In a strange coincidence with current politics, LA Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Abduction From The Seraglio was premiered on January 28. On the same day of the premiere, Donald Trump closed America’s borders to refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. In the opera, the hero Belmonte travels from Paris to Istanbul to rescue his fiancee from the Ottoman ruler Pasha Selim. When the Christian West meets the Muslim East through the Orient Express, the two cultures collide in a series of comedic episodes. The setting of the opera on a moving train symbolizes the changing interactions between the East and the West.
The Turkish monarch Pasha Selim and his servant Osmin are perhaps the most interesting pair of characters. Somewhat surprisingly, Pasha Selim, the central ‘villain’ of the story, is a spoken role without any singing parts. With Mozart’s genius design, Pasha’s character is developed by the others’ musical response to him, rather than by his own voice. Meanwhile, Bass Morris Robinson’s sonorous and resonant voice suits Osmin’s vulgar personality very well. Morris Robinson is one the most sought after basses performing today, with acclaimed appearance in The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly, Salome, and others. His voice is a highlight of LA Opera’s production of The Abduction From The Seraglio.
Although the opera as a whole is under the influence of 18th-century Orientalism, Pasha and Osmin are far more complex than conventional stereotypes. Despite being in a powerful position, Pasha is determined to win the love of his abducted woman Konstanze (Belmonte’s fiancee) without force by being a gentleman. It is very natural for the audience to sympathize with the soft-hearted Pasha, who perhaps represents Mozart’s humanist vision of the Muslim West. Meanwhile, his servant Osmin is a barbaric terrorist who tortures Belmonte and teases Konstanze’s maid, but a funny terrorist, not a scary one. Mozart presents the conflicts between the East and the West lightheartedly with comedy, sending a message that humor transcends the difference between the two cultures. At the end of the opera, Pasha forgives Belmonte with his genuine benevolence and lets go of the family feud. There is a lesson of Islamic compassion in the happy ending, which might be too good to be true for our current affairs today.