Making it in Milan: Mozart's 'Mitridate, King of Pontus'

Making it in Milan: Mozart's 'Mitridate, King of Pontus'

Though "show biz" is certainly a glamorous and potentially lucrative way to make a living, it can also be a cut-throat affair. Everyone "in the business" is also in constant competition for the best scripts, the best parts, the hottest stars, and the biggest box-office. But, of course, that's nothing new -- as demonstrated by the origins of Mozart's opera Mitridate, King of Pontus.

In Milan, in 1770, Mozart was the new kid in town -- literally. He was just 14 years old, and had been commissioned to write Mitridate for the city's most prestigious theater, the Teatro Regio Ducal. That's the opera house we now know as La Scala.

Milan had long been a hotbed of opera, and the locals were hardly receptive to this preposterously young musician from Austria. Not unexpectedly, the city's opera composers, singers and all manner of other theater people tried to undermine his efforts. One composer sent the lead soprano arias he had written, using the same verses Mozart was setting, and urged her to sing his stuff, instead, looking to humiliate Mozart in the process. The lead tenor complained about his showcase aria, demanding five rewrites of the number over a period of just two days. Another male lead purposely showed up in Milan so late that Mozart had to write all of this singer's music at the very last minute, with no time to spare. All of these plotters likely expected the 14-year-old to wilt under the pressure.

But Mozart was hardly your average teenager, and the intrigue didn't seem to faze him. In the end, he won the singers over so thoroughly that the late-arriving male lead offered to have himself castrated if his big duet went badly. Admittedly, the man was a male soprano -- a castrato -- so he didn't have much too lose. But his heart, at least, was in the right place.

And the opera Mozart composed? It premiered the day after Christmas and had a run of more than 20 performances during Milan's festival season. It was a nearly unprecedented hit and, given the circumstances, a remarkable accomplishment by anyone's standards -- even Mozart's.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Mozart's Mitridate from the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The stars are soprano Patricia Petitbon as the beautiful young Aspasia, tenor Barry Banks as Mitridate, the king who wants to marry her, and mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus as Sifare, the man Aspasia actually loves, in a production led by conductor Ivor Bolton.