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.
Lick me... in the ass… nicely!
lick it nice and clean...
nice and clean lick... my ass.
That’s a greasy desire...
like the licking of roasted meat… my daily activity….
Three will lick more than two…
come on, just try it and lick, lick, lick...
Everybody lick their ass for themselves!
(cue piano playing the K. 233 canon)
(cue piano playing - Ein Madchen oder Weibchen, preferably the Zemlinsky 4-hand Piano Version - narrator comes in after the first statement of the theme)
Before Amadeus was a movie, it was a play. And its writer, Peter Shaffer, wrote a wonderful line that didn’t make it into the movie. Mozart declared that by composing Figaro, he'd create an opera so real that you could smell the shit from the chamber pot. And even if everything was fun and games until about forty-five seconds ago, reality's just hit us with the shock of a perfectly placed fart. Here are two lovers on the morning of their wedding, living an Eden of perfect bliss. But reality has its ways of intruding on our dreams, especially on our wedding days.
Their names are Figaro and Susanna, and you’ll get to know them well tonight. In fact, you already know them. Figaro and Susanna are us, every one of us - doing their best to stay happy when life does everything it can to beat them down, living by their wits while others live fat off their labor.(Go to the middle of the stage)
They’re domestics in a nobleman’s manor - a sort of Anna and Mr. Bates of the 18th century. Their boss, Count Almaviva, gave them the most convenient room in his castle, and Figaro seems quite eager to live in this room which has the Count living on one side, the Countess on the other. It makes work convenient for them, a little too convenient as you can see. Three years ago, when Figaro helped the Count win his wife as a bride, the Count was so thrilled that he abolished his right to Prima Noctis - the nobleman’s right to deflower any commoner who lives on his property before her husband may fulfill his conjugal duties. You can find a deeper explanation of this concept in the movie, Braveheart. But upon discovering that marriage isn’t an endless font of romance and guilt-free sex, the Counts interests begin lie elsewhere.
The Count promised a dowry for the marriage of these servants, but through an intermediary whom we’ll meet in a few minutes, the Count explains to Susanna that the dowry was not a gift to be rendered without a reciprocal service. The question remains for them, how can Figaro keep Susanna untouched by that dirty prick and still get his money?
If the characters you just met are us. Then the characters you’re about to meet are whom we should all be afraid of turning into.
(Enter Bartolo and Marcellina to the Allegro section from Mozart Symphony no 38 - should be one and a half minutes, or less with cuts, and take us to right to the B-section in A-major, where Bartolo comes in with ‘Bene’)
As they face the final act of their lives, these two characters have grown so self-centered and bitter that their greatest happiness comes from preventing happiness in others. Three years ago, the Count’s wife was merely the ward of Doctor Bartolo (point to him), and he kept her a virtual prisoner in his house so that she would never meet another man and marry him instead. (beat) And sadly, this was a fairly common practice once upon a time. One day, the Count saw her staring longingly from the good Doctor’s balcony, and resolved to win her away from Bartolo's prying hands - but in order to do so, he needed help from a much cleverer man, and procured the services of Figaro, a barber, dentist, pharmacist, and general intriguer about town. In exchange for Figaro's service, the Count gave Figaro permanent employment as his valet. Three years later, the Countess’s governess, Marcellina, had the same idea. Figaro, like so many of us, was in terrible debt and needed money immediately. Marcellina loaned him a sum so long as he signed a contract promising to marry her if he couldn’t pay her back. Even though it's Figaro and Susanna's wedding day and Figaro's clearly in love with Susanna, Marcellina still has every intention of making Figaro honor his contract.
Now what would opera be without a good ol’-fashioned catfight? For better or worse, the catfight is such a stock and trade of opera that I’m not sure this catfight even would make most lists of the Top Five.
It’s amazing how the sweetness of Mozart’s music can disguise such nastiness, it’s almost as though the music is lying to us. But Mozart’s music never lies, it just spins the truth.
(Count chases Cherubino through the audience, who then hides on the stage.)
This character was just chased onstage because the Count discovered him in a compromising situation with the gardner’s daughter. In the time that elapses between the singing, he will have snatched a ribbon out of Susanna’s hand because he was told it belonged to the Countess, and he therefore insists on keeping it forever. He is the third image of ourselves we meet. If Figaro and Susanna are us, and if Bartolo and Marcellina are our future selves, then Cherubino is who we were.
(Pianist plays opening to Piano Concerto no. 9 "Jeunhomme")
Like all of us when we were teenagers, he’s as innocent to life and love as the morning. Yet since he’s like all teenagers, there’s a wild animal lurking inside him. The music Mozart creates for Cherubino is perhaps of a spirituality that is unmatched even in this opera, and yet what Cherubino sings contains unmistakable references to wet dreams, masturbation, and in the dialogue we had to cut, there’s even an allusion to fantasizing about an orgy. Not for no reason is this aria the music that was employed in The Godfather while Sonny Corleone fucked Connie’s Maid of Honor. (beat) Cherubino is still too young to know that his thoughts are filthy beyond belief. When you hear Cherubino, you remember who you were when love was new and before it ever disappointed you.
We just met Cherubino, and now we’ll meet the man who was chasing him. Like everyone else we've met, the Count is us, but we’d never want to admit that. Physically, Cherubino may be an adolescent, but emotionally, the Count is a child - accustomed to getting what he wants, when he wants it, and how he wants it. But the Count is no cartoon villain, and that makes him so much more terrifying. The Count is an evil man, but he is the evil in us all, as educated people, as Americans, as people who spend too much and earn too little, as people who believe we deserve privileges simply by the achievement of being born, as people who demand power over others simply by being older, or younger, or smarter, or dumber. Like us all, no amount of material comfort brings him any happiness or peace. He embodies what Christopher Hitchens used to call the ‘rage of the entitled.’ And what he feels entitled to at the moment is Susanna.
But we also have another person to meet. Don Basilio, the chaplain and music master of the Count’s estate through which the Count conveys his indecent proposal to allow Susanna’s marriage to Figaro in exchange for a night with Susanna. And as far as clergymen go, Basilio embodies the principle of extreme unction. Nobody in this play is oilier, slipperier, smarmier, or can match wits with Figaro and Susanna, and every time they mastermind a new plan, Basilio is there to counter them with a plan just as masterful.
(find Mozart piece that alternates between B-Flat Major and F Major)
The plot here is deceptively simple. Cherubino was running away from the Count, who caught him with the gardner’s daughter, whom the Count is also sleeping with, and Cherubino came into Susanna’s room with the added benefit that he could hit on Susanna. A few minutes later, the Count enters for the sole purpose of hitting on Susanna. So Cherubino has to hide (Cherubino goes to hide in the chair.) But within a minute of the Count entering, Basilio enters too, so that Count also has to hide. Basilio has two intentions, one is to convince Susanna to sleep with the Count, the other is to embarrass Susanna by implying that there are rumors afoot that she’s already sleeping with Cherubino. The Count hears the implication, and reveals himself in all his sordid splendor.
And with just one more number, we arrive to the end of this first act by purging it of a chorus we couldn’t afford and a lot of sung dialogue which this narration must replace, because of rehearsal time we couldn’t budget. Like all but a few characters in Figaro, we are bereft of money, and if artists like us ever had a secure income, it would be due to a revolution as seizmic as the one which would shortly follow Figaro’s premiere in 1786.
It was a revolution which the aristocracy did everything to forestall, including the censorship of this opera. Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, could not include anything in this play which smacked of revolution. But the play upon which this opera's based contained sentiments so revolutionary that a general named Napoleon would soon call it the French Revolution on the page, waiting for a bloodthirsty public to put it into action.
Clearly, nothing could be said in this opera which smacked of treason. But to whom is Figaro speaking in this song about ensnaring an amourous butterfly within a net of war? Is it just Cherubino, newly "honored" by the Count with an army commission so that the Count can get him out of the castle? Is it Susanna, the amorous butterfly of Figaro's dreams whom he's about to ensnare in the net of marriage? Or is it the Count himself, whose amorous exploits, like so many noblemen of his generation, may yet lead his head to the guillotine?