Italian Opera in Vienna

Though we often hear about globalization as being a trademark of the contemporary world, cosmopolitan musical culture was no stranger to 18th-century Vienna. The Habsburg court, which oversaw the sprawling Austro-Hungarian empire, was multilingual, and for most of the century, upper-class Viennese audiences could take their pick between French and Italian opera performances at the court. German-language operas (or “Singspiele”), meanwhile, were shunted to the side.

In 1770, however, the imperial court discontinued the performance of French operas and ballets, citing the enormous expenses needed for their production. In 1778, Emperor Joseph II introduced the Nationalsingspiel, a project that promoted the German Singspiel, as part of an effort to unify the German-speaking nation. It initially seemed that the Nationalsingspiel had sounded the death knell for Italian opera in Vienna as well. But after witnessing the success of an Italian performance directed by the impresario Giuseppe Bustelli in 1779, Joseph II reappointed an Italian operatic troupe to the Viennese court. Two years later, he hired Lorenzo Da Ponte as the troupe’s chief librettist.

In other words, opera in Mozart’s Vienna was much like it is today: Composers, librettists, and impresarios negotiated a landscape of shifting fi nancial and political demands—responding to the evolving tastes of both audiences and individual patrons. The repertoire of Joseph’s court theater, named the Burgtheater (“Castle Theater”), testifies to these shifting operatic preferences. In 1782, Mozart’s German Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail was written specifically for this theater. Just a few years later, the theater hosted the premieres of his Italian opere buffe Le Nozze di Figaro (1786) and Così fan tutte (1790), as well as the first performance of Don Giovanni in Vienna (1788), while Mozart’s final Singspiel, Die Zauberflöte (1791), premiered at the independent Theater auf der Wieden.