Mozart was a pure genius - he composed his first opera at the age of twelve. But composing is probably the wrong way of describing what was actually going on. The creative process was not a matter of putting together bits and pieces of music;
the whole opera, all of the instruments, notes and voices were already
composed in his head. He worked fast, filling pages after pages of partitures like a summer thunderstorm pouring onto dry land.
Mozart's last opera was The Magic Flute which premiered on
September 30, 1791. Mozart died two months later at the age of 34 and he
was buried in an unmarked grave. But The Magic Flute was an immediate success. 228 years later, it is still the second most performed opera of all time.
It is well recognised that aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen"
(Hell's vengeance boils in my heart) sung by the Queen of the Night
is one of the most powerful and most important operatic masterpieces in
The vengeance of hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!
The queen, consumed by rage, instructs her daughter to kill Sarastro, her rival.
This short aria is written for the soprano coloratura and it lasts only 2
minutes and 49 seconds. An incredibly difficult aria to sing - which
requires not just the soprano’s vocal range from B3 to F6, but the
ability to convey dramatic intensity in a very powerful manner at the
very top of range. A soprano who can combine acrobatic abilities with power
is extremely rare. And for the past 228 years, every soprano who ever
lived wanted to be known and remembered as Mozart's Queen.
The first Queen was Mozart's sister in law, Josepha Hofer. At the time
of the premiere, she was 32 years old and had an extraordinary upper
register and an agile voice. It is said that on his death bed, Mozart
hushed his wife, Constanze: "Quiet, quiet! Josepha is just taking her top F".
Unfortunately, we will never know how the first Queen of the Night
really did sound on stage but we do have recordings of some great queens
from the past 90 years. This made me wonder: which great diva sung the
aria the way Mozart had heard it in his mind?
Thanks to the internet and YouTube, we have recordings of over 40 queens
from 1935 to now. Most of them are no longer with us, but their voices
still are. Nowadays, there are only a handful of sopranos who perform in
The Magic Flute who are regarded as the best living queens. And then there is an endless list of contenders.
Last weekend, I immersed myself in the quest of finding the best Queen of the Night.
Stating the obvious: while the winning voice would be selected
subjectively, a rather firm set of objective criteria served as
- In his mind, Mozart heard the voice of a powerful German speaking
woman, and accordingly, the perfect Queen should be German / a
native German speaker
- Rage! In this performance, power is essential
- Hitting the high F6 perfectly, impeccable staccatos
- Dramatic coloratura
- Dramatic onstage performance
On Friday, glued to the screen, the quest began with six hours of
watching and listening to every Queen of the Night I could find, in
every version of The Magic Flute available online. I went to bed with total chaos in my head, wrecked and worn out.
By late evening Saturday, refreshed and reinvigorated, the search continued.
Unfortunately, the Chinese, Korean and Japanese divas and contenders
were no longer of interest: while their vocal capabilities were as
brilliant as any, their German was rather unconvincing. Had Mozart
himself ever seen an Asian woman raging in perfect Austro-Bavarian? I
I narrowed the list down to eleven divas: Diana Damrau, Erika Mikolsa,
Edita Gruberova, Natalie Dessmay, Susanne Elmark, Luciana Serra and Edda
Moser - all still living - and Lucia Popp, Cristina Deutekom, Joan
Sutherland, and Maria Callas, who are sadly no longer with us.
The longer I listened, the more obvious the differences between the
sopranos were. By early Sunday morning, my ears and brain finally tuned
in, with fine 'details' unnoticed before beginning to emerge. Two
minutes and 49 seconds, over and over again, hundreds of times...
I got out of bed around lunch time Sunday completely brainwashed with
"...meine Tochter nimmermehr" and "Hört! Hört! Hört!!!" echoing
endlessly. Two looped phrases, two powerful voices, two divas - it was
clear that one of them was going to be my winner.
The best time to immerse yourself in music is when everyone else is
already in bed. Headphones on, dimmed lights, alone in a room. Damrau,
Deutekom, then Edda Moser, just for a final check. Then Deutekom twice,
Damrau. Deutekom again. And again...
At 7:30 Monday morning I was ready for work. With no time to waste, I
played "Der Hölle Rache" just once - the 1960s version performed by
Cristina Deutekom (28 August 1931 – 7 August 2014), was a Dutch operatic
coloratura soprano. In 1963, she made her debut with De Nederlandse
Opera as Queen of the Night, but after some lesser roles with the
company, she contemplated giving up singing altogether since her career
did not seem to progress. Yet while she was 'warming up ' her voice for
those smaller roles, Cristina would sing some of the most difficult
Mozart arias in her dressing room backstage.
One day, her warm-up session was overheard by Dame Olga Maria Elisabeth
Friederike Schwarzkopf, a diva herself: "Child, do you know what you are
singing there?" Schwarzkopf was shocked to hear that she was not
performing Mozart's masterpiece all over the world. "I do not think much
of any impresario that does not recognise such talent", she said and
introduced her to her own manager, Rudi Rothenberg. In no time Cristina
went on to conquer the major opera houses in succession with the 'Queen
of the Night' being her most prominent role. Like Mozart's sister in law
Josepha, Christina was 32 years old. In 1968 she was critically
acclaimed by The New York Times to be "the greatest Queen of the Night of our time".
The vocal range which covers two octaves, stone hard German r's, perfect
punctuation, impeccable staccatos, rage and power, surgically clean-cut
triplets, twelve bars lasting 'bonde', terrifying bémol - all sung effortlessly by Deutekom, a Queen like no other.