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Recalling Anton Raaff, superstar tenor of the 18th century

Tuesday is the 300th birthday of tenor Anton Raaff, an international star who had a jet-setting musical career long before the invention of the jet. Born in Bonn, Raaff was plucked from a Jesuit seminary by the elector of Bavaria and sent to Munich for musical studies. Next came Bologna and study with Antonio Bernacchi, a noted castrato. Italy, and Italian opera, would launch a continental career.

He became a go-to for royal weddings of all kinds; he traveled from kingdom to kingdom: Vienna, Turin, Lisbon, Madrid (where he was recruited by the legendary castrato Farinelli). Raaff created roles for the most prominent composers of the day: Myslivecek, Piccinni, Johann Adolph Hasse (whose music Raaff admired), J.C. Bach (whose music he disdained). He was associated with works by Pietro Metastasio, the poet whose libretti were used — and reused — by composers across Europe. Metastasio, in turn, assumed that “wherever my matchless Raaff can be heard, he will doubtless ravish the hearts of all the audience.”


That was, apparently, no exaggeration. Raaff’s fans were legion; when castrati reigned operatically supreme, Raaff, a tenor, rivaled them in billing and celebrity. Contemporary accounts dismiss his acting, but marvel at the fullness of Raaff’s tone, his legato, the precision and projection of his diction. (Eighteenth-century celebrity being what it was, Raaff was also known for his deep, even severe piety, often praying the rosary backstage; his early seminary training left its mark.)

But, like so many performers in the days before recording, Raaff’s fame posthumously evaporated. Now he is remembered, if at all, as a footnote in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s biography. The two met in 1778, when Mozart presented the septuagenarian singer with a specially-composed concert aria (K. 295); three years later, Raaff sang the title role in the premiere of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” (which Raaff helped in getting commissioned).


Mozart’s letters chronicle his considerable efforts to satisfy Raaff, adding and revising arias to suit the singer’s preferred style while, at the same time, mitigating the weaknesses in his aging voice. Mozart didn’t complain. Despite differences of age and temperament, Mozart and Raaff became good friends, united by musical taste (Mozart might have bit his tongue at Raaff’s disparagements of J.C. Bach, but shared his reverence for Hasse), and, one suspects, a pragmatic and decidedly practical approach to the craft and business of musical theater.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.