Mauro Peter was just 17 when he performed in a staged musical with his boys’ choir in his hometown of Lucerne, Switzerland. That was the moment when he knew performing onstage was the path he wanted to take. He chose to sing opera.
‘I thought, that’s me, that’s my voice,” says the tenor, who is making his North American debut as Belmonte in Mozart’s German-language opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio” with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.
Peter was also fascinated by the potential of the human voice to fill a concert hall without a microphone. This requires an athlete’s stamina, however, which he says involves both physical and mental aspects.
“We really have to know our body, we have to know our voice,” he says. “I’m using my instrument right now; I cannot put it in a case somewhere and close it and then tune it. But that’s an interesting part of the job, too.”
The young tenor also loves the continuous learning process in his profession. “You always learn, you always improve, you always go one step further,” he says.
His budding career has taken him to leading European opera houses and concert halls, including the famed La Scala theatre in Milan and the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden.
For Peter, a lyric tenor whose main focus has been Mozart operas as well as songs by Schumann and Schubert for the concert stage, being able to sing in German, his mother tongue, in “The Abduction from the Seraglio” is particularly special.
“For me, it’s my culture. I’m Swiss but German-speaking. It’s very profound to my heart, and I also see the beauty in the German language,” he says, noting German can be very tender, not rough and guttural as sometimes depicted in American skits or films (often in scenes associated with the Nazis).
He notes that singing in his native tongue is also an opportunity to share the rich heritage of the German culture, which has produced great musical and literary masterpieces.
A Musical Abduction
“The Abduction from the Seraglio” premiered in 1782 at Vienna’s Burgtheater (the Imperial Court Theatre) with Mozart conducting and Austrian Emperor Joseph II in attendance. The opera, which played on the relationship between Europeans and Turks both in story and musical themes (it featured Turkish instruments such as cymbals, triangles, and piccolos), was an instant hit and became Mozart’s most popular composition during his lifetime.
Today, it has been upstaged by some of his other works such as “The Magic Flute,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” and “Don Giovanni,” but “The Abduction” nonetheless contains many musical gems and remains very popular, particularly in Europe.
The story takes place at the court of a Turkish ruler, Bassa Selim, who has purchased from pirates three Europeans to be used as slaves: the Spanish noblewoman Konstanze, her British servant Blonde, and Blonde’s fiancé, Pedrillo. Two years later, Belmonte, a young nobleman, comes to save his beloved Konstanze, and the opera’s adventures commence.
“The Abduction” is part of the Singspiel genre, an 18th century lighthearted German opera with spoken dialogue. The opera is comedic in nature and plays on the attributes of the different characters—the courageous but proud Belmonte, the cunning servant Pedrillo, the independent-minded Blonde, and the devoted Konstanze. It also comments on their relationships, and the interaction between the Turkish and European cultures.
The opera draws on both cultural stereotypes and the depth of human nature. In particular, Bassa Selim’s gesture of releasing the young people at the end demonstrates great humanity, and everyone rejoices in and celebrates his noble character.
“Nothing is as loathsome as revenge/But to be humane and kind/And to forgive without self-interest/Only a great soul is capable of that,” sing the two couples in a proclamation of gratitude toward their former captor.
The COC production (a co-production with Opéra de Lyons) is directed by Lebanese-Canadian Wajdi Mouawad who set out to bring a more contemporary approach to the opera, making it less a lighthearted comedy and more a reflection on the deeper impact of captivity on the characters. In the director’s note, Mouawad indicates he wanted to present a more nuanced expression of their emotions and relationships—less stereotypes and more reflection. To that end, he rewrote some of the libretto’s dialogue and also added a second narrative timeline.
Peter says he enjoys the opportunity for deeper introspection that this production offers, both in terms of the relationships between the different cultures and the different characters, while also being thoughtful with the music.
“Opera is also there to sometimes challenge our opinions or our views. It’s not only about dressing well and going to have a champagne,” he says.
“The Abduction from the Seraglio” contains some of Mozart’s most glorious music, a joyous expression of the human soul.
“What strikes me most is that he can open up new worlds with the simplest lines—that’s so great about Mozart,” says Peter. “Harmonically it’s not so complicated, but it’s beautiful. Other composers have made something great too, but the way he composes is completely another sphere.”
“What he makes out of it is like heaven sometimes … I cannot describe it. Why do you get goosebumps? It’s the same feeling. … I’m very touched by it.”
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” runs until Feb. 24 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. For more details, visit: www.coc.ca