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  • Despots, Triangles, and Bass Drums: Orientalism on the Operatic Stage in Gustav III's Stockholm
  • Erling Sandmo (bio)

Turkish music was everywhere in Enlightenment Europe. Of the hundreds of Turkish operas and plays that drew audiences to the theaters, however, only Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail is still performed regularly today. Gluck's Le cadi dupé and La rencontre imprévue and Haydn's L'incontro improvviso are perhaps on the remote periphery of the repertory. Works such as Gluck's Semiramide riconosciuta (1748), David Pérez's Solimano (1757), Nicolas Chamfort's drama Le marchand de Smyrne, set by Vogler (1771), Stegmann (1773), and Holly (1775);1 Grétry's La caravane du Caire (1783); Dalayrac's Le corsaire (1783), and Süssmayr's Il turco in Italia (1794) and hundreds of others are all history—and that history is a paradoxical one.

Here is the paradox: Turkish opera was consistently comic opera, with Turks playing the laughingstocks. At the same time, the Ottoman Empire was the major Mediterranean power, an important ally and trading partner for the very nations whose audiences roared with laughter at the sly sultans and brute harem guards onstage. Turks were simultaneously taken very seriously and not seriously at all, a contradiction that opens up a number of questions.

Most work on Turkish opera in the Age of Enlightenment has related Turkish music to Edward Said's work on Orientalism.2 This is also my starting point: The Western image of the Oriental as a stereotypical "other"—sensual, effeminate, alluring, and cruel—is instantly recognizable in "Turkish" operas. Still, the question of what should be perceived as "Turkish" music is a historical one; Orientalist spectacle was a general phenomenon, but its practices were particular. Thus, it should be discussed with regard to specificities of time and place.

This essay deals with one particular case study, that of Turkish opera in Sweden. The Swedes had a close and long-standing relationship with the Ottoman Empire and were insatiable consumers of Turkish entertainment. This relationship made the Swedes both unique and, again paradoxically, representative: Most Western European nations had, in their own way, a special relationship [End Page 213] with the Ottoman Empire, and their own exceptionalist narratives. Consequently, the specific case of Sweden raises several broad questions, one of which lies at the crux of this article: How could an opera audience laugh and not laugh at the same time?

Northern Turks

I am not claiming that the relationship between Sweden and the Ottoman Empire was drastically different from the Ottoman relationship with Sweden's European neighbors. Rather, the Swedes regarded it as special. Whether or not this was the case is not the issue here. The popularity of Turkish entertainment would typically depend on notions of particular national relationships with the Ottoman Empire.3

Gustav III was crowned in 1771. Young but ambitious, two years into his reign he reinstated absolutism and put an end to the nation's "age of liberty." He also instituted a foreign policy aimed at regaining Sweden's former position as the major power in northern Europe. A few years after that, in 1775, Olof von Stierneman—an officer, nobleman, and author on military matters—presented the young king with a small book he had written on other European nations' value as potential allies of Sweden. But von Stierneman's most remarkable passages examine France and Turkey and the reasons for the recent decline of the Ottoman Empire—a decline that he compares to Sweden's own:

The French nation has . . . won for itself the trading of every kind of French luxurious goods (which have corrupted the earlier, coarse customs of the Swedish people, and sapped their way of living of its strength), from which the French nation has gained a substantial advantage in the matter of the selling in Sweden of their liqueurs, spirits, and sundry kinds of galanterie, so that this despicable trade has given the French nation at least a three hundred percent greater profit than the advantage which the Swedish Crown has gained from the French subsidies. . . . Just as Eastern voluptuousness has corrupted Turkish customs, French voluptuousness has corrupted Swedish customs, and...


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