06 May 2011

Heilige Kunst

Richard Strauss, the Composer’s Composer

One of the great things about opera is that the music doesn’t belong to any one person. (Not even to the composer or audience, as a number of European stage directors are eager to prove.) In fact, Verdi’s La Traviata is my favorite, largely because each of my totem divas has excelled in the lead role, and other sopranos whom I admire have brought their own gifts to the role, in ways that help me to understand a little more with each new performance. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where I couldn’t hear all of them. Much as I love Beverly Sills, and estimable though her Violetta was, it would have been foolish to stop with her, and to deny myself the artistry of Teresa Stratas, Maria Callas, and Jarmila Novotná in this same music — to say nothing of the other great Violettas I’ve seen and heard since.

These thoughts come to mind because two of my current favorite singers are performing the same role now, in different productions in New York and Houston: both Susan Graham and Joyce DiDonato are playing the Composer in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. This coincidence represents not a rivalry but an unparalleled opportunity to learn from these brilliant artists — just as I learned from the first singers I heard in the role, Teresa Stratas and Susanne Mentzer.

Susanne Mentzer, the singer whose Composer I’ve heard most.

Each one of these women has a wealth of stories to tell me in song, and in Ariadne, she gets to tell a story that’s all the more special because — even thought she’s dressed as a boy and speaking a foreign language, and singing instead of speaking as she would if you ran into her on the street — she isn’t acting at all. She’s speaking from the heart.

The Composer — a character inspired by the young Mozart and portrayed, like Mozart’s own Cherubino, by a woman en travesti — has a rough time in the Prologue of Strauss’ opera. His new work, the eponymous Ariadne, is being brutalized by a wealthy but insensitive patron (based on Molière’s Bourgeois Gentleman), and backstage before the premiere, things go from bad to worse for the poor guy. He does make a spiritual connection with the lowbrow actress Zerbinetta, however, and for a time that gives the Composer a much-needed boost.

Susan Graham as the Composer,
in Houston Grand Opera’s production, now playing.

“The world is lovely and not frightful to those who have courage — and what is Music, then?” he asks. “Die Musik ist eine heilige Kunst — Music is a holy art, bringing together all those with courage, like cherubs around a radiant throne! And that’s why Music is the holiest of arts!”

Listening to Joyce sing this passage on Wednesday morning, I was struck by the truth of it: she really believes these words. So do Teresa and Susan, with each of whom I’ve had conversations about the aria. It explains how the lone voice connects with others in common cause, and why each of these women has made sacrifices for her art, and yet feels exalted by it. Does any singer in opera ever get the chance to speak more directly or more meaningfully?

Joyce DiDonato as the Composer, in a 2006 production.
She dresses more like Mozart in the Met production, now playing.

On its own terms, Joyce’s performance was wise, funny, vocally plush — thrilling. But as she sang the little aria, she transcended herself, and I heard not only her voice but also Susan and Teresa, and in the person of one woman, she became all three who mean so much to me. My next epiphany was the realization that tears were streaming down my face.

The rest of the opera confirms what the Composer says, and by the end, the noble, uplifting character of the music prevails over the silly comedy: there’s a reason Strauss didn’t call this piece Zerbinetta & Co.* But I was convinced already — and it seems that Ariadne is poised now to take its place alongside La Traviata, as the music that means the most to me.

Susan Graham sings Ariadne auf Naxos
Houston Grand Opera
May 7 & 10 (7:30 PM)
For more information, click here.

Joyce DiDonato sings Ariadne auf Naxos
Metropolitan Opera
May 7 (1:00 PM), May 10, 13 (8:00 PM)
For more information, click here.

*NOTE: The myth of Ariadne is in fact so noble and uplifting that we easily fail to recognize it as an extended metaphor for a woman’s trying to drink herself unconscious after her boyfriend dumps her: that is, after all, why she’s waiting for Bacchus and mistakes him for death.

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