‘People were always trying to fix her’: the ‘blind enchantress’ who wowed Mozart

Maria Theresia von Paradis’s piano bewitched the Viennese court – but she was tormented by quacks proffering remedies she didn’t need. Now a disabled theatre team are turning her life into opera

Millions across the world watched cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason play at Megan and Harry’s wedding. But only a tiny fraction of those viewers would have known the haunting Sicilienne with which his performance begun, or the composer believed to have written it. Maria Theresia von Paradis, once the darling of the Viennese court, a blind piano prodigy, singer, composer and music professor who performed for royalty throughout Europe, has since been erased from history.

“She was deeply respected by her contemporaries – Mozart, Salieri and Haydn,” says Selina Mills, co-librettist of a new chamber opera about her life, with music by Errollyn Wallen. “They all wrote for her – and they most likely shagged her too.” Blind from the age of five, Paradis studied with Antonio Salieri, who composed an organ concerto for her, and established a successful career as a pianist and singer. She was so proficient at the keyboard that Mozart, by some accounts, wrote his Piano Concerto No 18, K456 for her, and her concerts in London saw her hailed as “the blind enchantress”. When she died in 1824, contemporary catalogues recorded that Paradis had written at least five operas, two cantatas, 15 keyboard works, songs and a piano trio. But, like Sophocles and Aeschylus, she was fated to have much of her oeuvre lost to future generations.

Paradis has largely been forgotten as a musician and replaced – if at all – by a sexualised foil to the grand narratives of classical music’s great men. There’s a nasty little scene, for instance, in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in which Salieri tries to get his rival into trouble. “Mozart is not entirely to be trusted alone with young ladies,” Salieri tells Emperor Joseph, striving to thwart Mozart’s appointment as teacher to Joseph’s young niece. “One of my own pupils – a very young singer – told me she was, er, well, molested, Majesty. Twice, in the course of the same lesson.”

The singer in question was Paradis. “What happened to her became a joke in court. Courtiers would say: ‘Mozart is in paradise,’ says Mills. “Geddit?”

If Paradis has ever come centre stage it is chiefly through the lens of her unsuccessful treatment by Franz Mesmer, the German physician whose theories of animal magnetism were tested out on the 18-year-old musician. That relationship was the focus of Julian Barnes’s short story Harmony, Hilary Mantel’s radio play The Price of Light, and Barbara Albert’s elegant film Mademoiselle Paradis. The last of these explored the bitter irony that when Mesmer briefly managed to get Paradis to see again, her musical talent seemed to deteriorate – opening up the the possibility that her artistry was dependent on sensory deprivation and raising the intriguing question of whether she would actually have been better off if she had regained her sight permanently.

“People were always trying to fix her,” says playwright and co-librettist Nicola Werenowska. “For me, as a neuro-divergent person, that resonates profoundly. People were always trying to cure me of dyspraxia by coming up with ways to get me to tie my own shoelaces or improve my handwriting.”

“The same happens to me,” says Mills, who is partially sighted. “I’m always having people say, ‘Can’t you get laser treatment, or an app?’”

Maria Theresia von Paradis, c 1740.
‘The blind enchantress’ … Maria Theresia von Paradis, c 1740. Photograph: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We’re chatting in a back room of Graeae, the theatre company named after three sisters of Greek mythology who had one eye and one tooth between them which they shared. Director Jenny Sealey has been deaf since she was seven. How, you may be wondering, does a deaf woman direct an opera? “It is not a world I know,” she admits, “but when I get scared it fuels my desire not to conform. Everything we do at Graeae is experimental and challenging.”

Sealey has long pioneered a new theatrical language, creatively embedding signing, creative captioning and audio description into rehearsals and on stage. At rehearsal Sealey puts her cast through their paces, accompanied by a signer and composer Errollyn Wallen.

Wallen’s score mixes jazz and other improbable musics with pastiches evoking the first Vienna school, as well as quotations from Mozart and Salieri. She was concerned to give the opera’s characters their own musical signatures: “It’s not just a question of characters having their own motifs but they often have their own key centres and rhythms.”

The Paradis Files does not soft pedal the suffering its heroine endured at the hands of quacks and charlatans hired by her parents. Enter, at one point in the opera, Josef Barth, a specialist in using bleeding techniques to cure cataracts. “Let me examine your eyes with pins,” he sings. “Just a little discomfort.”

Jan Ingherhaus, a pioneer in electricity, wants to apply charged pincers to Theresia’s eyes. And then there is the so-called master of bandages who wants to bandage her head so tightly that the optic nerve will function better. “Please stop it! howls Theresia, sung by mezzo-soprano Bethan Langford, herself visually impaired. “Get away from me!”

Despite all this torture, The Paradis Files is decidedly not a tragedy, still less the depiction of a passive woman on the receiving end of patriarchal power. That approach probably stems from the fact that most of the creatives involved in the production are disabled women. “We all vehemently agreed that this would not be the core of our story,” says Sealey.

‘Everything we do at Graeae is experimental and challenging’ … The Paradis Files
‘Everything we do at Graeae is experimental and challenging’ … The Paradis Files. Photograph: Patrick Baldwin

“She really did not see her life as a tragedy,” says Mills, who points out that not only was Paradis a successful musician and businesswoman – after her performing career was over she set up the first school in Vienna for blind girls – but also an inventor. She devised different-shaped playing cards for blind people so she could join in at the card tables at court and designed raised maps made of pâpier-maché and a system of silken cords with different knots that she draped across her lap so she could so she could recall key and time changes while playing. When Paradis died, explains Mills, she left enough money in the bank to support her school for a century afterward, and, unlike Mozart, who was buried in a pauper’s grave, she was laid to rest in the family mausoleum in Vienna.

“We were really committed to giving Theresia her voice after she had been silenced for so long,” says Mills.

That said, much of the opera’s story is fiction. “I wanted to write about class so I invented the character of Gerda, Theresia’s maid ,” says Werenowska. There is also a Greek chorus of gossips who keep up a running commentary on the story as it flashes back through her life.

Mills, who spent many years researching her book Life Unseen: The History of Blindness, says she was long looking for a blind female role model: “It was wonderful for me to find Maria Theresia von Paradis. She is the woman I’d been searching for.”

• The Paradis Files, performed by Graeae and the BBC Concert Orchestra, is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 13 and 14 April, then touring until 12 May.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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