Sunday, July 6, 2014

Snibblesworth-ed

An Open Letter to Jeremy Denk
 NOTE: See the posts of June 20 and June 24, 2014.

by Kristi Brown-Montesano

First, an olive branch of congratulations on the successful premiere of your opera, particularly because it is a comedy. Most new operatic works lean heavily towards the dramatic, even macabre, side of the spectrum. The Classical Style is unusual in the repertoire and—based on many critical reviews—is finding an audience eager for a lighter touch. I also want to thank you for responding to my post:  I do not usually have the opportunity for critical back-and-forth with a living librettist!

The AMS Blog’s editorial note summarized my initial reaction as “Well, not that funny,” and that seems to have convinced you that I am deficient in humor. But eighteenth-century comic operas are never just funny:  they always point to a moral, integrating life lessons into the clowning around. What, then, is the moral of Snibblesworth’s fate? To paraphrase a line from another Mozart comedy with a lot of moralizing in it: “Ein Musicologist tut wenig, plaudert viel.” Like The Magic Flute’s Ladies, Snibblesworth is an ineffective chatterer; his constant musicologizing nothing but a nuisance.

You seem to see me as a nuisance as well, someone who engages in “reflexive conversion of works of art into theses.” Doesn’t art have content? If I tell someone that I recently went to see a new opera, won’t they ask me, “What was it about?” For Musicology Now, I answered that question as a (UC Berkeley trained) musicologist speaking to an audience interested in musicology. Readers can decide for themselves whether they agree with my report.

I do think that a lieto fine—the unabashedly optimistic ending of many opera buffas and musicals—would have helped to make the evenhanded treatment that you profess a reality. But by banishing Snibblesworth from the community of the enlightened, your libretto echoes the retributive spirit of Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute: the bad guys are punished. We are even  supposed to cheer as Snibbs is dragged away! Compare instead the ending of The Book of Mormon, a show that even practicing Latter-Day Saints enjoy. Why? Because creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone redeem their characters after poking fun at everyone. Only the hardcore Mormon officials opt out of the buoyant finale; condemning everyone, they leave in a huff of moral rectitude.

The need for genuine comic balance is why I suggested a Taruskin/Rosen smackdown, an idea which you dismissed as amusing only to “an audience of AMS members.” (Ah, Snibbleworth-ed again!) Here was my thinking: Why use a stick figure like Snibblesworth when you could have the real deal, a worthy musicological nemesis for your hero? I’m imagining Taruskin as a bearded Darth Vader choking Rosen at a distance with a characteristic hand gesture, murmuring “Your lack of historical context … disturbs me.” Hilarious, even to general audiences (or at least as funny as a lesson in sonata form). And in the upbeat finale, these two intellectual titans could join forces and rule the classical-music galaxy! Or at least that part of it which lies beyond the conservatory door.




Kristi Brown-Montesano, a faculty member at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles since 2003, is currently Chair of Music History there. A trained soprano, she received her Ph.D. in musicology from UC Berkeley, with a specialization in 18th-century western European music. Her book The Women of Mozart’s Operas (Univ . of California Press, 2007) offers a detailed study of the female characters of the Da Ponte operas and Die Zauberflöte, evaluating the original works as well as the reception history of these characters. Brown-Montesano has presented and published essays on opera, film music, opera education, and trends in marketing classical music to children.

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