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the true story of Salieri's mistress: Catarina Cavalieri

Updated on September 9, 2010


Very little is really known about Catarina Cavalieri. In the movie Amadeus she plays a key role in the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, but her part in the movie is nearly completely fabricated. There is no evidence that she ever had an affair with Mozart but there is evidence to show that she was Salieri’s mistress.

The evidence for this comes mainly from a letter from Lorenzo DaPonte, Mozart’s librettist, to the emperor Leopold II wherein he accuses Salieri and his “German woman” of cabals against him and his mistress, Adriana Ferrarese del Bene. Other evidence comes from Mozart's last letter to his wife where he describes how he picked up Salieri and Cavalieri and took them to see The Magic Flute from his private box at the theater. However, none of this evidence is definitive and there is still much debate amongst scholars as to whether Salieri and Cavalieri really were lovers. Curiously, she is mentioned much more in Mozart’s letters than in any of Salieri’s pages of notes for his biographer. Perhaps this is all the more evidence that he wished to keep their relationship a secret.

The facts of Catarina Cavalieri’s life are as follows:

She was born (or baptized more likely) March 18, 1755 in Währing, then a suburb of Vienna. The name she was born with was Katharina Maggdalena Josefa Kavalier which she later Italianized to Catarina Cavalieri. Her father was a schoolteacher and choir director at the local church where his daughter got her initial experience with music. It is unknown how she became known to Salieri, though it seems that by 1774 she became his student of singing.

Though one contemporary source describes Cavalieri as "frightfully ugly" with "one eye" and pitiable acting ability, her voice was marked by extreme virtuosity. Apparently Salieri excelled in creating high coloratura sopranos through his teaching as several of his students had very similar vocal profiles. Cavalieri had a large range, equally at ease in her chest and head voice. Most of her arias are in C major and contain march like rhythms, the defining characteristics being long runs of triplets, and measures of scales pushing constantly upward to high D. Her acting was often criticized as being a bit stiff, but as she got better she became well known for playing comic roles.

 She made her official Viennese debut at the Burgtheater in 1775 in the premier of Anfossi’s “La finta giardiniera” and also sang the minor role of Vanesia in Salieri’s “La finta scema” that same year. When emperor Joseph II started the Singspiel company in 1778 she sang in the inaugural production, Umlauf’s “Die Bergknappen”, then in another of his operas, "Die Pücefahrben Schuhe" a few months later. Salieri's only German Singspiel, "Der Rauchfangkehrer" premiered in 1781 where Cavalieri sang the part of Nanette. Cavalieri sang with the Singspiel until its dissolution in 1783, claiming her greatest role in history as the first Constanze in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” which premiered July 16, 1782.

In 1783 the absence of the Singspiel was compensated for by the return of the Italian opera company and Cavalieri was employed to sing mainly buffa roles. It was with this company that she sang in the major revivals of Mozart’s Italian operas, “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” with new music composed specifically for her. Mozart composed the aria "Mi tradi" for her to sing as Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni" and composed a new coloratura ending to "Dove Sono" sung by the Countess in "Le Nozze di Figaro". Some people consider the new ending blasphemy Mozart committed against his own opera, and so it has been completely forgotten. Mozart transposed "Mi tradi" down a half step to D major after he had already composed it in E flat, as apparently Cavalieri was having a more difficult time sustaining her high notes than usual. Cavalieri also sang the role of Ernestina in the Vienna revival of “La scuola de gelosi” by Salieri.

She is also well known for her part as Madame Silberklang in Mozart’s short opera, “Der Schauspieldirektor” which was performed in February 1786 alongside Salieri’s opera “Prima la musica, poi la parole.” The Mozart opera was a parody of life at the German theater and portrays Cavalieri and Mozart’s sister in law, Aloyisa Lange, as rivals, which only a few years earlier was indeed the case. Salieri’s opera is a parody on the Italian opera and portrays the rivalry between Nancy Storace and the new singer Celeste Coltellini. These two operas were performed at either end of the Orangerie, the exotic plant room at the palace of Schönbrunn where the guests watched one opera then turned their chairs to face the other end and watch the other opera.

Cavalieri sang in many oratorios as well, including Mozart’s “Davidde Penitente” and his arrangement of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea.” Perhaps the first work she ever performed in Vienna was Salieri's oratorio "La Sconfitta di Borea" in 1774 or 1775 which contains an aria written for her, "Vedo l'amiche insigne", that Salieri re-used in two of his later operas.

At the time the aforementioned letter by Lorenzo DaPonte was written many of the old opera performers and composers were falling out of favor with the court of the new emperor, Leopold II. Leopold was not at all interested in music and found running the court opera a huge bother he would rather do without. The performers and all involved with the opera felt this keenly and were very upset about this change of events. When DaPonte complained about the intrigues of Salieri and Cavalieri all three were relieved of their duties with the theater. The year was 1793. After this there is no mention of Catarina Cavalieri until she dies of "Faulfieber" on June 30, 1801.

List of known roles

1774 or 1775

Eurilla in "La Sconfitta di Borea", oratorio by Antonio Salieri


Vanesia in "La finta scema", opera by Antonio Salieri

Sandrina in "La finta giardiniera", opera by Pasquale Anfossi


Sophie in "Die Bergknappen", Singspiel by Ignaz Umlauf

Role unknown "Die pücefarben Schuhe", Singspiel by Ignaz Umlauf


Nanette in "Der Rauchfangkehrer", opera by Antonio Salieri


Constanze in "Die Entführung aus dem Serail", Singspiel by W.A. Mozart


Ernestina in "Le scuoli de gelosi", opera by Antonio Salieri


"Le vicende d'amore", intermezzo by Pietro Guglielmi


Epponina in "Giulio Sabino", opera by Giuseppe Sarti

Aurora in "L'incontro inaspettato", opera by Vincenzo Righini

Soloist in "Davidde Penitente", oratorio by W.A. Mozart


Madame Silberklang in "Der Schauspieldirektor", Singspiel by W.A. Mozart


"Gli sposi malcontenti", opera by Stephen Storace


Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni", opera by W.A. Mozart


The Countess in "Le Nozze di Figaro", opera by W.A. Mozart

Galatea in Mozart's arrangement of "Acis and Galatea", oratorio by G.F. Handel

Erifile in "Il Natale d'Apollo" dramatic cantata by Vincenzo Righini


Lisetta in "Il Re Teodoro in Venezia", opera by Giovanni Paisiello


sang in a miserere by Sarti in June 1786, Mozart composed the role of Bettina for her in "Lo sposo deluso" which was never finished. She also sang an aria, "So gut, wie er mir scheine" in Franz Asplmayr's "Die Kinder der Natur" as well as an aria, "Singt, ihr süssen Philomelen" in "Frühling und Liebe" by Maximilian Ulbrich dates unknown.  For another list of roles (some of which are likely but I haven't been able to otherwise verify) see the link to Cavalieri's French biography below.


"Divas of Mozart's Day" Patrice Michaels, soprano; Classical Arts Orchestra, Stephen Alltop, conductor. Cedille records 2002

"Diana Damrau-Arie di Bravura" Diana Damrau, soprano; Le cercle de l'Harmonie, Jeremie Rhorer, conductor. Virgin Classics 2007. (The last aria on the disc is "se spiegar potessi apieno" from "La finta scema". An aria which John Rice says may indicate Salieri's growing love for Caterina Cavalieri.


Gidwitz, Patricia Lewy. "Vocal Profiles of Four Mozart Sopranos." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1991.

____. "'Ich bin die erste Sangerin': Vocal Profiles of Two Mozart Sopranos." Early Music 19 (1991)

Link, Dorothea. "The National Court Theatre in Mozart's Vienna: Sources and Documents, 1783-1792." Oxford, 1998

Rice, John. A. "Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera." Chicago. 1998

You can buy these here


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    • profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thanks so much for reading, Eira! I actually don't know where to find this alternative Dove sono. The most I have been able to find was a small excerpt in this article by Patricia Lewy Gidwitz: "'Ich bin die erste Sangerin': Vocal Profiles of Two Mozart Sopranos." Early Music 19 (1991)

      Perhaps if you can get in touch with her she can help you find it. Let me know too if you do. :)

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Hi! Thank you for a nice and informative text. Am looking for the Dove sono-version you mentioned here, and wonder if you know in what library or collection it might be hidden? Best greetings, Eira

    • Richard Thomas profile image

      Richard Thomas 

      9 years ago

      Wow!! Amazing info!! I love the movie, and the whole story is just a great one, with the added bonus of glorious music. Thanks so much for a fantastic hub :))


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