8 years ago

Volume 12 - Issue 4 - December 2006

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OPERA at Homeby Phil

OPERA at Homeby Phil EhrensaftImmoral and Politically IncorrectThe Robert Greenberg Lectures on Mozart/Da PonteVienna's aristocracy was not politicallyamused when Le Nov.e diFigaro, the first operatic collaborationbetween Mozart and the poetlibrettistLorenzo Da Ponte, premieredin 1786. Servants outwittingtheir masters are front andcentre in the de Beaumarchais playthat Da Ponte adapted for the musicalstage. Radical French notionsparading in a Viennese opera theatredid not warm the heart of youraverage prince, duke or count.While Don Giovanni had a successfulpremier in Prague in 1787,reception in the Imperial capitalwas again cool. This time not onlywas an aristocrat portrayed in abad light, but immorality wasthrust onto centre stage -- alongwith music that was radical for itstime. As for Casi fan tutte, premieredin 1790, the aristocracyviewed the third and final Mozart­Da Ponte as downright licentious.It is hard to imagine from thestandpoint of today's reverence forthe Mozart-Da Ponte partnership,but it was well into the nineteenthcentury before Le Nov.e di Figaro,Don Giovanni and Casi fantutte began to assume their rightfulplace as seminal repertoire.Aristocratic rejection of the Mozart-DaPonte operas had severepersonal consequences for thecomposer, as Robert Greenberginforms us in the first of his 24brilliant lectures on The Operas ofMozart. (The Teaching Company,2002). Prevailing myths portrayMozart as utterly impractical, buthe was a successful musical entrepreneurwho pioneered selling subscriptionsas opposed to relying onaristocratic patronage. However,the nobility still provided most ofthe money supporting Vienna'scentral role in European musicallife. So Mozart had, as it were,bitten the hand that fed him. Commissionsstarted to dry up even asthe expenses of the Austro-HungarianEmpire's Ottoman war ateinto the funds available even to artistsfavoured by the nobility.Mozart was far less successfulas a consumer than as a producer.The Mozarts, very much part ofVienna's beau monde, keptspending even as their incomeplummeted, straining the couple'shealth and their marriage in the ensuingfinancial crunch. And it isthis strained marriage that serves asthe opening platform for yet anothersuperb recorded music courseby Robert Greenberg.Before delving further into thecourse, some background on theauthor and his publisher are in order.The Teaching Company startedin 1990, scouring North Americanuniversity campuses for topteachers, and then taping theircourses for commuters, joggersand the like. They now have adeep catalogue of courses in thesciences, arts and humanities, socialsciences, and religion, availableas audio cassettes, CDs,DVDs and MP3 or MP4 files .The Teaching Company sells directlyto the public via the Internetor telephone [ l2.asp or 1-800-TEACH-12 (1 -800-832-2412)]For classical music, The TeachingCompany offers 21 courses.In terms of music professors, youget to choose between Greenberg,Greenberg, or Greenberg. He'sso good, and his courses so wellreceived by clients, that the publisherjust keeps letting him looseon successive slices of the classicalrepertoire. If you listened to allhis courses, you'd have the equivalentof four full-time universitysemesters in music history."The wundermensch of classicalmusic outreach" is not an overstatementfor Greenberg's exceptionalpedagogical talents . He'ssimultaneouslya prize-winning composer,a professor ofmusic history, theresident music historianfor public institutionslike NationalPublic Radio and SanFrancisco Performances,and a guestlecturer. I've had thepleasure of seeingGreenberg and theAlexander StringQuartet fill up SanFrancisco's 928-seatHerbst Theater for aSaturday morning joint lecture andperformance series on Beethoven'sstring quartets. Classical musicneeds more people like him .The Operas of Mozart courseis a sequel to Greenberg's earlierHow to Listen to and UnderstandOpera, and Great Masters: Mozart- His Life and Music. Beinga good entrepreneur, Greenberginforms you that the Mozart operacourse presumes the knowledgeconveyed in his general opera andMozart courses: hint, hint. Believehim! I tested the general course onan old opera friend who has listenedto every Met opera broadcast,and has one of the EastCoast's major opera LP collectionsand a well-thumbed library of operabooks to match. He doubtedthat Greenberg could teach himone new thing but ended up listeningto the course twice over.Greenberg proceeds in threephases. First, he focuses on Casifan tutte, suggesting that this is theonly Mozart composition with explicitlyautobiographical content.Mozart was suspicious that hiswife Constanze was having an affairin retaliation for his own enthusiasmsfor the ladies of the theatre.Hence "cosi fan tutte ." Healso lays out the economic and socialimpact of late eighteenth centuryVienna on Mozart's musicalstrategies. But the main story ishow Mozart elevated the orchestrafrom an accompanistto a full partner inpropelling musicaldrama.Next there's asurvey of Mozart'soperatic endeavorsprior to his first matureopera, ldomeneo,Re di Creta(1781), whichGreenberg argues isthe finest of all operaseria. He regardsthe very earlyoperas as unremarkable,except for thefact that Mozart started when hewas just 11 years old.Then Le Nov.e di Figaro redefinesopera entirely. The drama ispropelled by tremendous numbersof tempo changes and contrastingthematic materials. Characters begina musical line only to have itcompleted by another character.The orchestra plays continuously,knitting together the vocal partslayered above it. There is tremendousvariety of declamation. Mozart's ear for harmonic detail is unparalleled.But all of this new bag of impressivetechnical tools is in theservice of Mozart's sharp instinctsabout the human condition, andhow to translate emotions into music.Modern opera has arrived.The final section of Greenberg'swonderful course is an in-depthfocus on how Die 'Zauberfloteturned the humble German singspielinto high art. All the moreremarkable, in Greenberg's eyes,because Mozart had to work withan utterly mediocre and incoherentlibretto. 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