Imagine,... if Arrested Development was never cancelled, or that Firefly and Deadwood are still on the air. 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 are still writing songs, or that Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks are still doing standup, or if Gershwin didn’t die young or Leonard Bernstein stuck with musicals and there were twenty musicals as good as West Side Story and Porgy and Bess. Imagine that Scorsese made his Gershwin biopic, or that Gangs of New York and Last Temptation of Christ were'nt shelved projects gathering moss for decades, or that Francis Ford Coppola had made Megalopolis, or if Orson Welles got the money to make thirty movies as great as Citizen Kane, or Chekhov didn’t contract tuberculosis, or that George Orwell lived long enough to warn us about Vietnam, or if Pushkin hadn’t been killed in a duel or John Keats celebrated his thirtieth birthday, or that Schubert, 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 among geniuses to whom we can point whenever high school boards want to slash arts budgets without cutting the football subsidy. Would our schools view the appreciation of literature as any less expendable than classical music is now? 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 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 has no idea as yet of the joys which they deprive themselves. Not only have you 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, , let’s face it, most of it has the reputation of being all smiles and sunshine. It’s what his patrons demanded of him while their world was crumbling. But if any man of his time saw his world for what it was, it was Mozart. How can his operas sound so happy on the first listen, yet be so full of suffering? And had he lived long enough to see the careful balance of his era collapse, would that suffering not dominate his work? Had he the opportunity, Mozart could match Beethoven and Wagner darkness for darkness. Had he lived just five years longer, he’d live into the Romantic Age, and with it, we might have Mozart operas based on Faust, Hamlet, King Lear, Dante’s Inferno, and 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, the best we can show of what opera can be and why you should listen to it. It’s the best evidence we have that opera belongs to every corner of the globe, and especially in 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 King Louie’s version of the CIA - charged with funnelling money in secret to the American Continental Congress so that the colonial rebels could triumph in their War of Independence against the British Empire.
The world of Figaro which birthed so many revolutions is the same world as our own, only a little more exaggerated. It is a world of dancers prancing on a volcano in the moments before eruption - a world of luxury and revels, yet financially almost bankrupt and surrounded by starvation and despair. Noblemen waste entire fortunes on idle entertainments, yet across the street from their chateaus, men get boiled lead poured over them 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, yet at any moment, the hand of religious dogma can strike and a free thinker will be fetched to the Bastille. All through Europe and America, 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, and unbelievers are threatened with torture.
It is 1786. The winds that blew through the French Revolution kindled a smoldering fire starting in a small German city by a local organist named Bach and tended to by Gluck and Haydn after his death; but with Mozart, the embers finally erupted into a blaze of genius, and the curvature of the earth was changed. 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)