About this work
In February 1785, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had given a lunch party, called "Spring Festival on a Winter's Day," in the long orangery of Schönbrunn Castle -- the only hall that could be satisfactorily heated during the winter months. Having been pleased with the result, the Emperor wished to repeat the event in January 1786 in honor of his sister, the Archduchess Christine Marie, and her husband, Duke Albrecht Kasimir of Sachsen-Teschen. For entertainment, Joseph commissioned two musical parodies, one Italian, and one German. The Italian piece, Prima la musica, e poi le parole, was assigned to his court composer, Antonio Salieri, and the German Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) went to Mozart.
While imperial orders for such a work may have come as an unwelcome interruption to Mozart (who was hard at work on Le Nozze di Figaro and his Piano Concerto, K. 482 in E Flat), he can hardly have failed to have gained a certain wry satisfaction from the libretto, furnished him by his friend Johann Gottleib Stephanie -- for it concerned the tribulations of an impresario trying to mount a performance of an opera. Cast in one short act, the opera has just four numbers: one aria for each of the two sopranos (who quarrel relentlessly over which of them is the better), a trio in which the impresario (tenor) attempts to placate them, and a finale which points up the moral responsibility of all artists to devote themselves to their craft, and not to fame. The soprano arias, in particular, are vocal showpieces as well as effective comic moments. Mozart prefaced this short divertissement with an unexpectedly well-developed overture.
Both operas were duly performed in the orangery on February 7, and the event was fully reported in the Viennese press. One publication suggested that Mozart's "German piece infinitely surpassed the Italian one (Salieri's) in intrinsic value". Unfortunately for Mozart, such assessments were not reflected in his fee, which court records show to have been half the amount paid to Salieri (though, in fairness, the work commissioned from Salieri was more substantial). Later in February, three further performances of both works were given at the Kärntnertor-Theatre. Despite its brevity and occasional character, Der Schauspieldirektor has remained popular, and modern productions often update its satirical humor to contain contemporary references.