Updated: Jun 10, 2020
The distance of time which separates us from a lot of the music we love can make us forget that the people who wrote and performed it were, like us, real people. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, was a real person. He lived and breathed and ate and slept. He fell in love, he experienced sadness, he had arguments and he went out for a night on the town with his mates.
The people he worked with and for whom he wrote his miraculous music were real people too. In this post I want to talk about some of the sopranos for whom Mozart wrote some of the most beautiful music ever conceived. Far from being just people who sang in opera companies, the women (and men) for whom Mozart wrote some of his soprano parts were in some case closely connected with him, and many of them had extraordinary careers. They were among the luckiest people in the whole of western music; they knew Mozart and he wrote music for them.
One of the most remarkable sopranos for whom Mozart wrote was the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. Born in 1747, Rauzzini sang the role of Cecilio in Mozart’s Lucio Silla in Milan in December 1772. Mozart was required by the terms of his contract to compose the arias in consultation with the singers - a common practice at the time - and the role with which Rauzzini was presented is a glorious one. This aria near the start of the second act will give an indication of the power and range of his voice. It’s probably worth noting that at the time of the opera’s premiere Rauzzini was only 25. Mozart, on the other hand, was just 16. The singer in this recording of Quest’ improvviso trèmito is Cecilia Bartoli. [listen]
Lucio Silla is not among Mozart’s better-known works these days and it’s not performed anywhere near as often as his later operas. However less than a month after the opera’s premiere, Rauzzini sang another work by Mozart which is among his most popular and most frequently-heard today, the motet Exsultate jubilate. First performed in Milan’s Theatine Church in January 1773, Exsultate jubilate is a virtuoso showpiece - a vocal concerto, really - which shows that Rauzzini’s voice was not only powerful but also agile. We’ll hear the final movement of the motet sung by Sylvia McNair. [listen]
It is difficult for us these days to imagine this music being sung by an adult male, so removed are we from the world of the castrati. However Rauzzini (who went on to have a career as a concert manager in England) was not the only castrato soprano for whom Mozart composed. Even in La Clemenza di Tito, which he wrote in the months before his death in 1791, one of the singers (Domenico Bedini, who sang Sesto) was a castrato, although by then the concept of castrating boys before puberty to keep their unbroken voice range in adulthood was, thankfully, starting to become old-fashioned and frowned upon.
The majority of the sopranos for whom Mozart composed in his operas were, of course, women. In Munich in 1781 Mozart premiered the opera which nowadays is regarded as the first of his “mature” operas (although the concept of “mature” Mozart is a relative one for a composer who died when he was 35). Idomeneo took the world of Italian opera and stood it on its head, breathing new life, power and reality into what was already becoming a dull artform. In the cast for the premiere were two sopranos with the same surname, Dorotea Wendling and Elisabeth Augusta Wendling, who took the roles of Ilia and Elettra respectively.
Dorotea Wendling (neé Spurni) was the wife of one of Mozart’s Mannheim colleagues, the flautist Johann Baptist Wendling. In addition to Ilia in Idomeneo, Dorotea was also the singer for whom Mozart wrote the concert aria Basta vincesti, K486a. At the time of creating the role of Ilia, Dorotea was in her mid-40s and she must have adored having such beautiful music written for her. The part is lyrical, intense and personal, without the need for flamboyant virtuosic display. Her act one aria is sung here by Lisa Milne. [listen]
The other Wendling who sang in Idomeneo was Elisabeth Augusta Wendling (neé Sarselli), who was Dorotea’s sister-in-law. She was the wife of Johann Baptist Wendling’s brother, the violinist Franz Anton Wendling. Elisabeth was employed at the Mannheim court and in 1778 moved to Munich with her husband. This gave her the opportunity to sing Elettra (“Electra” in English) in Mozart’s masterpiece. The role shows that her voice was completely different to that of her sister-in-law. Elettra requires a singer with great power and virtuosity, as befits the character. The soprano in this recording of Elletra’s Tutte nel cor vi sento is Hillevi Martinpelto. [listen]
One of those fascinating bits of music history trivia arises in connection with the two Wendling sopranos who sang in Idomeneo. Dorotea Wendling had a daughter who was also a singer (and for whom Mozart wrote a couple of songs). Her name was the same as that of her aunt - Elisabeth Augusta. And the Elisabeth Augusta who sang in Idomeneo likewise had a daughter who was a singer. And you guessed it, her name was Dorotea.
From 1781 - for what would be the final decade of his life - Mozart was based in Vienna. One his first major commissions was the composition of an opera in German for the new national theatre established by Emperor Joseph II. This opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), provided a star vehicle for one of the most famous sopranos of the day, Caterina Cavalieri.
Cavalieri’s career was equally illustrious in both comic and serious roles, in both Italian and German. Despite her Italian name, she was in fact Austrian born and bred; she Italianised her original German name of Franziska Kavalier. She was a pupil and protégé - and some also say mistress - of the Imperial court composer Antonio Salieri; it was to ingratiate himself with Salieri (and by extension the Emperor) that Mozart wrote for Cavalieri the stunning role of Constanze in Die Entführung.
Cavalieri was renowned for the extended upper and lower range of her voice, and her coloratura flexibility was also famous. Mozart wrote to his father that he had sacrificed some of his better judgement in writing to suit Cavalieri’s “flexible throat”. The famous - and massive - aria for Constanze in act two (Martern aller Arten) is well-known for its huge demands on the singer [listen], but this tends to overshadow the sustained requirements of the entire role for any soprano who would step into Cavalieri’s shoes today. This is her aria from act one, sung by Diana Damrau. [listen]
The voice of Caterina Cavalieri was one of those for whom Mozart wrote four years later when he conceived his comic miniature Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario). In this, Cavalieri sang the role of Mademoiselle Silberklang (Miss Silvertone), and in later years she went on to sing some of Mozart’s greatest roles, which he adapted for her. For the first Viennese performances of Don Giovanni in 1788 (six months after it was premiered in Prague), Cavalieri sang Donna Elvira, and it was for these performances that Elvira’s famous aria Mi tradi was composed. And when The Marriage of Figaro was revived in 1789, Cavalieri sang the Countess, a piece of casting for which Mozart revised the aria Dove sono into more of a show stopper. (This revision is almost never used today as the original version, with its more tender atmosphere, is regarded as superior to the more flashy version composed for Cavalieri.)
The other soprano who sang in Der Schauspieldirektor in 1786 played a much greater role in Mozart’s life. Her name was Aloysia Lange (neé Weber). Mozart met her in Mannheim in late 1777 when he and his mother were en route to Paris. Aloysia was at that stage about 17 and living in Mannheim with her parents and sister; the 21 year old Mozart fell very seriously in love with her. She was already an accomplished singer and from this initial meeting came Mozart’s concert aria K294, one of the works which give a very clear indication of what Aloysia’s voice must have been like. It’s a substantial work, and very demanding on the singer. The soprano here (with the score in the video) is Lucia Popp. [listen]
Mozart’s connection with the Weber family had only just begun. His disastrous six months in Paris in 1778 (during which his mother died) saw him constantly thinking of Aloysia. They corresponded on musical matters, and in his letters to his father Leopold, the besotted Mozart kept dropping hints about the woman with whom he was in love. Leopold was far from approving but this didn’t deter Mozart seeking out the Webers on his return to Salzburg from Paris. By this time they had left Mannheim and were living in Munich. When he caught up with them, at Christmas 1778, it was clear Aloysia was not interested in any sort of romantic liaison with Mozart. He was devastated but put a brave face on the situation.
The following year Aloysia was engaged as a soprano to the main court theatre in Vienna and it was there she met the painter and actor Joseph Lange, whom she eventually married. (Lange painted the portrait of Mozart near the start of this post.) The whole family had moved to Vienna and when Mozart himself moved there in 1781 he initially lodged in the Webers’ house. By that stage Aloysia’s career was developing well, and the emotional mix for Mozart would have been complicated by the fact that Aloysia and Lange also lived in the house, and at that time Aloysia was in the final stages of her first pregnancy. In any case Mozart continued to collaborate professionally with Aloysia long after he had fallen in love with - and married - her younger sister Constanze.
Aloysia Lange’s voice was renowned for its range, and especially the high notes which Mozart included frequently in his music for her. It’s also clear that Mozart went to great pains to make sure the orchestral accompaniments would not be too loud for her when she wasn’t singing at the top of her range. In 1785, Mozart’s father wrote the following description of her voice:
It can scarcely be denied that she sings with the greatest expression: only now I understand why some persons I frequently asked would say that she has a very weak voice, while others said she has a very loud voice. Both are true. The held notes and all expressive notes are astonishingly loud; the tender moments, the passage-work and embellishments, and high notes are very delicate, so that for my taste the one contrasts too strongly with the other. In an ordinary room the loud notes assault the ear, while in the theatre the delicate passages demand a great attentiveness and stillness on the part of the audience.
The following year, 1786, was the year in which Aloysia sang the other main role in Der Schauspieldirektor. As Madame Herz (Madam Heart), she characterised the more expressive side of the diva’s art. Here is her by set piece sung by Magda Nador. [listen]
Another contemporary who heard her, the Viennese dramatist Gebler, said of Aloysia that she was “a splendid singer with a tone and an expression that goes to the heart, an extraordinary upper range...” Mozart, for his part, went on to work with her as her career had several ups and downs. There was a famous rivalry in Vienna between Aloysia and Caterina Cavalieri. In the late 1780s, when Mozart’s Entführung was revived, Aloysia took on the role of Constanze which had been written for Cavalieri. She also sang Donna Anna in the Viennese premiere of Don Giovanni (Cavalieri was Donna Elvira). Mozart wrote other arias for her as well (initially composed to be inserted into other composers’ operas but now sung as concert works; they’re generally referred to today as “concert arias”), all of which attest to Aloysia’s extraordinary voice as well as Mozart’s unerring ability to compose perfectly for it.
In 1786, the same year as he wrote Der Schauspieldirektor, Mozart composed one of the most enduring masterpieces of all western art, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). This opera saw him composing for no less than five remarkable sopranos in the roles of Susanna, the Countess, Cherubino, Marcellina and Barbarina. Now in listing those five roles like that, some people may wonder at the inclusion of Cherubino and Marcellina, roles which nowadays are often cast with mezzo sopranos. Therein lies a common misunderstanding about Mozart’s vocal casting which I want to briefly address.
In Mozart’s day, the voice category we think of as a mezzo soprano really didn’t exist. One was either a soprano or a contralto. Yet it is very true that there seems to have been very definitely a division of the soprano voice type into two subtypes. For the sake of argument we can call these the first and second soprano. Parts such as Cherubino and Marcellina in Figaro (and those in other operas, like Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Dorabella in Cosí fan tutte) fall into the second soprano type. The second soprano had a slightly lower range at the top than the first soprano but usually wasn’t required to go any lower at the bottom of the range. Furthermore, we know that Mozart conceived of these parts as sopranos because he wrote all his voice parts (as did all composers until the late 19th century) in voice-specific clefs. We know he intended these parts for soprano because he wrote them in the soprano clef (where middle C is on the bottom line), and this is the same clef he used for first soprano parts like Susanna and the Countess.
Modern ears might crave different vocal colour in roles like Marcellina and Cherubino but the fact is Mozart expected them to sound like sopranos, not mezzos. Very often one hears Cherubino, especially, performed by a singer whose voice is too mature and womanly for the characterisation of an adolescent boy. Furthermore, casting a mezzo as Marcellina usually makes her aria in the fourth act of Figaro - a true soprano aria - unsingable, one of the reasons it is almost always cut these days. This is just one of the ways modern operatic practice (to which I confess I am a party, despite my oft-stated preference for sopranos in these roles) works against the sound Mozart probably intended.
In Figaro the role of Susanna was written for Nancy Storace, an English soprano who was barely 21 at the time of the premiere but who already had a huge reputation across Europe as a singing actress of the highest calibre. Her surname is usually pronounced in the English manner [STO-ruhs], but her father was Italian, suggesting that she may have pronounced it [sto-RAH-cheh]. It’s interesting also that in the picture below, her name is given as “Signora Storacce”, which would indicate the Italian pronunciation was used in at least some quarters. In any case, the music written for her by Mozart shows she must have been something rather special as both a singer and as an actress. her shoes are filled here rather beautifully by Rosemary Joshua. [listen]
The role of the Countess in Figaro was created by the Italian soprano Luisa Laschi. She was also probably in her 20s (her exact birth date isn’t known) but was already an established star in Vienna. She also went on to sing Zerlina (yes, Zerlina, not Anna or Elvira) in the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni two years later, but in having the role of the Countess written for her, Laschi can lay claim to having been one of the most privileged of all sopranos of any era. Her music is here sung by Dorothea Röschmann. [listen]
Time doesn’t permit me to cover a lot of the other amazing sopranos for whom Mozart composed, people like Maria Mandini, the first Marcellina, or Dorotea Sardi-Bussani, the first Cherubino (and the first Despina in Cosí). I do want to mention two others, though, who played extraordinary roles in Mozart’s operatic creativity.
The first is a talented girl called Anna Gottlieb. She came from a theatrical family; both her parents were members of the National Theatre and she was one of four sisters who were child actors. In 1786 - at the ripe old age of twelve - she created the role of Barbarina in Mozart’s Figaro. Barbarina is a small role, one which is usually these days given to younger singers at the start of their careers, but it’s a vital role dramatically, especially in the final act. Anna Gottlieb must have been a very talented actor and singer indeed to have brought it off to Mozart’s satisfaction. She opens the fourth act with a short but beautiful little arietta. It’s sung in this recording by Patricia Petibon. [listen]
Not long after singing in this production, Anna was engaged as a singer and actress by the impresario Emanuel Schikaneder at his theatre. This connection brought about perhaps the most astounding achievement in Anna Gottlieb’s life. Schikaneder was a friend of Mozart’s, and he was the author of the libretto for Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Schikaneder created the role of Papageno and hired Anna to create the role of Pamina, one of the most glorious roles Mozart ever wrote. Anna undertook this, the principal female role in the opera, at the age of just seventeen! Her music is here sung by Dorothea Röschmann. [listen]
The Magic Flute contains one of the most famous - some sopranos might say “infamous” - roles in all opera, that of the Queen of the Night. This role brings us back again to the Weber family, as it was written for Josepha Hofer (née Weber), the sister of Aloysia Lange and of Mozart’s wife Constanze - that is, his sister-in-law. The eldest of the four Weber sisters, Josepha had a career which was not as illustrious as that of Aloysia, but she too was famed because of the high notes in her voice, and the agility with which she could use them. Mozart certainly would not have written the Queen of the Night for her unless he knew she could sing it, in the more than two centuries since The Magic Flute’s 1791 premiere, the role has been a challenge to all who would tackle it. One of the most famous interpreters of the role in recent years has been Diana Damrau (a role she retired from her repertoire in 2008). The video of her live performance of the act two aria (opposite Dorothea Röschmann, suitably distressed as Pamina) is justly famous. [listen]
Josepha Hofer’s husband, the musician Franz de Paula Hofer, died in 1796; she remarried the following year. Her second husband was a singer, the baritone Sebastian Meier, who later created the role of Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio.
The story of Mozart’s sopranos is an amazing one, the truly talented and unique singers who inspired him throughout his life to create some of the most memorable, beautiful and powerful music ever conceived for the human voice. And of course there are others we haven’t mentioned - such as the women who created the roles of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni in Prague, and the remarkable sopranos who were the first Fiordiligi and Dorabella in Cosí fan tutte in Vienna - but it’s been instructive to take the glimpse we have at just some of the people behind the composer behind the music.
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2008.