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The Operatic Soprano: Tailoring Soprano Roles in Mozarts Cos

fan Tutte and Puccinis La Fanciulla del West

By Devon Harper
April 22, 2015

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In this male-dominated world, one role women have dominated has stayed consistent
throughout history: the Prima Donna. A common practice throughout history was role
tailoring, which is the writing or re-writing a role for a specific singer. Composers would often
write arias and recitatives in different styles based on the singer they had performing that role.
For example, they may include fast melismas that explored the far reaches of a sopranos range
for a nimble voice, or long, sustained lines for those with exceptional breath support. The vocal
requirements of the roles also changed based on the personality or role of the character, whether
it was the strict older mother, the sneaky maid, the comic relief jester, or the love-struck heroine.
Both Mozart and Puccini are revered for their work in the operatic world, namely for their
treatment of the Prima Donna within their cast of characters. This paper will discuss the roles of
women in Mozart's Cos fan Tutte, and Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, and will also explore the
similarities between the two.
One of the most prolific opera composers throughout history, and a common household
name, was Mozart. Wolfgang A. Mozart was born in 1756 in Salzburg and died in 1791 in
Vienna. Mozart's father, Leopold, was a minor composer, as well as a teacher and performer of
violin. Mozart used to watch his older sister take piano lessons from their father, and he soon
became intrigued enough to begin lessons himself. By the age of five, he was already composing
small works for his father. Mozart was the youngest of seven children, though only he and his
older sister, Maria Anna, nicknamed "Nannerl", were the only two to survive childbirth. They
were very close while growing up, and would perform together on the many travels they took
with their family, including a performance for Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria in
Munich (Eisen 1). The family continued to tour together for several years, playing for various
courts and nobles. While traveling on tour with his family, Mozart began performing some of his

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compositions, including some vocal music. As they traveled, Mozart's father would try to have
anyone listen to Mozart's music wherever he could, all before Mozart turned thirteen (Eisen 1).
Throughout his travels Mozart met numerous women, including the Weber sisters. Mozart
initially pursued Aloysia Weber, but as fate would have it, she married another. After extensive
courting, Mozart eventually married Constanze Weber, Aloysias sister, much to the chagrin of
his father. Their marriage appeared to be a happy one, full of affection and adoration, though he
often strayed. Mozart even wrote some of his fugues for Constanze, because she absolutely
adored them and demanded he write more just so she could listen. Mozart's first opera was
Apollo et Hyacinthus, which he wrote at age twelve, and he continued to compose many more,
including Der Schauspieldirektor (1786), Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), and Don Giovanni (1787).
Two of his more popular operas include Cos fan Tutte and Die Zauberflte. Cos fan Tutte is a
two act opera that premiered in Vienna in 1790. The opera is a comedy, a quality many of his
operas obtained, its title translated as: "Thus do they all," with the subtitle, "La scuola degli
amanti," meaning, "The School for Lovers." The libretto was written by Lorenzo da Ponte, a
frequent collaborator with Mozart, who also wrote the text for Le Nozze di Figaro and Don
In Mozart's Cos fan Tutte, the two main female characters are Fiordiligi and Dorabella.
As previously mentioned, Mozart was especially effective concerning female operatic roles.
What makes these two characters unique is that they are the only biological sisters in any of
Mozart's operas. As aforementioned, Cos fan Tutte is a comedy on the fickleness of women. The
actual title, and subtitle, are not gender specific, but initially in the opera, the sentiment is slanted
toward the female characters. The entire opera is making fun of the fanciful dreams and whims
of the two sisters. With the subtitle of the opera meaning "The School for Lovers," many

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listeners may think the women are learning the lesson. In one way, the two sisters do learn
valuable lessons, but the plot of the opera is centered around Don Alfonso teaching the two
young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, not to trust their fiancees' faithfulness. Throughout the
opera, "Fiordiligi and Dorabella are explicitly taught only one thing: to conform to the motto of
the main title so that Ferrando and Guglielmo will acknowledge it as truth," (Brown-Montesano
215). The sisters are never given any explicit instruction, but the world around them is
manipulated throughout the entire opera to fit this "lesson".
In order for the audience to believe the sisters are easily manipulated, Mozart made the
two sisters almost interchangeable in character. Mozart actually made no distinction between
voice parts for the two characters, even though they are commonly cast as soprano and mezzosoprano. While there is no explicit distinction, Mozart wrote the parts to be very different based
on the original sopranos that sang the parts (Brown-Montesano 217). The original Dorabella was
Louise Villeneuve, and the original Fiordiligi was Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, though she went
by only Adriana Ferrarese. Mozart wrote each part to fit the voice and timbre of each soprano.
Cos fan Tutte was a prime example of Mozarts role tailoring. As mentioned before, Mozart
was notorious for his affairs with his sopranos, but Adriana was the one he could not have.
Adriana Ferrarese was married to Luigi del Bene, but was having an affair with Mozarts
librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. This created a hitch in Mozarts usual routine with his Prima
Donnas. Ferrarese was not known to be the best singer. Her comic and dramatic skills were
uneven, her vocal equipment impressive but incomplete and her performances less than
inspiring (Gidwitz 199). Adriana became despised by Mozart, so he decided to exploit her
performance shortcomings. He wrote her arias with cantar di shalzo, large leaps, to force her to
show those shortcomings, thus creating a rigid seria character who is the object of comic

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intrigue (Gidwitz & Rice 1). Mozart enjoyed watching her make a fool of herself while trying to
sing her arias.
The entire opera is dependent upon the gullibility of Fiordiligi and Dorabella. They seem
to believe anything they are told, and do anything they are told. It begins with Don Alfonsos
original lie that the sisters lovers have been sent to war, and that they are as good as dead. The
sisters immediately believe that because they are being sent to war, they will die and become
absolutely inconsolable. They have a long, drawn-out, mournful goodbye with their lovers, then
retire to a salon to mourn with each other. They are angry with the circumstances, and Mozart
shows this in their lines.

Dorabella is


upset as expressed through her words Relentless pains that agitate in my soul from aria No. 11,
and Mozart exemplifies this sentiment with the stiff rhythm and wide range of this particular
line. As she is crying that I will give to the Furies if I am still alive, a miserable example of fatal
love with the horrible sound of my sighs! (Brown-Montesano 224), her vocal line rises and falls
with two note slurs as though she is crying.

Though the text expresses the deep emotions of extreme pain, Mozart uses the hyperbole of the
music to maintain the idea of the sisters gullibility. Mozart is almost mocking the sisters pain,
because they are so gullible. Don Alfonso insists that women are incapable of staying faithful,

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especially in the face of grief. This is due to their initial education of romanticizing love and
happiness. Maria Edgeworth, in Practical Education, wrote that sentimental stories, and books
of mere entertainmentshould be sparingly used, especially in the education of girls [since]
this species of reading cultivates what is called the heart, prematurely, lowers the tone of mind,
and induces indifferences for those common pleasures and occupations, however trivial in
themselves, constitute by far the greatest portion of our daily happiness, (qtd in BrownMontesano 221). She is basically saying that love is romanticized to young women, and they
think every guy they fall for is their prince charming, but they are controlled by extreme
emotion. When they lose their prince, they experience extreme sadness, until the next prince
comes along to sweep them off their feet. Eventually the sisters maid, Despina, gets involved in
the manipulation. The combined forces of Alfonso and Despina convince the girls that woman
require consolation and desire, and to seek such satisfaction wherever they can get it: enter the
sisters lovers in disguise to test their faithfulness, la la la la! Through persistent coaxing, both
sisters fail to maintain their fidelity, of course, and in the end Alfonso crowns reason as the
victor of the overall bet. Yet, the opera ends with the typical Mozart lieto fine, or happy ending,
with the two couples riding off into the sunset together.
While Mozart dominated the opera world in the eighteenth century, another composer
would later come in the nineteenth century to add his name to the opera history books. Giacomo
Puccini was born in 1858 in Tuscany, and died in 1924 in Brussels. Puccini was born into a
musically inclined family, and began his music studies at the Istituto Musicale Pacini in Lucca
with his uncle. He eventually grew to have a particular focus on the works of Verdi. Puccinis
style became somewhat of a combination between Verdi and Richard Wagner through his studies
of both their works. During his studies at the Istituto, Puccini had his first successes as a

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composer. He later moved to study at the conservatory in Milan, where Puccini laid the
foundation for the rest of his career (Ravenni & Girardi 1). Puccini was one of seven children,
but there is not much mention of any of the females in his family, other than the sadness after the
death of his mother. Similar to Mozart, Puccini had his indiscretions regarding his personal life,
including his relationship with a married woman named Elvira Bonturi. He did marry her later on
after her husband died, but their marriage was riddled with affairs by Puccini (Ravenni & Girardi
1). Puccini's first opera was Le Villi in 1883, and he followed with more including Madama
Butterfly (1903), Edgar (1888), Tosca (1899), and Gianni Schicchi (1918). One of Puccini's later
operas was La Fanciulla del West. It is an opera in three acts, and the title translates as: "The Girl
of the West". The libretto was written by Carlo Zangarini, and it premiered at the Metropolitan
Opera in New York City in 1910. The opera is based off the play The Girl of the Golden West by
David Belasco, and is set in a miners' camp in California during the gold rush of 1849-1850
(Puccini, et al 6). Puccini originally wished to write an opera about Marie Antoinette, but fell in
love with Belascos play.
There is only one prominent female role in Puccinis La Fanciulla del West, Minnie, who
is the owner of the Polka saloon. She is really the only female presence in the mining town in
which the opera takes place. She takes care of the miners gold, and reads the Bible to them in
the saloon. She is portrayed as this pious character, yet she is the owner of the saloon, which
would normally be a males job. Just the saloon itself is a juxtaposition of the implication of
innocence from her Bible lessons and the reality of the original function of a saloon. Minnies
importance is not only shown in her role, but also in the music that announces her entrance.
Just as the shark in Jaws had its signature minor second processional, Puccini would often
announce the entrance of his heroine with a signature musical theme. Puccini does the same

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Minnie before

miners even

acknowledge her by

using her particular signature, which is classified with a descending-seventh interval

(followed by the ascending third and fifth of the chord), which is heard three times within the
space of a few seconds (Randall & Davis 18). Through her bible lessons, Minnie solidifies the
dependent relationship the miners have with her. Through this dependency, she appears to hold a
position of authority, which was not a common concept for a woman.
Though Puccini gives Minnie many characteristics of the authority figure, she still has
many characteristics of the typical feminine role. She is the center of a love triangle between the
Sheriff Rance and the newcomer, Dick Johnson. Sheriff Rance has a wife, but has expressed his
love for Minnie. Due to her naivet and innocence, she has an idealistic view of love. Randall &
Davis remark, Important in establishing Minnies innocent wish to find a man like her father,
Laggiu nel Soledad [Down there in Soledad] is less rewarding, both melodically and
dramatically, than a soprano who must negotiate its sudden leap to a high C might justifiably
expect. Minnies melodic plainness and unprepared leap indicated her naivet, lack of education,
and unworldliness (20).
Puccini ensures that the audience does not

Minnie is still a woman, and includes the fatal flaw of women: emotion. She is so enrapturing
that even the thief Ramerrez, disguised as Johnson, forgoes his plan to rob the saloon because he

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has become so enraptured by her. Minnie is so blinded by her innocence that she falls for him in
return, and even invites Johnson to stay at her cabin with her one night. Even Minnie, pious and
innocent, can fall victim to those fatal emotions and act irrationally as she throws herself in front
of her lover at the end of the opera when he faces execution, screaming and pointing a pistol.
Now, while in the saloon, Minnie is portrayed as the pious, nonsexual, maternal figure for
the miners of the town. When she is in her cabin, she is portrayed as the opposite, This is
evident during Minnies last-minute preparations, in which she changes clothing and feminizes
herself hurriedly by removing the pistol from her corset, adorning her hair with flowers, scenting
her handkerchief with perfume, and squeezing her hands and feet into tight-fitting gloves and
shoes (Randall & Davis 25). The audience sees a new side of Minnie while in her cabin with
Johnson. They kiss, and the sexual tension is portrayed in the orchestras scores. Puccini
continues to contrast Minnies original innocent personality when the search party comes to
arrest Johnson. Minnie hides Johnson and faces Sheriff Rance, who tries to overpower her.
Minnie is able to fight him off, then challenges him. Strength is not often a quality for a female
role, let alone defiance against a man, especially a man in an authority position. Puccini
emphasizes this by evenly matching the characters through the orchestration (Randall & Davis
30). Rance soon finds Johnson, but Minnie makes a wager for his freedom, a card game. Puccini
uses the card game as yet another instance to contradict Minnies initial piety. She cheats to win
the card game. As Randall & Davis point out, The irony of the situation is clearthe honest
Minnie has, for the first time in her life, acted dishonestly, like Rance, while the corrupt Rance
has, for once, acted honorable, like Minnie (32). Puccini eventually brings her back to her initial
intentions when she is arguing for Johnsons life. Again, reminding the audience she is still a
typical woman, one who uses manipulation to achieve her goals. She uses her bible lessons to

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persuade the miners to free him and prove his conversion from sin. Minnie is able to pull her
maternal influence over the miners for Johnsons release.
As mentioned before, Puccini varies between the typical and atypical archetype for his
heroine, creating a great difference between Minnie and the sisters of Cos fan Tutte. Fiordiligi
and Dorabella are constantly viewed as ignorant, nave girls who will do anything they are told.
They are easily manipulated by Don Alfonso, Despina, and even their own lovers, Guglielmo
and Ferrando. Mozart despised the original Fiordiligi, Adriana Ferrarese, and therefore wrote
arias that were incredibly difficult for her to make her look ridiculous. This hatred possibly also
perpetuated the ignorance and navet of the sisters. There is not much information regarding the
relationship between Puccini and the original Minnie, Emmy Destinn, but she frequently
performed the heroine roles of Puccinis operas in the time she spent at the Metropolitan Opera
in New York. While Puccini gave Minnie the typical female characteristics of poise, purity, and
well-being, he also gives her strength and wisdom that most operatic heroines lack. She takes
control of her own fate in the story, she protects her lover, and she deceives to achieve her goal.
All of which are traits deprived from the transparent Fioridiligi and Dorabella.
Though the lives of the heroines are quite different, they are still very similar in
personality. Mozart does not hide the transparency of his heroines. Fioridiligi and Dorabella are
the everyday, typical damsel-in-distress archetype. They cannot think for themselves, and they
are completely dependent on the other people in their life. Though Puccini does not write Minnie
to be quite as transparent, he does give her coquette qualities of the young, innocent Bible
teacher. Just as Fiordiligi and Dorabella are controlled by their emotions, Minnie also succumbs
to the overwhelming appeal of love. At some point in their operas, all three women can be seen
as the nave little school girl chasing love.

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Both Mozart and Puccini tailored the roles of their heroines in specific ways for their
operas Cos fan Tutte and La Fanciulla del West. Together they characterize every woman in the
world. Some may be strong, some may be weak, but show that, in the end, all women are
influenced by their emotions. The Prima Donnas of the world have portrayed every female
archetype throughout history, and at their core, they are all the same. Mozart and Puccini both
knew this, and even though they were from different centuries, their model stays the same. There
can be modifications, such as the strength and authority Puccini gives to Minnie, but in the end,
it all comes down to love and the failure to resist it. Every heroine has a bit of Fiordiligi and
Dorabella in them. Each maintains the fatal flaw of the female population: emotions.

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Works Cited
Brown-Montesano, Kristi. Understanding the Women of Mozarts Operas. Los Angeles, CA:
University of California Press, 2007. Print.
Eisen, Cliff, et al. Mozart. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University
Press. Web. 23 March 2015.
Gidwitz, Patricia. Mozarts Fiordiligi: Adriana Ferrarese del Bene. Cambridge Opera Journal
8.3 (Nov. 1996): 199-214. Web. 5 April 2015.
Gidwitz, Patricia and John Rice. Ferrarese, Adriana. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music
Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 5 April 2015.
Puccini, Giacomo, et al. Puccinis La Fanciulla Del West. Coral Gables, FL: Opera Journeys
Publishing, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 17 April 2015.
Randall, Annie and Rosalind Davis. Puccini and the Girl: History and Reception of The Girl of
the Golden West. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print.
Ravenni, Gabriella and Michele Girardi. Puccini. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.
Oxford University Press. Web. 23 March 2015.