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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His music is being performed around the globe, from his greatest works to his most obscure.

A controversial new production of an unfinished opera that Mozart wrote when he was 23 has just opened in New York. Jeff Lunden has this story of Zaide.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

In 1779, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had already written several operas. But director Peter Sellars says Zaide was an important step for the young composer.

Mr. PETER SELLARS (Director, Zaide): It's the first one he wrote on his own terms. And no one commissioned it. He wrote it ‘cause he wanted to write it. And he would write it his way.

(Soundbite of Zaide)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: The opera, a tale of slaves captured in a Turkish harem, was never completed. Mozart, instead, accepted a commission to write Idomeneo which became his first real operatic success. He abandoned Zaide and never heard it performed. About 75 minutes of music remain. There's no overture, no finale and most of the libretto is lost.

Louis Langree, music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival and conductor of this production, says he can hear aspects of the composer's mature work in Zaide.

Mr. LOUIS LANGREE (Music Director, Mostly Mozart Festival; Conductor, Zaide): Absolutely! Absolutely! There are sturm and drang moments. Moments of (unintelligible) and the famous tiger aria when she compares the sultan, just in front of him, to a predator. It's something absolutely amazing. The violence that was in it.

(Soundbite of Zaide)

Unidentified Woman (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: This production of Zaide was co-commissioned for the 40th anniversary of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival and debuted in Vienna and London earlier this year.

Iconoclastic director Peter Sellars, who has set Mozart operas in the Trump Tower and in a diner, was hired to finish and direct the work. He took what remains of Zaide and added some incidental music Mozart wrote for an un-produced play.

Sellars says this was Mozart's blow against slavery.

Mr. SELLARS: Well, of course, Mozart was dealing with slavery as a directly contemporary phenomenon. And in 1779 was also putting forward the issue of the relations between the Muslim world and the West. And that's very courageous and bold.

LUNDEN: So, Sellars, in a bold move himself, set Zaide in a contemporary sweatshop and cast it entirely with African-American and Asian singers.

Mr. SELLARS: What you see on stage comes from my experiences in Los Angeles and what's going on in Queens at this moment, where in America, very desperate people who have no papers are desperate to stay here. They are kept in these factories and they are working 18-hour days and sleeping under their sewing machine and do not leave the building.

It's a very real story and we're putting it on stage with, I think, some authenticity and, of course, as always because it's Mozart, some art. And that combination, I hope, is very stimulating and very provocative.

LUNDEN: Indeed, the production was so provocative that some critics abroad reactive virulently, calling it overstated and excruciating. But Sellars argues that his vision is true to Mozart's spirit - that the composer was an educated man of the Enlightenment.

Mr. SELLARS: When music critics start lecturing me about how dare we taint Mozart, I am so furious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLARS: Because it's like, it's such an insult to Mozart to present Mozart as a moron and a numbskull who never had an idea in his head when it's the opposite. This is music of the most ferocious commitment that was written with courage and hope.

(Soundbite of Zaide)

Unidentified Woman (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: Regardless of how critics in New York respond to Peter Sellars' production, it's an opportunity for audiences to hear some rarely performed Mozart. Korean-born soprano Hyunah Yu is making her operatic debut as the title character. She says she's impressed by the opera's emotional range.

Ms. HYUNAH YU (plays Zaide in Zaide): There is parts where it's so painful and it's all in the music. The suffering, you can hear it and then there are some incredibly ethereal beautiful Mozart that comes in that you just go, ahhh.

(Soundbite of Zaide)

Ms. YU: (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: Music director Louis Langree says the ahhh factor is part of what makes Mozart so contemporary, even 250 years after his birth.

Mr. LANGREE: It's not modern music, but it still speaks to our soul, to our sensitivity, and as soon as you hear fi, da, dum, pa, da, dum, pa, da, da, dem, tu, da, dum, pa, da, dum, pa, da, dum - ahhh! It's Mozart!

(Soundbite of Zaide)

Unidentified Singers: (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: Zaide is playing at the Mostly Mozart Festival tonight and tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of Zaide)

MONTAGNE: And you can hear more music from Zaide at npr.org.

(Soundbite of Zaide)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.

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