Is There Any American Classical Music?

In summer 2011, I had the privilege of attending a master class in voice at the Mozarteum music academy in Salzburg, Austria.  I was immersed in a different language, a different culture, and, more specifically, a different musical culture.  I had gone with a certain set of expectations as to what I would learn; little did I know that those expectations would be completely thwarted and that my perspectives shifted.

I had expected to absorb the great Austro-Germanic tradition, to be steeped in the city of Mozart, because after all, we in the United States do not have a Mozart.  Nor do we have such deep roots in classical music. The general public in Europe and Austria is arguably more interested in classical music than the American general public.  People might know the words to an opera aria even in a language not their own, or be willing to create radical opera productions because they have seen enough traditional ones to crave something new. Also, classical music in America is plagued with financial difficulties that music in Europe does not generally endure, given that their governments actively fund the arts.  Therefore, the volume and scope of classical music offerings is much greater and lavish than what one can find here in the United States, with the exception of New York city and a couple of other places. Traditionally, royalty and courts have supported classical music, even fostered its development.  So naturally, I assumed that the depth, history, and prominence of classical music in a country like Austria automatically trumped our fledgling American tradition.  After all, when you see Mozart on a chocolate wrapper, you’ve got to assume that these people care!  But my logic was proven only partially correct. After my experience at Salzburg, I came to understand that Austria does indeed have a rich tradition, but I recognized that we also have a distinct musical culture of our own.

Perhaps as Americans we have a complex that our classical music tradition isn’t “good enough” when we compare ourselves to Europeans.  We do not have as long or deep of non-popular or art music in our culture.  And rather than being something that is just a part of our background, classical music here is often an elite phenomenon that is enjoyed by people living more urban areas and/or who are more affluent.  But what is so uniquely American is that the ethnic diversity that is the hallmark of our country is reflected in our classical music. We have deep Italian roots, especially in opera, reaching back to colonial times and including genius librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (think Don Giovanni or Cosi’ Fan Tutte), who was the first professor of Italian at Columbia University; rich, German (choral) traditions so prominently found in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions that are imparted to children in schools from the time they are very young; African-American spirituals and blues traditions that have filtered into our sensibility through compositions and also through the performers, who are often known for their passion, elegance, depth of feeling, and (pardon the horrible cliche’) “soul”; refugee Jews who brought with them their rigorous training in technique, deep knowledge and scholarship, and emotion when they escaped various pogroms or wars and settled into various conservatories, universities, musical ensembles, solo careers, or even Hollywood film studios; and in more recent decades, the influx of Asian musicians who bring incredible discipline to their craft and an unparalleled enthusiasm for excellence, not to mention brilliant artistry (Sarah Chang, anyone?).  Various artists of classical musics from around the world have also inspired the American tradition when they have come here and collaborated with our performers and composers.  And of course, we cannot neglect our good old “Yankee ingenuity” with innovative individuals that have created unique forms and styles of their own.  We have Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, and renowned women like Joan Tower and Meredith Monk, to name but a few.

These are, of course, but broadly painted generalizations of our various cultural strands, and I am indeed neglecting numerous others who have contributed to our classical music melting pot.  But the point remains:  America is indeed a powerhouse in terms of classical music.  Certainly in such a huge country there is a wide range of training for aspiring musicians, some of it downright shoddy.  But there is also plenty of world-class education too, preparing the future virtuosos and good, decent, working musicians of tomorrow.  American conservatories and music departments are full of international students and professors—-if this is not a sign of our musical prowess, I don’t know what is.  Our diversity has made our classical music heritage something remarkable, drawing on the strengths of various cultures.

I am now a wiser musician who can certainly appreciate a Mozart, or a Sibelius (visiting his home outside Helsinki and even being allowed to play his piano was a most heartwarming experience!)  But I have learned my lesson through experience, learned how wonderful a classical music tradition we have here in the United States.  And the exciting thing is, it’s only going to grow even more.  It really does take stepping away from your own country in order to appreciate it.

Don Giovanni: The Ultimate Opera

Mozart’s masterpiece about the famed libertine of Seville still remains one of the most beloved operas even today. Certainly, one must give equal credit to the brilliant librettist Lorenzo da Ponte whose choice of language, pacing, and structure make the opera a seamless work that flows with nary a glitch. It is possible to put forth the idea that Don Giovanni was da Ponte’s way of publicly flogging himself or atoning for his lifetime of misdeeds and romantic transgressions, for da Ponte’s own life was as colorful and scandalous as, if not more so than, the title character’s. The opera is exciting and engrossing because it is simply over-the-top: blood, lust, vengeance, love, seduction, violence, murder, infidelity, passion, celebration, abundance, humor, class struggles, suspicion, betrayal, and even a ghost in statue form are all packed into roughly 3 1/2 hours. This is the very essence of opera; it is and must be something out of the ordinary, something unreal and larger-than-life. It helps us transcend the experience of our mundane daily lives—-paying the bills, cooking the pasta, making a logical case for something at the office. Don Giovanni is unmistakably Italian in its aesthetic and character. It is carnal, sensual, expressive, passionate, robust, beautiful, lyrical—-and Catholic. It does not ask why or try to make rationalizations in the Anglo-Saxon manner; it puts the viewer right into the heart of the story, entwined with each character’s motives and vengeant objectives, with a pervasive yet delicious sense of sin and immorality. We know from the beginning that what Don Giovanni is doing is absolutely wrong, but it is precisely the fact that he does not get caught until the very end that makes the story so enticing: we delight in his unabashed lack of repentance and consequences. The superlative, magnificent finale serves as our justification for watching, for if he were not caught and sent to hell, we would somehow not be satisfied deep within. Ultimately, If Americans do not appreciate or “get” Don Giovanni, it is because He Who Does Not Understand Italy Cannot Understand Don Giovanni.

Also interesting to explore about Don Giovanni is the question of interpretation, for the opera lends itself to a variety of nuances of characterization, stagings, etc. Fundamentally, of course, there must be the idea of Don Giovanni paying the price for all of his sins with women and murder, of being punished for his large living and excesses (the Salzburg Festival’s 2011 appalling production of the opera was an example of what not to do, the very perversion of the opera). One must also observe the careful ideas put forth by the remarkable and precise text, for da Ponte was a master of the Italian language (he was the first professor of Italian at Columbia University, having moved to New York from Europe!) But there are a number of choices that can be made. Is Donna Anna truly raped at the beginning? Was she indeed enamored of the nobleman? How much or little will Donna Anna be attracted to Don Ottavio, and would she truly choose him if he had not been her shoulder to cry on after her father’s murder? What are Donna Elvira’s motives for going after Don Giovanni—-simply his broken promise to marry her, her lack of other male prospects, or a pregnancy? How old is she? Is she a relatively young woman who is furious at herself for having lost her virginity to Don Giovanni? Or is she older, aware that time is running out for her to make a suitable marriage? How envious a sidekick is Leporello of his master’s sexual conquests? Is Zerlina a natural flirt, or is she simply caving into the momentary seductions of the Don who is exercising his droit de seigneur? What setting other than the conventional plaza and balconies in Seville can also work? New Orleans (as was used by the University of Michigan School of Music’s recent production)? Italy? Venice (as in the visually beautiful Joseph Losey film)? Or a minimalist staging, for the characterizations and music are so strong that they can carry the opera by themselves? Is the entire opera set in the last day of Don Giovanni’s life, or is it a culmination of the events presented in the opera that leads him to burn in hell at the end?

Thus it is obvious that the opera also requires a brilliant director who can shape a production that emphasizes the necessary elements of the story and yet conveys something unique of its own. And each of the performers must be masters not only of technique (Mozart is notoriously difficult to sing, for it is so pure and reveals the naked voice), but also of interpretation, creating three-dimensional characters so as not to reduce the opera to a mere Commedia dell’Arte. This is not to say that opera does not draw upon certain tropes from that tradition or Southern European literature. The Zerlina character of the earthily sensual, shrewd peasant or lower-class woman has been seen from La Serva Padrona all the way to Sophia Loren films. But a good opera singer must make the audience feel that his or her character is a flesh and blood human being who has a raison d’être similar to that of individuals through time. Mozart has carefully delineated each character through his choice of music and key signatures (think of the rapidly shifting keys to represent Donna Elvira’s moods in “Mi Tradi’ quell’alma ingrata”). The integration between the composer and librettist in this opera is simply stunning.

Don Giovanni has already been popular for centuries, and undoubtedly will be popular for many more. Mozart and da Ponte were certainly a match made in heaven—-not hell!