Opera at the Court of Frederick the Great: Montezuma as Royal Autobiography


February 5, 2010 - 3:00pm

Visiting Professor of Musicology John Rice will give a lecture titled "Opera at the Court of Frederick the Great: Montezuma as Royal Autobiography."

Few eighteenth-century rulers dominated the operatic life of their capitals more thoroughly than Frederick the Great, king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. He gave to Italian serious opera the same intense attention that he gave to playing the flute, building up his army, and leading it in the field. He supervised the engagement of singers and the preparation of librettos (in several cases writing a draft of the libretto himself in French), scenery and costumes.

Carl Heinrich Graun composed most of the operas performed in Berlin's Royal Theater. Graun gave Frederick what he wanted: dramatic music in the style to which he had become accustomed as a child and a young man—in other words, the galant style as cultivated, above all, by Hasse in the 1720s and 1730s. Graun, moreover, was willing to work with Frederick, incorporating the king's musical suggestions, rewriting or replacing arias, even (in a few cases) replacing his own arias with those written by the king.

Graun's Montezuma, first performed in January 1755, is among the finest and most interesting Frederician opera. Neither the first nor the last opera to depict Cortés's conquest of Mexico, Montezuma presents a particularly striking interpretation of the events. Giampietro Tagliazucchi based the libretto on a sketch in French prose by Frederick. Onto a dramatic framework largely derived from Voltaire’s play Alzire, the king projected his own ideas—especially ideas about religion—and his own family history.

John A. Rice, Visiting Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh, studied music history at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D., 1987). He has taught at the University of Washington, Colby College, the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Alabama (Endowed Chair in Music, November 2005). His books include Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera (1998, winner of the Kinkeldey Award from the American Musicological Society) and Mozart on the Stage (2009). He is a member of the Akademie für Mozart-Forschung in Salzburg.


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