This week I taught a master class at Vanguard University (Costa Mesa CA), where a delightful young soprano sang one of Despina’s arias from Cosí fan tutte. Near the beginning of Act II, the maid servant exhorts the two sisters who are her employers that they should enjoy life and take some new, temporary lovers while they wait for their fiancés to return from military service. It’s a fun aria, giving Despina lots of opportunities for lively miming. She is frankly bragging about her knowledge of men, and no one doubts that her knowledge is based on experience, even if Despina may be no older than the more elegant sisters.
As I restudied the aria, what struck me was an odd piece of musical invention right at the end, the music by which Despina walks off the stage. Characters do not always exit at the end of their arias, but in some cases that I could remember off hand, Mozart provided exit music that was melodically new, even contrasting with the musical materials in the arias. I thought of the aria that I have performed more than any other, “Il mio tesoro” in Don Giovanni. That aria is a semi-martial one, in which the Don Ottavio promises that he will defeat Giovanni in a duel. At the end, Ottavio has 9 measures of music to leave the stage:
two measures of new, but still martial music;
one measure of a downward drooping scale;
two measures that were heard earlier in association with comforting his mourning fiancée;
two more measures of martial music; and
firmly reiterated tonic chords.
So, in Ottavio’s exit music we have heard his courage and determination, as well as his tender feelings for the woman he loves.
Another postlude came to mind, one from The Magic Flute. After Pamina sings an ineffably sad lament because she fears that Tamino no longer loves her, there is a beat of silence and then the orchestra plays music that is completely new. What is striking is that although the aria is in 6/8 meter, the exit music is not. The written notation looks like 6/8 meter, but the music is audibly in 3/4. with 6/8 returning only for the repeated tonic chords of the final measure.
What happens at the end of Despina’s aria is still more odd, more original. And it is comical, I’m convinced. At the beginning of the aria, Despina advised the sisters about how to handle men and then she sang an aside to the audience: “They seem to like my teaching. Hurray for Despina, who knows how to be a good servant.” After the aside, she reviewed all of her earlier advice and went on to a vigorous affirmation that women need to behave as queens, demanding obedience from their admirers.
Despina closes her sermon with repeated cadences and a flashy high note, giving her as big and emphatic an ending for her aria as if she were a noble heroine (as she thinks herself to be). Then something very odd happens: the orchestra starts to reprise some of her music, but plays only one measure and then stops dead. After two beats of silence, the music starts once more and Despina sings along, repeating the words of her self-congratulatory aside. Why did Mozart write that false start for the orchestra?
A great operatic composer is constantly visualizing what will happen on the stage. Here’s what I think Mozart may have imagined: Despina ends her advice to the sisters so brilliantly that the audience bursts into applause. She may even take a bow. The conductor cues the orchestra and they start playing exit music. But Despina stops them! With an imperious hand gesture, she takes control of the situation and signals the orchestra to begin again, this time while she sings along. She sings her own exit music, reaching the wings on her last note, in control to the end.
An ambitious graduate student might make a study of Mozart’s exit music. These three examples make me think that there must be many more such postludes that are intriguing or touching or hilarious examples of his boundless imagination.
Now a bit of trivia for whoever has read this far. Have you thought about the names of the women in this opera? Nice Italian girls should have saints’ names, like Maria, Susanna or Clara. The sisters in this opera are called “Beautiful Gold” (Dorabella) and “Lily Flower” (Fiordiligi). Their names are a clear sign that this opera is not about real life (any more than what we now call a “reality show”). Despina’s name is another that is not in found in real Italian families. Does it mean anything?
When I went to Greece on vacation, I took along a book of useful Greek phrases, such as “Where is the nearest laundry?” and “May I reserve a room for tonight?” There among phrases you would use in a hotel was the word for “maid,” “thespina,” spelled with theta, θ. Remember that when Italians try to pronounce “th” it will turn into “d,” and you know how Despina got her name. I don’t know whether Mozart knew any Greek, but Da Ponte had a theological education that must have included a little Greek.
So Beautiful Gold and Lily Flower had a maid named Maid!