Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Larry Wolff's "The Singing Turk"

Larry Wolff is professor of European history at NYU, and director of the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. His research focuses on Central and Eastern Europe, and his books include Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Venice and the Slavs: The Discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment, Postcards from the End of the World: Child Abuse in Freud’s Vienna, and The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture.

Wolff applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon, and reported the following:
On page 99, I quote a letter of 1774 from Mozart (age 18) to his sister Nannerl, whimsically alluding to famous figures from Ottoman Turkish history: “Please give my compliments to Roxelana, she is probably going to have tea this evening with the Sultan.” Roxelana— known in Turkish as Hürrem Sultan— was the harem favorite of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century, and, because of her influence over the sultan, was certainly the most powerful woman in the Ottoman empire at that time. She is supposed to have had glamorously red hair (as featured in a recent Turkish television series) which helped to inspire the sultan’s infatuation. Roxelana’s reputation as an enchantress persisted all around Europe even into the eighteenth century when Mozart wrote his letter, and he was certainly referencing the fact that Roxelana had recently become a familiar figure on the operatic stage, represented in some of the hundreds of eighteenth-century operas that featured Turkish scenarios and Turkish characters.

In my book I’ve attempted to recover the breadth and depth of this mostly forgotten operatic repertory (the best remembered is Mozart’s own Turkish masterpiece, The Abduction from the Seraglio), and to try to understand exactly what the figure of the singing Turk meant to the eighteenth-century European public that assembled in opera houses from Paris to Venice to Vienna. In particular, I discuss how the figure of a despotic sultan (like Suleiman) became the focus for exploring the political meaning of absolutism in Europe, and how the extreme emotions that were attributed to singing Turks reflected European concerns with self-restraint and civilized conduct.

Roxelana became an operatic sensation in 1761, when the musical comedy The Three Sultanas was staged in Paris, created by Charles-Simon Favart as a vehicle for his own wife Marie-Justine Favart to dress in Turkish costume, play the harp, and sing the role of Roxelana. The completely ahistorical premise of this work was that Roxelana was a Frenchwoman (the real Roxelana originated in Ukraine)— taken captive by pirates and sold into the harem of the sultan. She then, over the course of the comedy, triumphantly wins the favor of Suleiman (competing with the rival harem sultanas), marries him as his proper wife, and introduces civilized French reforms into the Ottoman empire. The comedy thus became a kind of vindication of French civilization in the age of Louis XV, while the figure of Roxelana may have been meant to allude to his most famous mistress Madame Pompadour.

The scenario of The Three Sultanas was such a huge success that it traveled all over the European continent, in different languages and versions, from Venice to Vienna, to Budapest and Berlin, to Copenhagen and Stockholm. Page 99 of my book describes the work’s arrival in London in 1775 under the prurient title The Sultan, or a Peep into the Seraglio, now presenting Roxelana as an Englishwoman in the Ottoman harem. The operas about Turks which were constantly performed on European stages across the eighteenth century offer an unexpected avenue of insight into the cultural encounter of Europe with the Muslim world as mediated by the compelling figure of the singing Turk.
Learn more about The Singing Turk at the Stanford University Press website, and visit Larry Wolff's NYU faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: The Idea of Galicia.

--Marshal Zeringue