Forget Mythology, It’s Musicology As Witty Opera Fare

Jennifer Zetlan (as Mozart), Ashraf Sewailam (Beethoven), and Dominic Armstrong (Haydn) in the world premiere of 'The Classical Style' at the Ojai Festival.  (Performance photos by Timothy Norris)
Jennifer Zetlan (as Mozart), Ashraf Sewailam (Beethoven), and Dominic Armstrong (Haydn) in ‘The Classical Style.’
(Performance photos by Timothy Norris)
By Richard S. Ginell

OJAI, Calif. – When pianist-writer-wit Jeremy Denk first appeared at the Ojai Music Festival in 2009, he was virtually unknown. But he proved to be a terrific fit for this quirky, brainy, adventuresome little festival, and he was recruited as Ojai’s music director for 2014 on the spot.

Aubrey Allicock as Tonic in the Stucky-Denk opera.
Aubrey Allicock as Tonic in the Stucky-Denk opera at the Ojai Festival.

As things turned out, Ojai proved to be a significant springboard for Denk’s career, which took off shortly after his appearances here. He returned over the past weekend as a rising star, with a good portion of the music world waiting with bated breath on Friday to see if he and composer Steven Stucky could turn a musicological book called The Classical Style into an opera. Well, why not? If Stephen Sondheim could make a Broadway musical out of a painting (Sunday in the Park with George) or Philip Glass could fashion symphonies out of David Bowie albums (the Low and Heroes Symphonies), no idea is too outlandish these days. Thus The Classical Style: An Opera (Sort Of), a 75-minute romp of a comic opera with serious undertones by a couple of guys who love music and are not afraid to have fun with it.

Pianist Jeremy Denk, librettist of 'The Classical Style.'
Pianist Jeremy Denk, librettist of ‘The Classical Style.’

Writing his first opera libretto, Denk seems to be hugely enjoying himself, firing off one contemporary reference and in-joke after another. He opens this fantasy in Heaven, where Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven – the Holy Trinity of classical-period geniuses – are playing Scrabble in German, fretting about the declining fortunes of classical music back on earth as reported in the New York Times. Haydn feels neglected; Mozart wants royalties from Amadeus; Beethoven is grumpy, pompous. They think that Charles Rosen, the late pianist-author of the book The Classical Style, understands them, and they want his reassurance that their music is still valuable and needed.

Peabody Southwell (Subdominant) Aubrey Allicock (Tonic) Rachel Calloway (Dominant) Classical Style Opera of Sorts Ojai Fest 2014 (TImothy Norris)
In this opera the Sub-Dominant (Peabody Southwell) is a femme fatale.

Rosen himself is a character, quoting sagely from his text as some of his concepts spring to life. The harmonic building blocks of classical-period music – Tonic, Dominant and Sub-Dominant – become real characters who behave in character; the needy Dominant pines after the one-track narcissist Tonic (his aria about “Me! Me! Me!” rivals Nixon In China’s “News! News! News!”), who desires the sexy femme fatale Sub-Dominant. A nerdy musicology student named Snibblesworth intrudes upon the scene, getting involved in an off-and-on re-enactment of Don Giovanni – complete with a funny parody of Leporello’s Catalog Aria – until he is unceremoniously dragged off to Hell. There are a few times when the musicological jargon gets to be too heavy going even for those in the loop. But you could rationalize that away if you consider that most operas are in foreign languages anyway.

Steven Stucky quotes past masters in his 'Classical Style' score.
Steven Stucky quotes beloved masters in his ‘Classical Style’ score.

Meanwhile Stucky – putting what he half-jokingly calls “those decades of teaching sophomore theory” at Cornell to good use – goes off on a spree, spraying mischievous quotes and parodies at us in a torrent of bemused erudition. There is a music theory class in which Stucky follows Denk/Rosen’s oration on sonata form in a virtual play-by-play commentary. Musical games abound: Don Giovanni morphs hilariously into Richard Strauss’ Don Juan as the Don loses his desire; a character called Tristan Chord (Rosen with an eyepatch) does a wickedly grim parody of Wotan’s monologue from Die Walküre with Sub-Dominant kneeling at his feet à la Brünnhilde. The opera ends not with a buffo finale, but with a scene of serious contemplation as Rosen and a kindly Robert Schumann wonder why styles go out of fashion as Stucky reverts to the dreamy clusters depicting Heaven with which he began Scene 1. Unlike, say, Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach tomfooleries, which hit the audience on all levels of sophistication simultaneously, it seems to me that The Classical Style is mostly aimed very high. It was clearly a hit with Ojai’s doting audience and with at least one music critic who laughed his head off at many of the musical in-jokes while wondering whether anyone outside the town limits would get them. Given the reality of fading awareness of classical music in our culture – and Denk strikes a nerve when he brings it up in his libretto, even in jest – will this kind of an entertainment be less and less viable as the years pass, sort of like the classical style itself in the 19th century? Wouldn’t that be ironic?

Kim Josephson plays pianist-author Charles Rosen in the opera.
Kim Josephson plays pianist-author Charles Rosen in the opera.

Robert Spano, the Ojai Festival’s music director in 2006, returned to lead New York’s chamber orchestra collective The Knights with brio and a keen ear toward the score’s plethora of jokes. Mary Birnbaum directed, placing The Knights at the rear of the stage, with a minimum of props up front like a bookcase ultimately doubling as a piano. A cast of eight talented singing actors doubled or tripled up on the many roles (the exception was tenor Keith Jameson, whose Snibblesworth was his only part). A particularly versatile member of the cast was the dark-timbred mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, who tripled in the roles of Sub-Dominant, a participant in the music theory class, and Schumann. The cast’s diction was pretty clear a good deal of the time, but in order to get the most from Denk’s clever libretto, you had to consult the supertitles on video monitors flanking the stage. Unfortunately, the layout in Ojai’s tree-shaded Libbey Bowl is such that the supertitles were blocked from view for many in the lower section. That shouldn’t be a problem in the venues where this opera is headed – Hertz Hall at UC Berkeley June 19 and 20, Zankel Hall in New York’s Carnegie Hall on Dec. 4, and the Aspen Festival in 2015. Prior to intermission, four members of The Knights who double as the string quartet Brooklyn Rider raced through Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 74, No. 3, as a kind of control sample of the classical style before it would be dissected. Of course, the Haydn quartet happens to bear the nickname, “The Rider.”

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent forAmerican Record Guide.