Tag Archives: Essay

The Historical Mitridate and his Family

13 Apr

The opera “Mitridate” by Mozart tells the story of the last days of Mithridates VI, tyrant king of a land known as Pontus. The spelling “Mitridate” is the Italian spelling of “Mithridates”, because the opera was written in Italian. The opera “Mitridate” is historical fiction. Many of the characters portrayed are real people, and many of the events happened in history in some form or other. The opera, like most biography dramas, changes a lot of facts for the sake of drama, but also includes many interesting things that happened in the life of this historical figure.

Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysius

Mithridates was essentially the Hitler of the ancient world. He was universally hated (outside of his Kingdoms) because of his genocidal tendencies and his strong military. He was an enemy of Rome throughout the course of many wars, opposing such famous military leaders as Pompey the Great and the great dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, when Sulla was still only a general. Pontus (seen in the map below in purple) spanned a large part of Northern Turkey and the Southern shores of the Black Sea in the ancient world. Mitridate was king of Pontus from 120 b.c. to 63 b.c., which is a lengthy 57 year reign.

Pontus

In the opera, Mitridate pretty much sentences every single character to death at some point. Notable is Mitridate’s penchant for poisoning people, which is something he did regularly in real life. He was also very concerned that somebody would try to poison him. Certain of an assassination plot, Mitridate gradually built up an immunity to poison throughout his life by taking sub-lethal doses and creating “Mithridatum“, or medicines he created himself, that have since been proven to help reduce swelling.

Mithridates is seen in this statue portrait dressed as Hercules, a god whose likeness Mithridates often used in propaganda.

The Wives of Mithridates

1. Laodice

Mithridate’s first wife was also his sister. Laodice is pretty much the epitome of a bad first marriage. After a short while the Queen began to take lovers while her husband was at war. She even had an illegitimate son, which surprised Mithridates when he returned home unexpectedly, because he had been gone longer than nine months! Soon thereafter, he walked in on her with her “lovers” (which I put in quotes because the plural form suggests many things to the imagination). As if that wasn’t enough, he also discovered she and her lovers were going to attempt to assassinate him with poison at his welcome home party. Needless to say, Laodice and her lovers did not survive the night. They were executed and Mithridates cursed his mother for bearing such a wicked daughter.

I guess the moral of the story is don’t marry your sister.

Laodice is the mother of the evil son Pharnaces II (Farnace), one of the main characters from Mozart’s opera.

This fascinating architecture, which I think is a bit later in history, is actually located in the Pontic landscape. Trabzon, Turkey, used to be a part of Pontus. Vazelon Manastiri, Macka, in Trabzon. Photo by Efkan Sinan.

2. Monime

Coming up second was the lady with the very Star Wars-y name, Monime. Mithridates was visiting some Greek allies, and saw the beautiful daughter of his friend. Monime and her father saw at once that Mithridates was enamored of her. They basically extorted the King for an enormous sum, and numerous titles, to buy her and take her home. Which Mithridates did. While Mithridates did like her intelligence, which is notable, as well as her beauty, she proved to be fairly cunning, and they grew estranged. She was executed during the Mithridatic wars. I’m assuming it was the Roman enemy that killed her, because after Mithridates defeat, they gave careful consideration to purging the Mithridatic line by killing all members of his family who might have an hereditary claim to the throne.

I guess the moral of the story is don’t marry any woman whose terms of marriage resort to extortion.

Monime is the basis for the character of Aspasia in the opera “Mitridate.” We know this because Mozart’s opera is actually a remake of a French play by Jean Racine. In the original all the characters names are the same except for Monime, which was changed to Aspasia in the Italian opera.

Mount Nemrud, a statue covered mountain which was fully functional (not in ruins) in the Ancient Turkey when Mithridates ruled the land.

3. Berenice

Mithridates married Berenice, and seems to have been much pleased with her, because though she started out as a mistress/concubine, she eventually became a wife. When the Romans had seized upon them, Mithridates commanded Berenice to kill herself with poison. However, the poison did not fully work, and so she had to be strangled.

I guess the moral of this story is don’t marry a psychopath.

In the opera, Mitridate’s young fiancee, Aspasia, is given a chance to kill herself with poison. While the appearance and personality of Aspasia seem to have been drawn from Monime, perhaps this scene was inspired by the final moments of Berenice’s life?

The Kaunos Rock Tombs existed in Ancient Turkey, and are an example of contemporary architecture during Mithridates reign. Photo by mxpeyne.

4. Stratonice

Strangely enough, the life of Stratonice seems to be the most operatic out of the bunch, even though her story was not used in the opera. Like the previous wife, Berenice, Mithridates seems to have liked Stratonice. She was the mother of Xiphares (Sifare) who is another of the leads in the Mozart Opera. However, things took a terrible turn during the Mithridatic Wars.

Stratonice was put in command of a mighty fortress which held much of the Pontic treasure. When Pompey the Great attacked and conquered the city, Stratonice yielded the fortress on the condition that Pompey let her son Xiphares live. When Mithridates discovered her betrayal, he had her punished by forcing her to watch the execution of Xiphares anyway, this time at the hands of her own people rather than the enemy. The boy was 20 years old. This event is loosely referenced throughout the opera.

A few short years later, Stratonice was executed during the purge of Mithridatic line by the Romans.

I guess the moral of the story is don’t do anything at all, ever, if you want to be sure of anything. Poor dear.

5. Anonymous

Wikipedia doesn’t have any information on this anonymous woman, however, I do know that when Mithridates was finally certain of his defeat, he had his wife and children take poison (Just like in Hitler’s bunker a thousand years later!) and perhaps this was the wife mentioned in that scenario.

I guess the moral of the story is, if you’re going to marry a tyrant, you might as well do something wild and crazy, or else you’ll go down in history as boring old “anonymous”.

The Celsus Library, a contemporary example of architecture in Mithridates time, Ancient Turkey.

6. Hypsicratea

Hypsicratea was an amazonian warrior woman! (Quite literally, as she was Caucasian, and Caucasus was the area where the Amazon women were said to have hailed from!) Mithridates married Hypsicratea because he felt that she was his intellectual equal. She did not want to leave his side, and so she trained in war craft, mastering the use of the axe, lance, sword and bow & arrow. With these skills, she equipped herself as a warrior and accompanied Mithridates everywhere he went as his bodyguard.

When Mithridates began to lose the wars, and the tides turned against him, Hypsicratea was one of the few who remained with him. Plutarch noted that she was indefatigable. Mithridates claimed that he was always at home because his wife was always by his side.

Hypsicratea, Warrior Queen of Pontus

Nobody knows what happened to Hypsicratea after Mithridates death. However, there is a very interesting theory. Because she became a warrior, her husband called her Hypsicrates, which is the masculine form of her name. There is a Pontic historian and old friend of Mithridates who wrote under the name Hypsicrates for many years after the kings death, until their own death as an elder. Some have speculated that this Hypsicrates was actually Hypsicratea, since there are many coincidences to connect them, such as being close to the King, being the correct age, having the same name, her noted intelligence etc.  It is assumed that she lived out the rest of her life in disguise to avoid the purge, and carry on her husband’s story.

Which would be totally awesome if true.

I guess the moral of this story is that if you’re going to be awesome, you might as well just pull out all of the stops and go for it!

Ancient Turkey. These ruins from the south would perhaps have been a part of Mithridates domain at one time, but not of Pontus proper. Photo by Willi Seiler.

The Most Important Son of Mithridates

Pharnaces II, the Evil Son

Just as in Mozart’s opera, Pharnaces (Farnace) did historically lead the Roman rebellion against his father. This is something that is downplayed in the opera to make the character more sympathetic, though he was the villain of the original French play by Jean Racine.

In the opera, Farnace feels torn between loyalties, and eventually turns against the Romans to help save his Kingdom. However, in real life, Farnace’s full on betrayal by siding with Rome was one of the major turning points in the defeat of Mithridates.

Surrounded on all sides by friend and foe, this is when the historical Mithridates had his family killed by poison and even attempted to poison himself when he realized he was doomed. However he failed.  Remember how I mentioned earlier that he had developed an immunity to poison? Yeah, well, he tried to poison himself, but it didn’t work due to his hard earned immunity to it. From here, the story splits. The first version is that he had himself stabbed, as in the opera. The second is that the rebels fell upon him and stabbed him to death. Either way, he was stabbed.

I guess the moral of the story is, if you want to commit suicide by poison, don’t spend all of your freaking life developing an immunity to poison.

After a few years of peace with Rome, the real Pharnaces decided to follow in his Father’s footsteps and oppose Rome. When the Romans sent Julius Caesar to battle, Pharnaces was quickly defeated and Caesar is famously quoted as saying “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Final Words

Mitridate’s penchant for brutality and having people executed crosses over into Mozart’s opera, but his full cruelty is barely touched upon. It is said that he had every Roman in Asia executed, which is what fueled his seemingly unending battle with Rome. He was brutal towards most of his wives and children, adept on the battlefield and long lived. He was certainly much more of a tyrant than the opera would have us know.

Mitridate – About Mozart’s Opera

19 Mar

Mitridate, Re di Ponto – Dec. 26, 1770.

Mitridate was written when Mozart was around fifteen years old in 1770. This is interesting to keep in mind while enjoying the opera, because many of the themes and characters that the teenage Mozart chooses to emphasize through his music reflect this fact. His music gains strength and momentum every time he deals with the emotions teenagers understand best.

The play was written by Vittorio Santi and adapted from a tragedy by Jean Racine. The opera is a traditional Opera Seria, which is an opera in which each character takes turns singing a single aria alone, wherein they comment on the plot and how they feel about it, often through vivid (though sometimes fairly lame) poetry. Ensembles are rare, and usually occur at the end of acts.

This is the original title page to Mozart’s Mitridate libretto.

Mitridate tells the story of the monarch of Pontus who is off at war against Pompey the Great. His two teenage sons, Sifare and Farnace, who have been left behind to guard their nation’s cities, have both fallen in love with their Father’s new bride, Aspasia.

Aspasia is terrified of Farnace, due to his passionate advances, and she hires Sifare to protect her. Sifare and Aspasia then fall in love just about the time Mitridate returns from battle. The King is accompanied by Farnace’s own betrothed, Ismene.

A Roman Tribune, Marzio, has befriended the bad son Farnace and means to turn him against his own country to allow the Roman conquest of Pontus.

When Mitridate and Ismene sort out what is going on, the King sentences both his sons and Aspasia to death. Just as Aspasia is about to be poisoned, the Romans invade the country, and Mitridate hastens to battle.

Ismene sets Sifare free just in time to join the fight.

Marzio storms the prison and frees Farnace, hoping he will betray his country, but instead the boy betrays the Romans and sets fire to their fleet.

Mitridate is defeated in battle and commits suicide, and as he lays dying he forgives his sons and fiancee. Aspasia, Sifare, Ismene and Farnace then vow to protect their country from any who would rob them of their freedom.

A close up of my image of Farnace. Mitridate, Act III by Tyson Vick, detail.

It is interesting to note that Mozart manages to give the title character, Mitridate, a unique musical voice that stands out clearly from all the rest. The character Mitridate’s music involves no coloratura or difficult embellishments like that of the other roles. This was due mainly to the original actors’ capabilities. He couldn’t perform the intense coloratura passages, but had a perfect pitch that could make use of large octave leaps. Mitridate’s distinct voice was then coupled with solid musical pacing. He has few or no touches of pathos, his tyranny reigning supreme. This is in total contrast to the rest of the cast who have arias that span the broad range of human emotions. Essentially, the unique voice devised by Mozart puts Mitridate apart from the rest of the cast and specifies him as the title character, which is stunningly creative approach.

Santi’s dramatic focus is firmly situated around the characters of Sifare and Aspasia, who would be played by the two romantic leads, with the lead antagonist (and lead character) being that of Mitridate himself. However, Mozart redirects the focus, through music, towards Farnace, giving him both some of the best and most dramatically engaging music in the opera. Farnace is the embodiment of all the mood swings and yearnings that come with being a teenager. When you consider what holds a teenage boy’s interest, these things are all present in Farnace. He is lusty, belligerent, violent and selfish. Farnace’s backstabbing tirade against his brother, his anger at his sexual advances being denied by Aspasia, and especially his lament at the end where his shame overcomes him and he repents, all reflect such universal truths from the lives of young men that it’s no wonder the teenage Mozart found the character’s musical voice so clearly.

On the other hand, with the very adult pathos behind Sifare and Mitridate’s love for Aspasia, and the emotional torment Aspasia goes through because of it, Mozart uses both melody and vocal agility to capture the emotions, rather than the clever emotional painting with which he would later become a master. Where his later operas would combine both pyrotechnics with this emotional painting, his earlier operas tend to use more of the pyrotechnics. Mozart’s genius was well ahead of his life-experience, and expecting a fifteen year old boy to be able to capture all the wild ups and downs of love, the horrors of betrayal, and emotional yearnings of both men and women already fully developed is just a little absurd, even though these are the main themes of Santi’s Mitridate.

Because Mitridate is entirely composed of show-off arias, there isn’t an aria that doesn’t test the limits of the human voice. Wild lines of coloratura, huge octave leaps and scales up and down the entire vocal range are featured in nearly every song – with occasional breaks for long legato phrases. This is particularly true of Aspasia. Originally, the young Mozart began to write music for the lead actress before having met her. She was to come later with her own music, which she had performed in an earlier setting of the play, and then decide which music to use; would she use her own, or Mozart’s? Once she showed up, she was so delighted with Mozart’s music that she scrapped what Mozart had already written for her and worked together with him to sculpt Aspasia’s arias specifically to her own vocal capabilities. This, of course, is best reflected by Aspasia’s first aria (and opening number to the play) which may be one of the finest, most thrilling arias ever to open an opera seria.

At this point in his career Mozart was still following rules instead of making them, for as we know, the young man decided to start making up his own rules a few years down the line. So, while his genius is still young, Mozart presents us with a wildly entertaining opera about a tyrant King, his two belligerent sons, a tormented queen and a foreign Princess who wanders around wondering what the crap is going on.

It’s Mozart’s Birthday!

27 Jan

Today is Mozart’s birthday. He was born January 27th, 1756 and passed away on December 5th, 1791.

In his lifetime, Mozart’s operas were respectably received by the nobility, and raved about by the populace. “The Marriage of Figaro” probably caused the most sensation of all his works, being performed and translated across the entirety of Europe. Strangely enough, it both united the rich and poor with its humanity, but divided them at the same time by claiming that the rich and the poor both shared that same humanity. When “La Finta Giardinera”, an opera with an initially mediocre draw, was translated into German as “Die Gartnerin aus Liebe”, it took on a whole new life, and became what would be called today a “sleeper hit”. (In my opinion, too, the German version is better, though essentially it’s only the opera’s language that changes. I will describe the reasons I believe this happens later.)

The Mozarts in Green. (Wolfgang, left, Constanze, right) I've photoshopped their original colors for an upcoming shoot!

However, some of Mozart’s operas were never even completed. Three were abandoned in the early stages for various reasons: couldn’t pull them together (Zaide), lack of interest at the moment (Lo Sposo Deluso), and for one he simply quit writing because he thought it was stupid (L’oca del Cairo).

One of his works, “La Betulia Liberata”, was never performed in his lifetime. It’s even uncertain if anyone other than the Mozart family ever knew of its existence.

One opera in particular was very poorly received by the nobility on its opening, “La Clemenza di Tito”, which was harshly described by the Empress as “German Trash”. This had less to do with the musical merits of the opera, and more to do with racism than anything else.

Mozart has stood the test of time where others have fallen. One of the only true musical genius’s to rival Mozart in innovation and influence is the notorious Richard Wagner, who said, “The most tremendous genius raised Mozart above all masters, in all centuries and in all the arts.”

And this, I believe, will continue to be proven time and again from generation to generation.

Innovation, The Operas of Mozart

5 Jul

Mozart was an innovative operatic composer, in that his operas span every genre available at the time, and for one or two he created new genres. He wrote music for high drama, broad comedy, fantasy adventures, musical theater (Singspiel), religious pieces, intermezzos, one act-ers, festival theatricals (lots of ballet and chorus), private allegorically performances, cantatas and even oratorio.

Mozart wrote his first operatic work at ten years of age. It is interesting to note that he wrote many pieces that are operatic, but which he did not consider opera when tallying how many operas he had completed. This is most likely to do their length, subject matter and his maturity.

Some people may not know how operas are written, so I would like to clarify that Mozart composed music for “libretti” (which are little books of words and lyrics) written by different authors. He set someone else’s words to music and did not write the words himself. He collaborated with two notable authors in his lifetime: Varesco who wrote the book to his first mature work, “Idomeneo”, and the poet Da Ponte, whom he collaborated with on three of his most famous works, “Don Giovanni”, “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Cosi Fan Tutte”. He also set quite a few of the texts written by the Shakespeare-of-Opera, Metastasio, an author whose plays were set by the most popular and influential composers of the 18th century, including Handel, Gluck, Haydn and Vivaldi. Metastasio did not hold what is known commonly today as a “copyright”, and therefore any work which he had written could be set and adapted by anyone who had access to his plays. This means that while Mozart set more works of Metastasio to music than any other librettist that he worked with, the two men never actually collaborated to create a new work together, except peripherally on “Lucio Silla”, on which Metastasio generously wrote the Act finales for the play’s struggling author.

Title Page Illustration from the First Edition of Don Giovanni. Engraving by P. Bolt after Vincenz Georg Kinninger.

Mozart often had a say in how the story was put together for an opera he was going to set, and he consistently chose texts about — or had the endings of texts altered to be about — “forgiveness”. Brotherhood and Forgiveness seemed to be Mozart’s inspiration from the start, and thematically link all of his plays (Though Don Giovanni inverts these ideas, and shows us what happens if we don’t treasure Brotherhood and what happens if Forgiveness is ignored and denied).

He was always inspired by his loving wife, as well, often writing music that would please her. Mozart also had a knack for finding inspiration in, and utilizing the talents of particular instrumentalists and singers, often linking them together in song. His most notable soprano music was inspired by and written for his sister-in-law, Aloysia Weber (The Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute). Aloysia Weber was actually his teenage crush, as well, and pursuing her is how he met his wife!

The Queen of the Night from the Shinkel Magic Flute production of 1816 drawn by Carl Friedrich Thiele after designs by Sturmer

The most important operas of Mozart are: “Don Giovanni”, “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute”.  Don Giovanni is the most unique of all of his operas, belonging to an almost indefinable genre which encompasses intense psychological drama, broad comedy, romance, and most alarmingly of all, the supernatural thriller. Included in a full list of his mature works, you will also find, “Cosi Fan Tutte”, “La Clemenza di Tito”, “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail” and “Idomeneo”.

All of these pieces are wonderful! However, for a novice who has just started to listen to the operas of Mozart, “Cosi Fan Tutte” is psychologically unsettling, “Idomeneo” is set in an older style (but has monsters), and “Don Giovanni” can be overwhelmingly intense, both musically and dramatically. I would recommend starting with “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail” (Which is more like a modern musical), or if you are a fan of fantasy, I would certainly recommend “The Magic Flute” as your starting point (It was mine).

Papageno from the Shinkel Magic Flute production of 1816 drawn by Carl Friedrich Thiele after designs by Sturmer

Mozart also wrote music to be inserted into other plays and operas, but these are generally singular arias or ensembles. Only recently was it discovered how much he contributed to the fantastical “Der Stein Der Weisen”. Not all of his contribution to this work is entirely documented, but a general rule to go by is, “If there’s a cat meowing in the scene, he wrote it.”

In this list I have included every theatrical work for which Mozart composed a significant amount of music. You will also find this list over on the right. It is how the blog is organized, and you can read posts about both each specific opera, and my photography and costume work on the photos of that opera. I hope to be organizing the blog better soon, where there will be posts about the making of one set of photos from beggining to end, giving away all of the secret details of the history, art, inspiration, and production of the operas and my photos.

LIST OF MOZART’S OPERAS

Die Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebots (Composed Act I of III)

Apollo et Hyacinthus

Bastien und Bastienne

La Finta Semplice

Mitridate

Ascanio in Alba

La Betulia Liberata (Oratorio)

Il Sogno di Scipione

Lucio Silla

La Finta Giardiniera

Il Re Pastore

Zaide (Abandoned)

Thamos (Incidental Music)

Idomeneo

Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail

L’oca del Cairo (Abandoned, Composed Act I)

Lo Sposo Deluso (Abandoned)

Der Schauspieldirektor

Le Nozze di Figaro

Don Giovanni

Cosi Fan Tutte

La Clemenza di Tito

Die Zauberflote

Der Stein der Weisen (Collaboration)

And Two Lengthy Cantatas

Grabmusik

Davidde Penitente

Confuse your Mother. Irritate your Father. Listen to Opera.

12 Mar

When we think of opera, the first image that is usually conjured is one of enormously large, middle aged people yelling at each other. Sometimes with horned helmets. Is this an accurate depiction of opera?

Well, sadly, in the 1970s and 80s, the answer to that would have been “yes”. During this time, the enormously popular, and enormously talented, opera singers Lucianno  Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballe rose to power. You could find them on nearly any recording of any opera you cared to name. And, yes, both singers looked middle aged from the day they were born, and both were heavy set. And yes, these famous and popular singers were pretending to be teenagers falling in love, sexy temptresses , dashing heroes, and hardly anything at all like what they looked like in real life. (There were also other great singers who never looked quite right as teenagers, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, etc.)

Every great album from this time features these plump, average-looking singers on the cover. Because this image of the opera singer is so recent, this is the one we are stuck with.

Great opera singers are fat and loud.

Caballe, Pavarotti

Two of the world's greatest opera stars, Caballe and Pavarotti, who never quite looked dramatically appropriate, but whose vocal talents are unrivaled.

Originally, however, any opera that was written, was written for an age appropriate and dramatically appropriate cast. Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” was written for a lively bunch of twenty year olds, Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” was written for an entirely age appropriate cast across the board. So why in the 70’s and 80’s could you find a 50 year old Don Giovanni, instead of a 21 year old Don Giovanni? When did Cleopatra become a fat 40 year old?

Well, part of it has to do with the fact that these famous singers had such amazing and unique voices, that the audience didn’t care so much what they looked like as long as they got to hear the amazing voices singing amazing music. This, of course, completely negates dramatic truth. No matter how convincing Montseratt Caballe’s performance was, no matter how nuanced her voice, it never completely worked dramatically.

Recently, on another blog, the author states that many people don’t like opera because the plots of opera are too “silly”. I disagree. That is not a valid excuse to not like opera. Consider the most popular blockbuster of the past few summers. It is about valiant alien-robot-cars defending Earth from the machinations of villainous-evil-alien-robot-cars.

People love it. People take it very seriously. How can opera — which on its weirdest day (Tales of Hoffmann) could have never touched on anything nearly as silly as Transformers –be considered the more silly of the two?

The answer lies in the fact that operas can be staged without dramatic or emotional truth by artsy or incompetent actors and directors.  Thus the operas lose their inherent value – their dramatic and emotional value. Drama cannot be successful without dramatic and emotional truth, and most modern opera productions do their damned dirty best to spoil it.

Mozart set in a whore house with nudity, urination, and rape? I don’t remember reading that play. Mozart featuring a mermaid singing on a swing while people wander around  aimlessly? Missed that opera. Mozart featuring the beheading of Neptune, Christ, Buddha and Mohammed? Something is clearly amiss, and not just because at least three of those people hadn’t been born when Idomeneo takes place.

Can anyone imagine “Gone with the Wind” starring 50 year olds, dressed as mermaids, killing Buddha in a whorehouse with a giant half-letter “E”? No? Well that’s because the idea is stupid. But when the copyright expires, all taste and common sense seem to go out the window. (By the way, click on the links in the phrases above if you have a good tolerance for bad taste.)

Two of the Worst Mozart Productions ever to grace the stage.

Pictures from two of the worst Mozart Productions ever to grace the stage. The vulgar and violent Seraglio set in a whore house, and the basically unexplainable murder of world deities in a head-scratching, eye-rolling, Idomeneo production.

So, if you’re new to opera in the 2000s, instead of the fat, middle-aged singers, in fairly appropriate, emotionally truthful productions of the 1970s-80s, you’re now faced with mermaids holding giant Sesame Street letters, killing off religious leaders. That’s to say, now both dramatic and emotional truth have been thrown out the window at the whim of the egoist directors, and opera, to say the least, has become extremely confusing (Or just plain bad).

Rest assured, however, that in the beginning, operas were straightforward plays – the most popular form of entertainment; The Hollywood of the day. Some operas were good, some bad, but all tried to achieve their own internal emotional and dramatic truth — just like our movies do today.

That’s why opera is better represented on recording than in the theaters these days. Stripped down to only the text and the music, we are allowed to experience the opera on and intimate and personal level.

It’s a sad truth, but also a welcome one, that recordings today are better than most productions. Recordings allow us to experience numerous different interpretations and utilize our own imaginations while experiencing the play. This process becomes more like reading a book than like experiencing a drama, however, and it takes time, which, I’m afraid is another reason people stay away from opera.

Climbing the mountain to enjoying opera:

1. Break the Language Barrier

Most operas come with books that feature translations to the original text in many different languages, meaning that you can, if you like, read along to find out what’s going on. However, a casual music listener will insist that they can’t truly enjoy the music if they don’t know what is being said just through listening.

Modern music listeners know the importance of understanding lyrics more than anyone, since how could anyone enjoy “Bad Romance” without a full comprehension of the lyrics “Ga ga, ooh, la la, rah rah, I need your bad romance” or the deep pathos behind the lyrics “Baby you’re a firework, Come on let your colors burst, Make ‘em go “Oh, oh, oh!

I am being satirical here, simply because that’s the best way to show that good music, and popular music, does not need a coherent and well reasoned set of lyrics to move and entertain us. You don’t need to know what they’re saying to enjoy a song, however, you do in order to understand a drama, and the time it takes to comprehend that drama is the real reason modern music fans avoid opera.

Transformers: The Opera

The only thing missing is music. Transformers has more in common with opera than nearly any modern musical. For proof, take a look into Rinaldo (Handel), Idomeneo (Mozart), and Giustino (Vivaldi). Maybe the giant, explosion-inducing Monsters that take up entire quarters-of-an-hour of stage time will convince you...

2. Take the Time to Do it Well

Not everybody can read at the same rate. Not everybody has a full comprehension of what they’re reading. Now add to that an opera which will take around 3 hours to experience, and you have an instance where you have to have a desire to read an opera before you’re going to do it. The only way that desire will strike you, though, is if you have already experienced an opera. It’s like a Catch-22.

If you have any desire to know what’s going on in the music, you can’t be a casual opera listener.

3. Focus on Your Goal

“I can’t listen to things and read at the same time!”

Opera, in order to have a full effect over your senses, has to be experienced without constant interruption. It involves reading a text, interpreting that text in your imagination, and listening to what the composer and the singers are trying to convey.

This is the type of focus a person has to devote to reading a book, but with an extra sense thrown in. People who aren’t likely to read a book, are even less likely to listen to an opera.

4. Find the Music you like in Opera’s Enormous History

Another issue is that opera has been around for so long.

Imagine how popular music has changed. From to Sinatra, to the Beatles to Bob Dylan. From Queen to NSync to Lady Gaga. That’s only around 60 years, and the music is so diverse, and so different, that any fan of one can be an ardent detractor of the other.

Now add centuries of music on top of that, and you’ve got the changes that opera runs. There is so much music to choose from that a person will not know where to start.

When a person says, “I like Opera”, the layman thinks, “That’s a specific type of music”, while the initiated person thinks, “What type of opera?”

Personally, I like operas before 1800. I listen mainly to music from 1700-1800. That’s what I like. When I meet a person who likes opera, they generally listen to music from 1850-1910, music which I sometime like, but which I am not particularly passionate about. The conversation ends there.

Let’s take Popular Music as an example. It’s basically the difference between Jazz and Rock-and-Roll. If I am intimately acquainted with Jazz, which is one type of popular music, I am not necessarily passionate about Rock-and-Roll, though I may like some of it.

Bowie vs Beethoven

Bowie and Beethoven. One of these things is not like the other, though, strangely, some people seem to have a hard time being able to tell.

But people tend to assume that “Opera” is a specific category, like “Norwegian Death Metal” or “Electronic House Music”, when in fact, it’s just as broad of a label as “Pop Music” or “Classical Music”, and may even be closer to broadness as the label “Music” in general.

5. Defeat the Snobbery

“You only listen to music from 1700? You’re a snob!”

This seems to be the prevalent attitude. If you don’t just gush over popular music, you’re the snob. Never mind that you’ve actually listened to the newest pop song, and your accuser is the person who has never, and may never, listen to any opera of any sort in their entire life-time.

How can a person not like 400 years worth of music?

The opera fan faces a constant barrage of snobbery, simply because they like something that is different, uncommon, and hard to explain. I find myself time and again trying to defend my musical tastes, rather than just enjoying the music. Sure, it’s a different style of music. Sure, you may have never heard anything like it before. But that doesn’t mean I have to explain myself. It feels like being in middle-school when you liked something that wasn’t the “popular” thing to like and being made fun of because of it.

You remember what Middle School was like: “You like the Backstreet Boys? The most popular musical group of the decade? That’s gay, and you’re stupid.” (Backstreet Boys is just the example. You can fill it in with anything you care to name — Middle Schoolers hate everything. For me it was Power Rangers.)

Sadly, it also works the other way around, too.

If you ever have a simple question about a lesser known opera, and you come across an opera fan who, instead of answering your question, derisively says, “Are you saying the Neue Mozart Ausgabe” is incomplete?” You should take a moment to consider, and then back away very slowly… This is not a normal person. There is no way to deal with this person in a normal manner. I learned the hard way that some opera fans don’t like people who don’t already know everything there is to know about opera… and that, perhaps, yes,the Neue Mozart Ausgabe may, indeed, be incomplete. (It’s basically a document containing everything Mozart ever wrote, or that pertained to his music.)

Some fans of opera become snobs because they have an “inside knowledge” of something. Much like this hilarious “hipster” Mozart:

Hipster Mozart

Hipster Mozart reminds me of all those times I've had to explain my project to my models.

Deus Ex Machina

There is a happy ending to all of this.

There’s a popular European Revival of interest in bringing opera to life in the manner the composer and author intended. Talented conductors and singers are bringing neglected works, and popular works, back to life by remaining true to the opera’s original intentions.

Their medium of choice, of course, is recording, rather than theater.

Rene Jacobs reminds us why we love Mozart, by giving it back its emotional and dramatic truth, as well as adding a dash of theatricality. Cecilia Bartoli and Philippe Jaroussky respect and revere music, unearthing forgotten gems and presenting them on recording for the first time. Alan Curtis attempts to record all of Handel with age appropriate, talented actor/singers to bring the composer’s operas back to the top of their game, where they belong.

As more and more young people start directing the course of opera music, it gains a freshness and vitality that the older generation has lost touch with. This upholds the age-old adage, if you haven’t seen it before, it’s new to you!

However, you’ll probably always find the egoist director trying his hardest to get his all-nude Vivaldi opera to ruin the experience. But luckily, there will always be the Autobots of opera to fight those evil Decepticons!

Philippe Jaroussky and Cecilia Bartoli

Jaroussky and Bartoli, the Auto-bots of Opera. Ever ready to fight the evil Dececpticons of Opera.

Autobts, Roll out!

In conclusion, I say to you, be brave. Listen to opera. There’s a whole world out there you may be missing!

Who Is Mozart?

2 Jan

My Mozart Project is based around the theatrical works of one man, but not everybody knows about Mozart. Who is Mozart?

Mozart is a composer who lived in the latter half of the 18th century (1756-1791), and who is most notable for writing an unprecedented amount of good music for every genre known to musical composition during his lifetime.  His work has been enduringly popular since its creation, enchanting, moving and inspiring centuries of music listeners.

Mozart led a short life, passing away at 35, but started working much earlier than most humans (age 5) and was producing works of merit by age ten. He is known for being spunky, hyper-confident and yet alarmingly introspective. He was very fond of his father, and they had a uniquely strong bond. As Mozart aged, he became more and more interested in God, Freemasonry, and leading a life that was of merit. (These things are all contradicted in the popular movie Amadeus, which is told from the rival composer Salieri’s point of view. The film is not a good source of biographical information, but it is very good drama.)

He was a quirky genius who admired musicians that always strove to improve their art, and was intolerant of the lazy and untalented.  Mozart composed things entirely in his head before writing them down, and could not be communicated with while in deep thought. However, it is a rare talent that once he started writing the work down, it came out at a disturbingly rapid rate, evidenced by his manuscripts, which are written with a quick hand. (I can’t even write writing that fast!) He could do numerous things at once while transcribing these notes from his brain, including chatting with friends and eating dinner. It came simple and clear, having been worked out in his mind beforehand.

Franz Niemetschek describes it in this manner: “Mozart wrote everything with such ease and speed as might at first be taken for carelessness or haste. His imagination held before him the whole work, clear and lively, once it was conceived. One seldom finds in his scores improved or erased passages.”

While nearly every author who writes on the subject will assure you of the quality of Mozart’s music, the extent of what they mean can only be grasped by discovering his music for yourself! Wolfgang Hildesheimer rhetorically asks, “How can such a disproportionately large number of people have a definite, and unusually positive relationship to Mozart?” It is alarmingly true to discover that there are very few people who can find the music of Mozart disagreeable.

Many fans of modern music find classical music “stodgy” or “alienating”, because they first experience it in a learning environment, or as a piece of antiquity, rather than as something alive, fun and inspiring. But something that’s lost in modern music is that different performers can perform the same piece of music differently. Due to the availability of widely different performances of the same piece of music, a lot of doors are opened for finding what you like about Mozart. Different “covers” used to be all the rage (Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald covering the same songs!), but in modern times, the guardianship of music is making this rarer and rarer.

My advice to new listeners, if you are musical, is to find a piece of Mozart’s music that you like, and listen to other songs that he wrote in that style. For example, if you are in choir or a glee club, you could listen to his solo vocal works, lieder, canons and choral works. If you are a instrumentalist, you could listen to works he composed for the instrument you play. Because Mozart’s output is so massive, it is actually more difficult to find a style he didn’t write in, than a style he did.

My advice to new listeners who would not describe themselves a musical, is to start either with a sampler (Best of Mozart) or something that they are familiar with, such as movie soundtracks that feature Mozart. (Recently: Hellboy II, The Eye, The Shawshank Redemption)

Mozart, himself, wrote in styles that are similar to what most modern listeners are used to, including his Incidental Music and Opera (Both share the basics of cinema scores) and divertimenti (which pretty much means background music), as well as just vocal songs with light accompaniment.

My favorite Mozart pieces are his operas. This might be obvious, since I’m taking the time to create miniature world’s based around them. Just remember, if you haven’t heard it before, it’s new to you, whether it was written today or 300 years ago! I find that Mozart brings out thoughts and emotions in me that have never been roused by any contemporary musicians, and he sometimes even seems to be like an “old-friend” (Very old, considering how dead he is), revealing just as much of himself to me as I discover about myself with each new piece of music! I think this is the sign of a truly great artist.

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