Did Mozart write an aria to mock a head-shaking soprano?
Mozart liked a soprano whose head bobbed so much that he wrote an aria to make her “hop like a chicken”.
An amusing question about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart crossed our crossbar in early 2023, sparked by a viral anecdote that claimed the renowned 18th-century composer had deliberately written an aria to embarrass a singer he disliked. “I wonder if Mozart really wrote music to make the singer look like a chicken,” asked one reader.
A question that only makes sense in the context of the following anecdote that has been circulated across all social media platforms Facebook To Reddit for years, albeit rarely with a source:
Once Mozart had to write for a singer he didn’t like, who bobbed her head up and down with the notes when she sang, so he gave her an aria with a bunch of rapidly changing high and low notes, making her like a chicken head bobbing and that my friends is pettiness as art.
We found variants of the same story repeated on the websites of professional opera houses, which gave it some semblance of credibility. For example, this version, which gives some more details but again doesn’t cite sources, was released by Opera Omaha in 2017 under the headline “Did you know… Così Fan Tutte Edition“:
Apparently, Mozart had an extreme dislike for the soprano Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, for whom the role of Fiordiligi was first created. She had an odd tendency to drop her chin and throw her head back as she sang low and high notes respectively, and knowing this, Mozart chose to fill her signature aria (“Come scoglio”) with constant harmonic leaps. He probably enjoyed watching her bob her head “like a chicken.”
Our efforts to corroborate the story by consulting more scholarly sources have been unsuccessful, leading us to conclude that it is an often-retold but probably apocryphal tidbit of operatic folklore. However, certain basic details of the story are historically accurate. For example, the role of Fiordiligi in Mozart’s 1790 comic opera “Cosi Fan Tutte‘ was actually written for a well-known diva of the time, Adriana Ferrarese del Bene.
Ferrarese (or ‘Ferraresi’ as her name was sometimes spelled) was known for her vocal range and dramatic flair, which is why Mozart chose her for her role debut, at least in part to parody the conventions of opera seria (“serious” opera). It is true, judging from his own comments about her, that Mozart was not overly impressed with her talents in general. As musicologist Daniel Heartz noted in his 2009 book: “Mozart, Haydn and the early Beethoven, 1781-1802“:
Mozart did not hold in high regard Ferrarese’s singing or acting. After attending the opera in Dresden, he wrote to his wife about the prima donna Maddalena Allegranti: “She is much better than the Ferraresin, but of course that doesn’t say much” (letter of April 16, 1789).
However, musicologists agree that Ferrarese’s style was well suited to the purposes of the composer and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who wrote an aria entitled “Come scoglio” in which Ferrarese’s character Fiordiligi swears that she and her sister will forever be together will remain faithful to their fiancé. Heartz explained:
To make it clear, Da Ponte evoked an ancient paragon of opera seria, the metaphorical aria Come scoglio immoto resta (While the cliff remains unmoved by wind and storm, this soul remains strong in faith and love). Mozart responded with a parody of heroic soprano arias, including several jumps between high and low, from low A below middle C to high B. … For the final chorus, Mozart switches to Piu Allegro. Here Ferrarese/Fiordiligi was able to show their coloratura in fast triplets and their sustained tones.
It’s important to note two things Heartz has done not to say: He did not say that Mozart harbored an “extreme dislike” for Ferrarese (contrary to some versions of the anecdote), and although Mozart’s clear intention in “Cosi Fan Tutte” was to parody the conventions of opera seria, said Heartz does not or suggest that Mozart intended to mock Ferrarese’s physical mannerisms.
Another music historian, Bruce Alan Brown, claimed in his book “WA Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte” (1995) that while Mozart’s parodic intention was to poke fun at the singer herself, it was in terms of her vocal range, not her movements:
Fiordiligi takes the lead in repelling the invaders, warning them not to desecrate their hearts, their ears, their affections; She and her sister will be faithful to their fiancé until death. But Mozart undermines her utterances by extending her vocal leaps to the point of parody – of Ferrarese herself (who was known for her wide range) and of a recent Salieri opera in which she had displayed this gift.
According to Brown, Mozart parodied Ferrarese by giving her exaggerated vocal jumps “in inappropriate situations”:
The qualities that made Ferrarese fit for the leading roles in the Viennese repertoire – her agility in passage work and her powerful lower register – made her susceptible to ridicule, as when Mozart gives her a burst of coloratura in a thick ensemble structure (No. 13, Finale I) or exaggerated jumps in register in inappropriate situations (before and during “Come scoglio”).
Neither Brown nor Heartz mentioned anything about Ferrarese “bobbing his head” during performances or that Mozart made a mockery of this quirk.
When we turned to another author, Dan Marek, himself an accomplished professional tenor and voice teacher, we found that a version of this anecdote was given in his 2016 book, “Alto: The voice of bel canto‘, framed by a quote from the late British music critic William Mann.
William Mann has an opinion on Mozart’s sense of humor regarding this vocal gymnastics:
It was evidently recognized that those monster leaps were a special effect that should be reproduced, even if the singer wasn’t Adriana Ferrarese, who prided herself on her extensive vocal range. Mozart paid no attention to her and, since he had to show this specialty of hers, let her expose her change of gait from head to chest register and back as violently as possible. It has also been said that Mozart played on Ferrarese’s technique of lowering the head for low notes and throwing it back for its highest register so that in those bars it would both look and sound undignified.
Note, however, that Marek prefaced the passage by calling it Mann’s “opinion,” and Mann prefaced the “bowing” anecdote by saying, “It was also said that…” That is, Marek quoted Mann and Mann did not cite any particular source and repeated the anecdote as if it were a piece of uncorroborated gossip.
Our research, while not necessarily exhaustive, has gotten us no closer to a definitive source for the claim — not to say we can conclude the story is false, but on balance, and until further evidence proves otherwise, we rate it as “unproven”.
https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/mozart-head-bobbing-soprano/ Did Mozart write an aria to mock a head-shaking soprano?