure of Rossini’s whole early life— from his childhood until his early twenties as an already acclaimed young composer—was unquestionably Napoleon Bonaparte, who was clearly the inspiration for Rossini’s treatment of a Turkish sultan who aspired to universal conquest.

As an historian, I also came away from this project with the conviction that historians of culture and ideas, like myself, must work with art and music, as well as with literary texts, if we want to have a comprehensive understanding of any moment or issue in European culture.

As an historian, I also came away from this project with the conviction that historians of culture and ideas, like myself, must work with art and music, as well as with literary texts, if we want to have a comprehensive understanding of any moment or issue in European culture. Too often, in universities, art history and music history are simply separate departments, and the History Department (history straight up) somehow feels excused from having to consider the importance of art and music. Finally, I have to say that as an opera-lover I took from this project a renewed appreciation for the depth, complexity, ingenuity, and brilliance of Rossini— as I came to know him through his Turkish operas— more than for any other opera composer who played a role in my research.

Q. Do you have any feeling about present-day sensibilities regarding how the non-European characters in these operas are presented today? From a historical point of view do you think these attitudes are like a pendulum and we are perhaps a turning point to return to a less “touchy” time?

A. The historical Ottoman empire was a huge presence on three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the Ottoman capital of Constantinople/Istanbul is today a city on two continents with a bridge and a ferry system connecting the European and Asian halves of the city— at the center of an empire that extended from Baghdad to Budapest. For these geopolitical reasons, but also for cultural and ethnographic reasons, the interesting thing about operatic Turks is that they can be seen as both European and non-European at the same time, different from “us” in the West, the operatic public, but also closely related to us. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Vienna and Venice, the capital cities of states adjoining the Ottoman empire were also the opera capitals where singing Turk operas emerged and developed. Venice especially was a city in which Turks were a familiar presence in the eighteenth century, and that was partly true all around the Adriatic, which was of course Rossini’s area of origin too.

I feel strongly that opera directors today have to bring across the point that these Turks are not simply exotic figures, but are characters closely related to ourselves.

I feel strongly that opera directors today have to bring across the point that these Turks are not simply exotic figures, but are characters closely related to ourselves. If they are inclined to violence, we should be able to recognize ourselves in them (as Mozart certainly did in the violent rages of his Turkish character Osmin in the Abduction)— but if they are comical, they are no more comical than we are ourselves (and the arrogance, self-importance, rudeness, and sexism of Mustafa Bey were qualities that Rossini well knew were also present in Italian masculinity). I don’t think that present-day sensibilities would stand for truly derogatory representation of Turks— or any Muslim Middle Eastern characters— on the operatic stage today, but I think there is room for us to recognize that the vices, flaws, and foibles of these characters are part of their common humanity, for certainly Westerners are also full of the same vices, flaws, and foibles.

I do think it should be considered a challenge for directors and performers to represent these Turkish characters with musical and dramatic dignity on stage. It should not be so difficult to give dignity to the singing Turks in those rarely performed Rossini operas like Il turco in Italia (Prince Selim is a gloriously irresistible romantic lover) and Le siège de Corinthe (the sultan is one of the great political figures in European history, and both music and text encourage him to reflect sympathetically upon the nature of his own power and its personal costs to himself). I also think, however, that it’s much more difficult to do justice to the more frequently performed role of Mustafa Bey in L’italiana in Algeri or Mozart’s Osmin in the Abduction. These latter roles are often played for crude farce, though Mustafa Bey has a sort of grand Falstaffian sense of himself, and I know a basso in New York who considers it an item of absolute conviction that a large part of Osmin’s role can and should be sung with the utmost dignity.

When Mozart traveled from Vienna to Prague in 1787 for a Prague production of The Marriage of Figaro, he wrote a letter home, in which he assigned new identities to himself and his friends, as he entered into the linguistically Slavic world of the Czech lands. “I am Punkitititi,” wrote Mozart, with consummate silliness. “Now farewell, dearest friend, dearest Hikkiti Horky! That is your name, as you must know. We all invented names for ourselves on the journey. Here they are: I am Punkitititi. My wife is Schabla Pumfa. Hofer is Rozka Pumpa. Stadler is Notschibikitschibi. My servant Joseph is Sagadarata. My dog Goukerl is Schomanntzky. Madame Quallenberg is Runzifunzi. Mlle. Crux is Rambo Schurimuri. Freistädtler is Gaulimauli. Be so kind so as to tell him his name.” Mozart even composed a nonsense musical piece—“Lieber Freistädtler, lieber Gaulimauli”— celebrating one of the new names. No one would have appreciated this spirit of dramatic and musical comedy better than Rossini. No one would have better understood why Mozart thought it was both fun and funny to assume a new name and a new identity when he traveled into somewhat unfamiliar territory and heard an unfamiliar language being spoken.

I think that it makes sense to bring this perspective to bear on Rossini’s Turkish scenarios and Turkish characters; contemporary productions have to allow us to inhabit the Turkish identities (in the same way that Count Asdrubale pretends to be a Turk in La pietra del paragone), because it’s stimulating for us in somewhat unpredictable ways, compelling us to think about who we are and how we relate to the world, and how the world relates to us. “Bella Italia, alfin ti miro!” sings Prince Selim, when he appears on stage and greets the whole peninsula: “Beautiful Italy, at last I gaze upon you!” Rossini encouraged the Italian public at La Scala in 1814 to imagine the beauty of Italy as it would appear in the eyes of a wandering Turk.

Cecilia Bartoli & Ruggero Raimondi singing Bella Italia, alfin ti miro!

Mozart in the Abduction and Rossini in L’italiana in Algeri offer us operas about piracy, captivity, and harem conditions that could be very crudely described as sexual slavery— and at the same time they ask us to receive these works in the light-hearted spirit of musical comedy, as the scenario moves toward its inevitably happy ending. Since we live in a world where such terrible conditions really do exist—the United Nations calls it human trafficking— it is a challenge for anyone producing these operas to find a way to try to balance the uncomfortable aspects of the scenario with the comedy that is implicit in the musical and dramatic treatment. Especially at the contemporary moment when relations between the West and the Islamic world are fraught with political and cultural tensions I think we should expect that the production of Rossini’s Turkish operas is going to continue to attract some controversy, even as artists and directors think deeply about how to find the right way to convey the difficult intricacies of Rossini’s genius.

Q. In addition to being a writer, you are a professor of history and director of the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU. Would you explain how it is possible to combine all these responsibilities and still have time to go to the opera?

Life without music would be a sad thing, and I think I’m not the only person who would feel that it’s worth crowding some of the aspects of your life in order to make time for music…

A. Life without music would be a sad thing, and I think I’m not the only person who would feel that it’s worth crowding some of the aspects of your life in order to make time for music— in my case opera, classical concerts, and musical theater. I also play the piano, though not as much and as often as I’d like to. I’ve already mentioned that my parents took me to the opera for the first time when I was six, and I’ve also tried to combine family life and musical life; I started taking my own children to the opera at very young ages. (And they were all introduced to Rossini very very young with Bugs Bunny in “The Rabbit of Seville.”) I just mean that opera doesn’t have to take away time from your family life.

Similarly, I’ve found that opera complements my academic interests in cultural history and even my administrative responsibilities at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. Honestly, without that particular academic affiliation, I’m not sure I would have appreciated how intensely Mediterranean Rosssini’s Turkish scenarios are. And Pesaro, of course, reminds us that Rossini grew up looking out at the Mediterranean, in fact, looking east in the direction of the Ottoman empire. The encounter between Christian Europe and the Ottoman empire occurred very largely across and upon the Mediterranean, and Rossini was well aware of that. L’italiana in Algeri is all about the heroine arriving by sea following a shipwreck. Il turco in Italia reverses the direction and has the Turk arrive by sea in Italy: “Bella Italia!” And both of those operas end with a choral separation. The Italians set sail to return to Italy in L’italiana in Algeri — with even Mustafa wishing them well in the end. And the Turks set sail to return to Turkey at the end of Il turco in Italia, as if the wonderful fantasy of the Turkish-Italian encounter was too delicate to sustain, as if Turks and Italians must always, ultimately, return to their respective shores of the Mediterranean and preserve their cultural distance. This is an interesting conception to contemplate today when the Mediterranean is the site of a huge refugee crisis of impoverished people attempting to cross the sea from Africa to Italy and somehow enter the lands of the European Union with its better economic opportunities. Can we imagine Prince Selim as a refugee?

Remember also that when Rossini wrote the Siege of Corinth, setting his opera in Greece, he was writing about a Greek world that was closely linked to the Italian world by the Mediterranean Sea. When Rossini was a child in Pesaro, Ottoman Greece lay just across and along the Adriatic Sea, the arm of the Mediterranean Sea that Rossini would have seen every day. Mediterranean studies is certainly one of the disciplines that has something to offer for thinking about Rossini and his mental map of the world, as seen from Pesaro, which also shaped his operatic scenarios. I consider myself very lucky to be able to combine my academic interests with my passion for the opera.

Q. Finally, what ideas would you like people to think about after having read your book, or before, if they have not yet had the opportunity to do so.

Fillippo Galli

A. First, Rossini worked with several different librettists on his Turkish operas, but always with the same basso who created the four principal Italian roles of Rossini’s singing Turks. The Roman singer Filippo Galli was first Count Asdrubale in La pietra del paragone, disguising himself as a Turk; then Mustafa Bey in L’italiana in Algeri; next Prince Selim in Il turco in Italia; and finally Sultan Maometto in Maometto Secondo. (He did not create the French role of Mahomet, when Rossini recomposed Maometto Secondo as Le Siège de Corinthe for Paris.) He played his Turkish roles in several Italian opera houses, was celebrated in Venice, Milan, and Naples, and was known for his particular skill at representing Turkishness through the richness of his basso voice. I want to emphasize that, dating back to Mozart’s generation, Turkish roles were almost always basso roles (think of Mozart’s Osmin) and that this was not a simple coincidence, but was related to assumptions about the hyper-masculinity of these Turkish figures— whether the exaggerated and farcical masculinity being satirized in the figure of Mustafa Bey, or the military and charismatic masculinity of Sultan Maometto the great conqueror.

Rossini and Galli created these roles together, and portraits of Galli suggest some of his own Mediterranean masculine charisma, representing a dark complexion and sometimes even showing the chest hair at his open collar. He also created the hyper-masculine role of Enrico or Henry the Eighth for Donizetti in Anna Bolena.

Second, Rossini was one of the last European composers to make use of the Turkish percussion instruments of the “Janissary band.” The Ottoman army was accompanied by a musical band whose heavy percussion was supposed to inspire the troops and terrify the enemy, and during the eighteenth century European courts brought Ottoman military bands to such capitals as Dresden, Vienna, and Berlin. Several important European composers— Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart, most notably— began to use Turkish percussion in their scores, especially in operas on Turkish subjects. Mozart wrote special lines for triangle, bass drum, and cymbals into his score for the Abduction, and sometimes the instrumentalists put on Turkish costumes and performed from the stage. Rossini made use of some of these percussion combinations in L’italiana in Algeri and in Maometto Secondo (appropriately, to accompany the warlike sultan), but gradually Turkish percussion was absorbed into the standard percussion section of the European orchestra. In Paris in the 1820s critics disapproved of Rossini’s loud percussion effects, and he was caricatured as “Signor Tambourossini,” playing a drum, creating an exceptional amount of musical noise, and wearing baggy pants and a turban that made Rossini himself into a Turk!

Third, Rossini’s whole musical career was shaped by the rise and fall of Napoleon, and his Turkish operas reflect this very clearly. The idea of an Italian girl in Algiers, making a conquest of the Bey and his court, was a comical echo of Napoleon’s trans-Mediterranean Egyptian campaign of 1798, when a French army conquered Cairo. The Turk in Italy, singing “Bella Italia!” in 1814, was reflecting on an Italy that had been nationally mobilized by Napoleon and made into the Kingdom of Italy. In 1814 the Napoleonic enterprise, along with the Kingdom of Italy, was collapsing, and Italians were profoundly uncertain about their political future. It was certainly reassuring at that anxious moment to have a singing Turk appear on stage and salute Italy as “Bella Italia.” Finally, making an opera in 1820 out of the history of Mehmed the Conqueror, pursuing a Holy War to become the conqueror of the world, would have been unthinkable without the precedent of Napoleon’s own recent attempt to conquer all of Europe and make himself the master of the continent. Maometto Secondo— like Le siège de Corinthe—is a musical commentary on the power and charisma of great conquerors, and Rossini’s early life was lived in the shadow of just such a charismatic conqueror, the Emperor Napoleon. All of Rossini’s contemporaries would have recognized the history of Napoleon lying behind the opera of Maometto.

Fourth, Rossini really did believe that Turks and Italians were close Mediterranean kin. In Il turco in Italia, Rossini gave Prince Selim and the soprano Fiorilla a brilliant short duet written on two lines of text. She sings “In Italia certamente non si fa l’amor cosi” (In Italy certainly one does not make love like that). And he sings “In Turchia sicuramente non si fa l’amor cosi” (In Turkey definitely one does not make love like that). But Rossini’s music for the two of them, as they finish one another’s musical lines, and rival one another’s ornamentations, shows very clearly that they are musically perfectly compatible, that the two of them, the Turkish man and the Italian woman, make love in exactly the same way!

Maria Callas singing In Italia certamente non si fa l’amor cosi

Professor Wolff’s book “The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage” can be purchased online at Stanford University Press, Amazon.com, and at fine bookshops.

Thank you, Professor Wolff for your time and contribution!


Professor Wolff will be at the Rossini Opera Festival from August 18-22. If you come to the Friends & Amici reception area before the Siege on the 19th, you may get a chance to chat with him! See you there!