Guest Poster: Kim Witman

Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera Company is celebrating today’s announcement of the WTOC 2010 season by doing guest blog posts and interviews in a few places across the blogosphere. I was intrigued by the idea of a virtual season announcement across the blogosphere so I agreed to host one of her articles.

Each participating blog will have a piece on a different subject so you will have to “collect them all” to get the full picture of the Wolftrap Opera Company season.  Check  Kim’s blog at www.wolftrapopera.blogspot.com for a complete list – all of the links should be active by midday on Tuesday, February 9.

You Decide How it Ends

We’re always looking for hooks, aren’t we?  Flashy, attention-grabbing ways to get folks’ attention.  So I know you won’t believe me when I say that the original motivation for this summer’s Zaide production was not marketing-based.

You see, Mozart didn’t finish Zaide.  He wasn’t writing it on commission, and he started it on his own when he was in between jobs.  A real commission with a paycheck was offered (for Idomeneo), and he had to go where the money was.  So Zaide was put aside, and he never got back to it.  To complicate matters, the point at which he broke off writing it gives no clear indication of what the ending might be.

The setup is pretty simple.  The hero (Gomatz) and heroine (Zaide) are prisoners who fall in love.  The other characters are the Sultan who’s holding them captive (and who has his sights on the beautiful Zaide), and two guards (Osmin, who is essentially evil; and Allazim, who takes pity on the young couple).   Gomatz and Zaide escape, with the help of the sympathetic guard.  They are recaptured by the other guard, and the Sultan condemns them to death.  And that’s where Mozart stopped.

The source material for the story is from an older libretto titled Das Serail, itself probably derived from Voltaire’s play Zaïre.  And here’s how Das Serail ends:  The Sultan discovers that 1) the kindly guard once saved his life, and that 2) Allazim is the father of… you guessed it… Gomatz and Zaide, who are brother and sister.

Well, this is a century before the opera world took on Siegmund and Sieglinde.  And although there’s plenty of precedent in mythology and literature for addressing incest, the fact that Mozart quit at this point is a bit of a conundrum.  Probably coincidental, possibly not.

Zaide is a Singspiel, an informal entertainment which doesn’t aspire to be “high opera.”  It isn’t a comedy, but there’s every reason to believe that it would have aspired to a happy ending.  (Witness what happened to Don Giovanni a few years later, where a happy ending was essentially grafted on.)  Would Mozart have gone on to make his dictator benevolent?  Would the Sultan’s actions be a prototype for Tito’s clemency?  And if so, would the impetus for his forgiveness have included a discovery that encompassed the specter of incest?

We’ve talked about doing this opera literally for decades.  Director James Marvel feels that the best way to present it would be to allow uncertainty to take a place at the table.  We will prepare at least two endings (maybe three), and during the intermission of each performance, the audience will vote on how they would like the opera to end.

When we came to that solution, I didn’t hesitate to embrace it on other levels.  As a producer, I am eager for our audience to have an investment in the performance, to interact with the opera in a different way.  The choose-your-own-ending aspect of our production will make its way into our web and printed materials, and if it engages some folks who might otherwise not be interested, I shall not complain.  But what I’m happiest about is that the device first emerged from our approach to the challenges of this beautiful yet problematic opera.

(Zaide will be performed on June 11, 13, 15 & 19, 2010)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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