Imagine,... if Arrested Development and Firefly weren’t cancelled. Imagine if Guillermo del Toro ever got funding for the movies he wanted to do. Imagine that John Lennon and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye were still writing songs, if Gershwin didn’t die young or Leonard Bernstein had stuck with musicals and there were twenty musicals as good as West Side Story and Porgy and Bess. Imagine that Scorsese could have made his Gershwin biopic, or that Gangs of New York and Last Temptation of Christ were not shelved projects gathering moss for decades, or if Francis Ford Coppola had made Megalopolis, or if Orson Welles got the money to make thirty movies as great as Citizen Kane, or that Chekhov didn’t contract tuberculosis, or that Orwell had lived long enough to warn us about Vietnam, or that Pushkin hadn’t been killed in a duel or John Keats celebrated his thirtieth birthday, or that Schubert and Van Gogh and Kafka all lived long enough to be recognized. or a President Martin Luther King, or that Wittgenstein’s brothers didn’t kill themselves, or that Galileo wasn’t silenced by the Church.
Imagine that William Shakespeare died before his thirty-sixth birthday. He’d have left us the faintest outline of Hamlet, no Othello, no King Lear, no Scottish Play, no Antony and Cleopatra, no Winter’s Tale, no Tempest. Instead of being remembered as the the greatest writer who ever lived, he’d be remembered as the most talented writer, robbed of his prime, and condescended to as a genius who gave us little but lightweight comedies.
(cue the overture)
Imagine that Shakespeare didn’t live that long, and there’d be no literary figurehead. No genius above all other geniuses whom we can point to whenever high school boards want to slash budgets without cutting the football subsidy. Would the appreciation of literature be viewed as any less expendable by our schools than classical music now is? Quote Hamlet, and everybody knows what you’re talking about. Hum a few bars of Beethoven’s Ninth, and the world says ‘Oh yeah, where’s that from…?’ You’d have deprived yourself not only of Shakespeare, but most of the glories he inspired, and all the glories he continues to inspire because people still know his work.
So imagine a world where you’ve not only never seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Twelfth Night, or Much Ado About Nothing, or the Falstaff histories, or Romeo and Juliet. Imagine that they’re all collecting dust on a bookshelf, waiting for a generation to rediscover them that as yet has no idea of the joys of which they’ve deprived themselves. Not only will you have deprived yourselves of those joys, but all the joys which they inspired.
Mozart died a few weeks after he began to compose his Requiem, and until the Requiem, his music was amazing, but let’s face it, most of it appears to be smiles and sunshine on the surface. It’s what his patrons demanded of him while the world around them crumbled, but if any man of his time saw his world for what it was, it was Mozart. How can his operas sound so happy at first glance, yet be so full of suffering? And had he lived long enough to see the careful balance of his era tipped over into chaotic revolution, would that suffering not become pre-eminent in his work? Had he the opportunity, Mozart could match Beethoven and Wagner darkness for darkness. Had he lived just five years longer, he’d have lived into the Romantic Age, and with it, we might have operas based on Faust, Hamlet, Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost. No wonder nobody listens to opera anymore, the greatest operas were never written.
But in this imperfect world of ours, it doesn’t get more perfect than Figaro. This is the best we can do, and the best we can show you of what opera is, and why it’s great. It’s the most perfect, the most human, and the most universal opera ever written. It’s the best evidence we have that opera belongs to every corner of the globe, especially this one. Because when a French writer named Beaumarchais wrote a play called The Marriage of Figaro, it was 1778, and he was also the head of the King Louie’s equivalent to the CIA - charged with raising enough money so that American rebels could triumph in their War of Independence against the British Empire.
The world which birthed so many revolutions is the same world as our own, only a little more exaggerated. It represents all that is most luxurious in a highly artificial age, and yet is financially almost bankrupt and surrounded by starvation and despair. Noblemen wasted entire fortunes on idle entertainments, and yet across the street from his chateau a man is having boiled lead poured on him before being torn to pieces by wild horses. The drawing rooms and supper tables of the elites are rife with all manner of scientific ideas, and yet at any moment, the hand of religious dogma may strike, and a free thinker will be fetched to the Bastille. The Age of Enlightenment wages Holy War with the Fifteenth Century. The foundations of political science, natural history, thermodynamics, and atheism are being laid, all within a society where hangmen constantly burn books, authors are hurried away to prison, unbelievers are threatened with torture.
It is 1786. The winds that blew through the French Revolution kindled a smoldering fire started in a small German city by a local organist named Bach, and tended to by Gluck and Haydn, but with Mozart, it finally erupted in a blaze of genius. All through the ages, Mozart has been compared with God himself. It is a tribute to his fertility, his vast range, the breadth and depth of his sympathy, in which he excels all other composers. Music, or what now call ‘classical music,’ was the art through which democracy spread its wings. Every illiterate only required an ear to understand it. It expressed feelings with a specificity that no written word ever could. It was a second revolution.
(ends right with the crescendo that leads into climax of the Overture)
And it was Mozart who initiated that revolution taken up as a banner by Beethoven, by Berlioz, Wagner and Verdi, by every musician ever since. But almost all of them lack that crucial quality he has in google quantity, and that is his double vision - his ability to portray every emotion just as well as its opposite, and do so in the same musical phrase. In his desire to keep that balance, his constant wrestling with those opposites, he becomes beloved of generations of ordinary people of intelligence and good will. It is perhaps the secret of his hold upon our world, era after era. This magnificent but short-lived king of all our composers might be not unjustly described as a gigantic ordinary man of goodwill, who desires, no matter how many adventures of the depths and heigths his spirit undertakes, what sensible people, all down the years, have themselves desired. He is not, like so many later and lesser geniuses, trying to take us by storm, through the sheer intensity of the unbalanced, the one sided. He does not want to huddle us into some nightmare otherworld, or leave this one in ruins around us, perhaps out of vengeance on our stupid common humanity. Though he conjures up everything from lyrical young love and gossamer fairylands to the darkest demons and bloody murder, always he leads us home. It is no wonder that millions of men and women, through all the changing fashions of music, have kept for this man not only their greatest admiration but also their deepest affection. If the day ever comes when Mozart is no longer sung, played, and studied, quoted and loved, music will be near its end.
(go straight into the first scene)