Director Wajdi Mouawad and revival director Valérie Nègre compare notes during a rehearsal break.

If I have a unique perspective to bring to Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, it is the fact that I have been shaped equally by Eastern and Western culture, and, as a result, I’m incapable of condemning one civilization at the expense of the other.

It is not difficult to see that an 18th-century comedy about European women kidnapped by Turkish Muslims might appear, in 2018, as an exercise in caricature, or casual racism. Even more brutally, it could constitute an argument for the wholesale rejection of Islam and the East, thereby falling into larger patterns of Islamophobia in the West which would have us blame all our problems on the threat of an undifferentiated “Arabic” Other.

The challenge, then, is to enter an opera that was composed at a moment when European culture was held up as the ultimate source of truth, goodness, and beauty: Osmin is irredeemably appalling, on this view, because he is a Muslim. Bassa Selim is a “good Muslim,” not because there are positive qualities in Islam, but because he has been elevated by the principles of the Enlightenment and his contact with European education. Everything that makes him barbaric and malicious, on the other hand, remains exclusively the provenance of his Muslim identity.

So when I agreed to direct this project, it was critical for me that I would be able to approach the text in a new way and see a different point of view on these issues. Because I’m a writer, I think through writing, and I have placed a great deal of importance on reworking the spoken dialogues in a way that honours the complexity of actual people rather than advancing untenable, and possibly dangerous, clichés.

Indeed, my first goal has been to take the individual situations and feelings of all the characters in this opera very seriously. Regardless of their gender, geography, or religion, all of them are capable of great love. They all fear that love might be withheld from them or that they will be misunderstood. And they are all in an impossible situation.

To go even deeper, however, I chose to ask myself the question of what happens “after.” What happens once Belmonte, Konstanze, Blonde, and Pedrillo return to their homeland? How will they resume their lives after a period of captivity and separation that has so completely transformed their relationships?

To address this, we have created two narrative timelines: the present and the past. The present unfolds during a party in a ballroom celebrating Konstanze and Blonde’s homecoming to Europe. The past is the characters’ rendering of what they experienced in the East, as relived during the party. This effectively makes the opera a flashback and introduces a new dimension to everything that has happened, including the radical possibility that there is something worth loving in Bassa Selim’s culture; that there might be a basis, in the East, for a freedom that challenges the dominance of Western masculinity; and that the women in this opera might represent the most enlightened characters of all.

Wajdi Mouawad

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