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‘Bastien und Bastienne’: Mozart’s First Opera

‘Bastien und Bastienne’: Mozart’s First Opera

“Shepherd and Shepherdess Reposing” painting by François Boucher in 1761. (Public Domain)

Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

1/25/2024

Updated: 1/29/2024

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is remembered as one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time. His compositions are still revered as among the best classical music ever written. Part of Mozart’s legacy surrounds his early death, which makes his tremendous output even more impressive. It’s not surprising that he wrote so much during his 35 years of life, however, when you consider how early he started.
Mozart is one of the foremost examples of a child prodigy. Since he came from a musical family, his genius was recognized earlier than it might have been under different circumstances. His father, Leopold Mozart, was a composer himself, as well as a violinist and music teacher. Wolfgang Amadeus was the youngest of seven children, but he and his sister Maria, better known as Nannerl, were the only ones to survive past infancy.
Like many younger siblings, three-year-old Wolfgang was fascinated when his father began giving keyboard lessons to 7-year-old Nannerl. The curious little boy would pick out harmonies at the clavier on his own until Leopold humored him by teaching him to play simple melodies at age 4. His ability to replicate these to perfection proved that he was no ordinary child. By the next year, he was composing his own simple pieces. As he grew older, Wolfgang’s musical prowess exceeded what his father was teaching him. He continued composing while also gaining fame as a musical prodigy by performing for European royalty from the age of 6 onward, alongside Nannerl. Eventually, Leopold Mozart gave up composing because he realized that his son’s talent far surpassed his own.

Truly an Opera?

The official number of operas Mozart wrote is always listed as 22, but there’s some discrepancy over which works can rightfully be considered operas. In 1768, Wolfgang Amadeus wrote “Bastien und Bastienne.” He was 12 at the time. I’ve always considered this one-act German Singspiel to be the composer’s first opera, but there is some debate on this point. Two other works he wrote in 1767, “Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots” and “Apollo et Hyacinthus,” are considered by some music historians to be earlier examples of operas from the juvenile composer. However, the first was a sacred drama, and the second, a secular Latin piece based on Roman mythology, was part of a larger work composed for the Benedictine University.
Puppets perform “Bastien and Bastienne” for a children's show in 1945 based on Mozart's opera. (Public Domain)

Puppets perform “Bastien and Bastienne” for a children's show in 1945 based on Mozart's opera. (Public Domain)

On the other hand, “Bastien und Bastienne” is an excellent example of a typical German opera of the time, foreshadowing his later German operas, such as “The Magic Flute.” It features a romantic story, lots of arias, and the distinct Mozart style. The cast includes only three singers, no chorus, and a small orchestra.
This opera was commissioned by Dr. Franz Mesmer. If this name sounds familiar, that’s because this physician coined the term animal magnetism and inspired the word “mesmerism.” He was a supporter of the arts and a friend of the Mozart family. It’s widely believed that this opera was first performed in the doctor’s garden theater. Some now doubt the veracity of this assertion, since it was only documented by one early Mozart biographer, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen. However, the fact that Mozart referenced Dr. Mesmer in his later opera “Così fan tutte” verifies the connection.

‘Les Amours de Bastien et Bastienne’

“Bastien und Bastienne” is a short opera, featuring only around 40 minutes worth of music. The three characters are Bastien, a tenor, Bastienne, a soprano, and Colas, a bass. The libretto, which is the Italian term for an opera’s story and lyrics, was written by Friedrich Wilhelm Weiskern, Johann Heinrich Friedrich Müller, and Johann Andreas Schachtner. The story was based on the French play “Les Amours de Bastien et Bastienne” by Justine Favart and Harny de Guerville, hence the French names of the title characters. This opera is a parody of the pastoral genre, which was very popular at the time. Specifically, it’s a parody of “Le devin du village” or “The Village Soothsayer” by Jean-Jacque Rousseau, a French one-act opera with basically the same story, cast of characters, and voice types.
The story is simple. Bastienne, a pretty young shepherdess, is in love with a local shepherd, Bastien. However, she is very unhappy at the beginning of the opera because she has heard that her beloved has deserted her for a local noblewoman. Soon, she is joined by Colas, the village soothsayer, who may or may not be a legitimate magician. She tells him her problem and asks for advice. He advises her to win back Bastien by pretending that she has found a wealthy suitor. She leaves, and Bastien enters. He is now in love with Bastienne again, but Colas informs him that his silly flirtation has lost him his beloved shepherdess. The young shepherd is devastated, but Colas pretends to cast a magic spell to fix the problem. When the two sweethearts meet each other again, Bastienne acts very uppity, much to Bastien’s dismay. They eventually admit that they still love each other, and the opera ends with all three praising the magician’s bringing them back together.
This opera is comprised of just 16 pieces, some of which are as short as two pages. There are four duets and one trio, so the rest are solos for the three singers. Bastienne has the majority, with a grand total of five, while Bastien has three. Colas has only two solos, one of which is a hilarious nonsense song whose lyrics are a bizarre jumble of Latin, German, and gibberish, which he sings while casting a spell. Although operas are famous for being exclusively sung, that’s not the case with every category of this broad genre. Like many German operas, “Bastien und Bastienne” features extensive dialogue between the songs to propel the story forward, much like a musical.

Talented Youth

“Bastien und Bastienne” is an under-appreciated musical gem, full of tenderness, beautiful melodies, and hilarious comedy. It’s a wonderful example of Mozart’s early genius; there’s nothing immature or childish about this opera. As a young opera singer, I appreciate the boy composer’s prodigious musical ability. I started singing the whole role of Bastienne when I was 8 years old; it was my first time singing German. I remember thinking that I wanted to put it on; I just needed to find a tenor and a bass to join me.
Fourteen years later, that dream is finally becoming a reality. My production company, Cinballera Entertainment, is putting on this rarely performed opera, along with an original ballet, at the Lightbox Theater in San Diego’s historic Liberty Station on January 27 and 28, with the first performance landing on the 268th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. If classical music isn’t being performed today, it will soon be forgotten, and our world truly needs this beauty!
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Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

Author

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.

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