Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Loved that piece of music you just heard? Support the programming you enjoy by becoming a WWFM member with your financial contribution today. Thank you!

'Zaide' Production Imports Mozart to Modern Setting

With a striking multilevel set and sweatshop theme, Peter Sellars' production is a modern take on Mozart.
With a striking multilevel set and sweatshop theme, Peter Sellars' production is a modern take on Mozart.

In honor of the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birth, his music is being performed around the globe. A controversial new production of an unfinished opera Mozart wrote when he was 23, Zaide, has just opened in New York.

In 1779, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had already written several operas, but director Peter Sellars says Zaide was an important step for the young composer.

"It's the first one he wrote on his own terms," Sellars says. "No one commissioned it."

The opera, a tale of slaves captured in a Turkish harem, was never completed. Mozart instead accepted a commission to write Idomeneo, which became his first real operatic success. He abandoned Zaide, and never heard it performed.

About 75 minutes of music remain; there's no overture, no finale and most of the libretto is lost.

The new production of Zaide was co-commissioned for the 40th anniversary of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, and debuted in Vienna and London earlier this year. Sellars, an iconoclastic director who previously has set Mozart operas in the Trump Tower and in a diner, was hired to finish and direct the work.

Sellars took what remains of Zaide and added some incidental music Mozart wrote for an unproduced play. Taking off from the opera's theme of slavery, he set it in a contemporary sweatshop and cast it entirely with African-American and Asian singers.

"What you see onstage comes from my experiences in Los Angeles and what's going on in Queens at this moment," Sellars says. "Very desperate people who have no papers are desperate to stay here ... It's a very real story and we're putting it onstage with some authenticity and ... some art. That combination, I hope, is very stimulating and very provocative."

Indeed, the production was so provocative that some critics abroad reacted virulently, calling it "overstated" and "excruciating." Sellars argues that his vision is true to Mozart's spirit; that the composer was an educated man of the Enlightenment.

Regardless of how critics in New York respond to Peter Sellars' production, it's an opportunity for audiences to hear some rarely performed Mozart.

Zaide is playing at the Mostly Mozart Festival this weekend.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.