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A Classic (of sorts)

When pianist and scholar Charles Rosen penned his book The Classical Style, he could not have known that it would become an instant classic (pun intended). It went on to win the 1972 National Book Award and prompted a commotion of musicological debate about his analysis of the Classical era from Mozart to Haydn to Beethoven—even prompting a reissue in 1997 in which the author addressed his critics. Suffice it to say, this was anything but a comedy—at least not until a dinner party where pianist and soon-to-be librettist Jeremy Denk encountered Rosen and found his stupefying wealth of knowledge exactly that: stupefying. It was with a tongue-in-cheek approach that Denk and composer Steven Stucky were co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall to create a comic opera based on Rosen’s book, recruiting director Mary Birnbaum to help bring it all to life at its world premiere last summer at the Ojai Music Festival. This trio of artists recently discussed the opera and the trio of composers at the forefront of the plot in advance of its New York premiere.

What was the inspiration for taking one of musicology’s most-respected—and serious—books and transforming it into a comic opera?

Jeremy Denk: The idea came to me over dinner and was emailed to a few friends the next morning as a joke. Gradually, however, as often happens in Haydn and Mozart, the joke began to take itself seriously. No one had done anything like it before, so there was the “why not?” factor. And there was the imagined fun of writing music about music, turning in on itself, making fun of itself, becoming a hall of mirrors. Once I began thinking about it, the possibilities were endless. The story of the creation of the style of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven is an amazing event in cultural history; it has its own drama, its inception, development, crisis, and farewell. So even though a book-length essay seems the most un-operatic thing ever, there is an opera plot hiding in there somewhere. On top of all that, there is the idea of paying homage to one of the best books on music ever written—a true classic about the classics.

What makes it only an opera “of sorts”?

Denk: It’s a “disclaimer element”—we don’t want people coming to this expecting, say, Aida.

Steven Stucky: We are doing several things at once: telling two stories (the quest narrative in which Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven search for Charles; and the codependent love triangle of Dominant, Tonic, and Subdominant); musing on the place of classical music in today’s society; refl ecting (sometimes impiously, naughtily on the perhaps overprecious style of current musical scholarship); and making many, many musical jokes. Much of this does not have a place in traditional opera.

Mary Birnbaum: It’s an opera, punctuated by (spoken) lectures from Rosen himself that are adapted from the actual book. I was delighted by how easily it all translates to the stage. That is a tribute to Rosen’s imagination and intimacy with classical music and, in turn, Jeremy’s and Steven’s.

How do you go about humanizing tonalities (tonic, dominant, subdominant—even the so-called “Tristan” chord)—for a nonmusical audience?

Stucky: We’ve tried to make these characters sharply drawn, both in their lyrics and in their musical styles. So even if their origins in music theory mean nothing to a particular listener, he or she can readily identify Tonic as the overconfident narcissist; Subdominant as the hottie with the smoky voice and soothing, come-hither presence; and the Tristan Chord as the disreputable character in a shabby trench coat with a smoker’s cough and a shady past.

Birnbaum: In his book and in his lectures, Rosen breathes life into many dry-ish musical concepts, including the tonalities. Jeremy followed his lead and created an archetypal character for each: Dominant is a hot mess, Tonic is an arrogant wheeler and dealer, and Subdominant is an earth mother who helps Tonic find a sense of inner peace. Steven’s music makes each of these characters even more specific.

Denk: The thing is, we all know these chords profoundly. Anyone who’s sung “Happy Birthday” knows those three chords and how they function. It’s just the names that are off-putting, distancing. So those parts of the opera are a way of humanizing (and humor-izing) those annoying names.

Would you agree that this work is as much about the place of “Classical” music in today’s culture as it is about the music of the Classical period?

Denk: In the final scene, Steven wrote some extraordinary music that captured—so much more than I ever imagined—a sense of nostalgia and the evanescence of human achievement. This book is about timeless monuments and yet at the end you feel them slipping away into the past. I think that is a serious issue—an important part of life and also an important epiphany contained in the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.

Is there anything audiences should do to prepare to see the opera?

Birnbaum: Something that was certainly informative to me was to watch Rosen’s lectures on YouTube. He has the most poetic way of analyzing and explaining music.

Denk: To prepare for the opera, I would suggest one or two glasses of wine. Three is possible, depending on the individual. However, I would suggest this for almost any opera.

If Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven saw this performance, what do you think their reaction would be? What about Charles Rosen’s?

Birnbaum: I think Mozart would be delighted, but wish there were more dirty jokes. Haydn would be touched, and Beethoven would overcome his initial dismissiveness and be surprised to find how much he enjoyed it.

Stucky: They might well be as mystified (or even outraged) as they are in the opera itself when they stumble on a dunderheaded musicology symposium. Charles, too, with his very strong opinions, might not have been amused. But Charles’s longtime friend Henri Zerner loved it when he saw the premiere in Ojai.

Denk: My hope is that Charles would see it as the loving tribute that it is. However, the big three composers ... Luckily, lawsuits cannot be filed from eternity.

The Classical Style
Jennifer Zetlan, Ashraf Sewailam, and Dominic Armstrong
Photography: Timothy Norris, courtesy of the Ojai Music Festival
Thursday, December 4 at 7:30 PM
The Classical Style
Jeremy Denk, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, is pianist and librettist in this concert that features the eagerly awaited New York premiere of Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Steven Stucky’s opera The Classical Style. Inspired by Charles Rosen’s famous musicological work of the same name, Stucky and Denk have created an opera buffa where chords are characters sharing the stage with Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and, as Denk describes, “several unnecessary characters.” With absurd humor and great music, The Classical Style is sure to surprise and delight.

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