Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: A Child (and a Man!) of the Theater

On this day in 1767 – 252 years ago today – Wolfgang Mozart’s first opera, entitled Apollo and Hyacinthus received its premiere in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg. The composer was 11 years old.

Portrait of Mozart in 1777
Mozart in 1777. Mozart’s father Leopold wrote of this portrait, ”It has little value as a piece of art, but as to the issue of resemblance, I can assure you that it is perfect.”

In a letter written to his father in October of 1777, the 21-year-old Mozart expressed his passion for opera and the opera theater in no uncertain terms:

“I have only to hear an opera discussed, I have only to sit in a theater, hear the orchestra tuning their instruments – oh, I am quite beside myself at once.” 

I would suggest that it is difficult for us, today, to fathom the full meaning of Mozart’s comment because, in our electronic, mass media-dominated videocracy, we have no single cultural equivalent to the opera house of Mozart’s time. For people living in late eighteenth century Europe, the opera house was a combination theater; Super Bowl half-time show; major league ballpark; rock concert; carnival mid-way; high-end fashion show; IMAX-style movie palace; theme park; special effects extravaganza: in sum, a total-sensory-immersion facility. The opera theater was for Mozart a virtual “virtual reality,” where things could happen, be seen, and be heard that very simply could not happen, could not be seen or heard anywhere else. Opera lighting and stage machinery of the time represented cutting-edge technology in the eighteenth century, just as CGI (computer-generated imagery) represents the cutting edge today. Production crews at major opera houses in Paris, London, Hamburg, Dresden, Rome, Venice, Naples, Prague, and Vienna were the Industrial Light and Magic, the Pixar of their time. 

For Mozart and his contemporaries, the opera theater was not just a place you went in order to hear people sing and watch them act; much more, it was a place where dreams came true, a place where anything was possible, a place where every aspect of the arts – literature, singing, dancing, acting, instrumental music, costuming, stage design, and technology – combined to create an experience like nothing else on earth.

“I have only to hear an opera discussed, I have only to sit in a theater, hear the orchestra tuning their instruments – oh, I am quite beside myself at once.” 

Painting of Anna Gottlieb in 1795
Anna Gottlieb (1774-1856) in 1795

For Mozart, the backstage experience of the opera house was almost as intoxicating as a performance. Mozart was himself a professional performer who toured extensively, and we would observe that a powerful camaraderie exists between performing artists who spend their lives on the road playing and singing before audiences.  Mozart especially liked hanging out with singers, particularly with the ladies; there’s no doubt that Mozart had affairs after he was married in 1782 and those affairs were very likely all with singers. For example, during the rehearsals for The Magic Flute, he had affairs with both Barbara Gerl and Anna Gottlieb, the original Papagena and Pamina. And perhaps the only reason why he didn’t sleep with the singer playing the other leading female role in the opera – the Queen of the Night – was that that singer was someone named Josepha Weber Hofer, who happened to be Mozart’s sister-in-law! 

Mozart absolutely thrived on preparing a performance: the rehearsals and coaching of the singers and the orchestra; observing the construction of the sets and machinery; choosing costumes, makeup, and lighting. And most of all, Mozart loved to watch these “children of his imagination” – his operas – come to life before his very eyes and ears. The theater satisfied his primal instincts for play and fantasy. Like Monteverdi and Gluck before him, and Wagner and Verdi after, Mozart was at his core a man of, a genius of, the theater. 

But before he was a man of the theater, he was a child of the theater.

Oil painting of Mozart in 1763 at age 7
Mozart in 1763, age 7; oil painting attributed to Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni

The First Attempts

Mozart’s love for the opera stage and everything it represented began early in his life. By the time he was nine years old – in the midst of his four-year “Grand Tour” and living in London with his mother, father, and sister – he had already composed, according to his father, fifteen concert arias in Italian (of which, sadly, only two survive), and had attended opera performances across the European continent and in England. By the time he returned to his hometown of Salzburg on November 30, 1766, Mozart was already a legend (“the miracle”, as he was known), Salzburg’s most famous son, and at 10 years old, a composer of extraordinary promise.

On returning to Salzburg, Mozart’s father, Leopold – Wolfgang’s teacher, critic, editor, taskmaster, valet, booking agent, gofer, and public relations huckster – was on the lookout for any compositional opportunity that could advance his son’s education and career as a composer. Such an opportunity presented itself in December of 1766 – just days after his return to Salzburg – when, at the request of the Archbishop of Salzburg Sigismund Schrattenbach, Mozart composed the first part of a three-part oratorio entitled The Obligation of the First Commandment. Based on the remarkable competence (if not the originality) of this, Mozart’s first attempt to write dramatic vocal music that employed recitative, aria, and ensemble, he was commissioned in the spring of 1767 – at the age of eleven – to compose the music for what became his first opera, a work known as Apollo and Hyacinthus.


An annual tradition at Salzburg University – going back more than 150 years – was the creation and production of a Latin-language play to mark the end of the school year. Typically, the play was written by a member of the university faculty, the actors were drawn from the student body, and the story dealt with some sort of religious or moral subject. Between the acts of this play, musical episodes were performed in the manner of the so-called intermezzi (musical interludes) that were performed between the acts of heroic operas in the opera theater. 

The play that marked the end of the 1767 school year was a tragedy entitled Clementia Croesi. It was written by a priest named Rufinus Widl, who was Professor of Syntax at the University, and performed by a cast of students drawn almost entirely from his syntax class. The musical interludes performed between the acts of the play together constituted a short opera entitled Apollo and Hyacinthus. Its Latin-language libretto was written by the same Professor Rufinus Widl and its music was composed, as indicated in the printed libretto, by:

“the noble Wolfgangus Mozart, aged eleven, son of the noble and strict Kapellmeister, Leopoldus Mozart.”

Like the play itself, the cast of the opera was made up of students, whose ages ranged from 23 (a tenor named Mathias Stadler) to 12 (a choir boy named Christian Enzinger). By every account the performance of the opera was a great success; the Director of the Salzburg Gymnasium wrote that:

“The music for the opera, composed by Wolfgang Mozart, a child of eleven, delighted everyone, and [later that] night he gave us [further] notable proofs of his musical art at the harpsichord.” 

In what is, without any doubt, one of the tackiest photos ever posed, Hyacinthus – his head smashed – lies dead, with Apollo’s killer discus in the foreground

The original story of Apollo and Hyacinthus is a homosexual love triangle, drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Hyacinthus, the Prince of Sparta, is a gorgeous young dude with whom the god Apollo is in love. However, Zephyrus – the West Wind – is in love with Hyacinthus as well and is crazy jealous of Apollo’s relationship with the delectable prince. One day, when Apollo is teaching Hyacinthus how to throw a discus, Zephyrus blows on the discus thrown by Apollo, causing it to change course and plant itself in Hyacinthus’ admittedly fragile skull with the expected result: Hyacinthus kicks the amphora. Apollo, in his grief, changes the dead boy into a flower, and thus creates the “Hyacinth”.

Clearly, the librettist – Professor of Syntax and Padre Rufinus Widl – was going to have to do something about the homoeroticism in the original story, so he added various female interests in his version of the story. Suffice it to say that Widl’s libretto offered Mozart the opportunity to imitate much of what he had heard in the opera theaters of Europe and at the same time, begin to experiment with his own nascent instincts for musical drama and psychological insight.

For lots more on Mozart’s operas in general and Apollo and Hyacinthus in particular, I would direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, The Operas of Mozart.

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