Aspen Opera Theater Center stages ‘The Classical Style’ and ‘The Cows of Apollo’
Special to The Aspen Times
If You Go …
What: ‘The Classical Style’ and ‘The Cows of Apollo (Or, The Invention of Music),” presented by the Aspen Music Festival and School
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Thursday, July 30 & Saturday, Aug. 1, 7 p.m.
How much: $40
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House Box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
Fear of contemporary opera should not scare local audiences away from the Aspen Opera Theater Center’s double bill of “The Classical Style” and “The Cows of Apollo.” Though both one-act operas were written in this century, the music is by composers who know how to communicate with audiences with hardly any spiky dissonances to grate on unwilling ears.
The pairing of witty and entertaining comedies debuts in the Wheeler Opera House on Thursday and reprises Saturday. These will be the first fully staged performances of both works.
Heard in performance last year in Berkeley, California, the score for “Classical Style” achieved a neat feat. Composer Steven Stucky appropriated familiar music from Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven for a story on how music of their era became the gold standard. But his own music not only knit the set pieces together seamlessly — it made statements of its own in carrying the story forward.
Stucky, who is on the composition staff at the Aspen Music Festival’s school, deflects credit for some of the guffaw-inducing highlights. Librettist Jeremy Denk, the renowned pianist and musical thinker, came up with the idea to open the opera with Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in heaven, playing Scrabble and arguing with one another over how the centuries have treated them. Stucky’s music fleshes out Denk’s characterizations of Mozart as a smartass, Beethoven as a grump and Haydn as a third wheel.
“I could have written the whole opera in a completely personal language,” Stucky said. “But we felt strongly that if we were making fun of musical conventions, we’d have to use familiar music.”
A parody of the catalog aria from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” is applied to one of the other composers. Later, a stuffy academic (named Snibbleworth, of course) delivers a bloodless lecture on the sonata form, the music for the scene written in actual sonata form.
While inside jokes such as this amuse music professionals and aficionados, musical novices will be too busy laughing at the surface jokes for it to matter. The catalog aria is about a very familiar piece of music all of us have heard, even those who disdain classical music. And the scene in sonata form ridicules academics who lose the emotional pull of their area of expertise, something all of us can relate to.
“Tonic, Dominant and Subdominant walk into bar” may sound like the start of a joke (and it is), but the scene plays as pure comedy. The Tonic chord is a narcissistic tenor, the Dominant chord (unfulfilled until she goes to the tonic, of course) is a needy soprano and a mezzo-soprano playing “a hottie Earth mother” (as Stucky calls her) is the Subdominant. She makes the lives of both the soprano and tenor more, um, colorful.
The protagonist in all this is Charles Rosen, the celebrated musicologist who wrote the book “The Classical Style,” which every musical theory student has read since its 1971 publication. Rosen was given to expounding at length on various aspects of music in general, and especially of the classical age. Denk’s libretto gives him several speeches, which are, of course, mocked.
Running through it all there’s a real story with heart that explores what happens when other ideas eclipse a great one. One bittersweet final scene personifies the “Tristan chord” (as a god with a patch over one eye—hint, hint, Wagner lovers). The opera ends with Rosen and Robert Schumann meditating on it all, touchingly.
A brisk pace makes it stageworthy.
“We had to make it short enough to keep up the momentum so the comedy would work,” Stucky noted. “Also, I was worried that I wouldn’t have time to finish.”
“The Cows of Apollo (Or, the Invention of Music),” the other half of the twin bill, jettisons nearly all remnants of seriousness from the fragment of a Sophocles play on which William M. Hoffman based his libretto. The source is one of the few existing bits of evidence of a satyr play, a light entertainment, usually involving a half-man half-horse creature, the sort of thing ancient Greeks inserted between tragedies to liven things up.
This one centers on the followers of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine (Bacchus in Roman myth). As composer Christopher Theofanidis outlines the plot, the curtain rises on a debauch that is getting out of hand. Apollo interrupts; someone has stolen his 50 sacred cows. The followers’ madcap search for the culprit finds Hermes, the love child of Zeus and the goddess Maia (who has a touching aria). He has made a lyre from one of the cows and become a bratty rock star. Chastened, he offers the lyre to Apollo, who tames the raucous sounds into music that charms the crowd. The opera ends in a hymn to music.
“On the surface, it’s quite silly,” Theofanidis said. “There’s a lot of slapstick, but at the end, there’s a surprisingly beautiful climax.”
Though I haven’t seen this piece, which debuted in 2001, an Aspen audience did hear some of the composer’s music last summer. “Rainbow Body” was an audience and critical favorite. The language of his score for “Heart of a Soldier,” his opera on the rescue of hundreds of office workers in the World Trade Center on 9/11 that premiered in 2011 in San Francisco, was highly accessible, communicative and grateful to voices.
Aspen Music Festival music director Robert Spano conducted the premieres of both “Classical Style” (last year in Ojai, California) and “Cows” (in Brooklyn, New York). He even sang Bacchus’ lines in the semi-staged performances of “Cows” in Brooklyn in 2001. The program is mum on who sings those lines in Aspen’s version.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.
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