Montezuma (opera)

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This article is about the opera by Roger Sessions. For other uses of Montezuma, including other operas of the same name by Graun and others, see Montezuma (disambiguation).

Montezuma is an opera in three acts by the American composer Roger Sessions, with an English libretto by Giuseppe Antonio Borgese that incorporates bits of the Aztec language, Nahuatl, as well as Spanish, Latin, and French.[1]

Though Sessions did not receive Borgese's libretto (in first draft) until 1941, and work on the opera proceeded in an irregular fashion after ("Sessions thought that the end of his labor was in sight in the summer of 1952. He was mistaken, and the work on Montezuma was suspended"), the opera incorporates, essentially unchanged, sketches (from Sessions' notebooks) dating from the late 1930s, and was completed on July 1, 1962.[2]

Performance history[edit]

Montezuma was first performed on 19 April 1964 at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, in a German translation.

The American premiere (and the first performance with the original English libretto) was given on 31 March 1976 by the Opera Company of Boston, conducted by Sarah Caldwell. The cast included Richard Lewis (Montezuma), Alexander Stevenson (Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Young), Donald Gramm (Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Old), Brent Ellis (Cortez), Phyllis Bryn-Julson (Malinche), Alan Crofoot (Jerónimo Aguilar/veteran), and Eunice Alberts as Cuaximatl.[3]

The New York City premiere was given in February, 1982 by the Juilliard American Opera Center, conducted by Frederik Prausnitz.[4] Bernal was sung by Robert Keefe, Cortez by James Dietsch, Alvarado by Cornelius Sullivan, Montezuma by Robert Grayson, and Malinche by Hei-Kyung Hong.[5] The scenery was designed by Ming Cho Lee and the lighting was by Beverly Emmons.


Role Voice type Premiere Cast
19 April 1964[6]
(Conductor: Heinrich Hollreiser)
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Old bass Ernst Krukowski
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Young tenor Karl Ernst Mercker
Cacamatzin tenor Martin Vantin
Cuauhtemoc[7] baritone Barry McDaniel
Cuaximatl mezzo-soprano Yonako Nagano
Fray Olmedo de la Merced bass Manfred Röhrl
Guidela baritone
Hernán Cortez baritone William Dooley
Itlamal soprano Marina Türke
Malinche soprano Annabelle Bernard
Jeronimo Aguilar baritone Walter Dicks
Montezuma tenor Helmut Melchert
Netzahualcoyotl bass Martti Talvela
Passer-by 1 baritone Wilhelm Lang
Passer-by 2 baritone Robert Koffmane
Pedro de Alvarado tenor Loren Driscoll
A Soldier of Cortez's Army tenor Cornelis van Dijk
Teuhtlilli, an ambassador of Montezuma tenor Helmut Krebs
Veteran baritone Hanns Heinz Nissen


Former British Prime Minister Edward Heath, after hearing the US premiere in Boston in 1976, said "I found it fascinating. … I liked the subject—one of the few instances of an important event in history where the British played no part. In the tragedy of Montezuma we share no responsibility".[8]


  1. ^ Steinberg 1976, 15.
  2. ^ Prausnitz, pp.211-12; 1962 date from Sessions' own condensed (autograph) score, etc.
  3. ^ Kessler 2008, 232-33.
  4. ^ Prausnitz 2002, 292.
  5. ^ Olmstead 2008, 329.
  6. ^ "Program of first performance, Berlin, April 19, 1964", reprinted in the preface to the vocal score of the opera (New York: Marks Music Corporation, 1965); Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Montezuma, 19 April 1964". Almanacco Amadeus (Italian).
  7. ^ The spelling throughout the score and in the German cast list. The English cast list in the score misspells the name "Cuanuhtemoc". Olmstead 1985 consistently has "Cuahetemoc"; in Olmstead 2008, 335–37, the name is spelled as in the score.
  8. ^ Soria 1976, MA-5.


  • Anon. 1964. 'American Opera Staged in Berlin First'. The Times (6 May).
  • Brody, Martin. 1992. 'Montezuma (ii)' in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Stanley Sadie (London) ISBN 0-333-73432-7
  • Davies, Peter Maxwell. 1964a. 'Sessions's Opera Stirs Berliners: "Montezuma" Is Greeted by Violent Reactions'. New York Times (21 April).
  • Davies, Peter Maxwell. 1964b. '"Montezuma" Creates a Stir in Berlin'. New York Times (3 May).
  • Davis, Peter G. 1982. 'Montezuma's Revenge'. New York Magazine (8 March): 89.
  • Harbison, John. 1977. "Roger Sessions and Montezuma". Tempo, new series, no. 121 (June): 2–5.
  • Kessler, Daniel. 2008. Sarah Caldwell: The First Woman of Opera. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-5947-0 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-8108-6110-7 (pbk).
  • Mason, Charles Norman. 1982. 'A Comprehensive Analysis of Roger Sessions' Opera Montezuma'. DMA diss. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois.
  • Olmstead, Andrea. 1985. 'The Plum'd Serpent: Antonio Borgese's and Roger Sessions's Montezuma'. Tempo, new series, no. 152 (March): 13–22.
  • Olmstead, Andrea. 2008. Roger Sessions: A Biography. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-97713-5 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-415-97714-2 (pbk.) ISBN 978-0-203-93147-9 (ebook)
  • Porter, Andrew. 1978. 'The Matter of Mexico', in his Music of Three Seasons: 1974-1977, 337–44. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Porter, Andrew. 1982. 'A Magnificent Epic'. The New Yorker (March): 128 & 132.
  • Prausnitz, Frederik. 2002. Roger Sessions: How a "Difficult" Composer Got That Way. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510892-2
  • Smith, Patrick J. 1976. 'Boston Opera: "Montezuma"'. High Fidelity/Musical America 26, no. 7 (July): MA-24.
  • Soria, Dorle J. 1976. 'Artist Life'. High Fidelity/Musical America 26, no. 7 (July): MA-5 & MA-35.
  • Steinberg, Michael. 1976. 'Enter Montezuma: Roger Sessions' Complex Opera Finally Gets Its U.S. Premiere in Boston—A Dozen Years after Its World Premiere in Berlin'. Opera News 40, no. 19 (April 3): 10–16.