Excepting sex, comic opera’s the best thing in the world. The reason is simple, comic opera isn’t funny, it’s just opera without grand airs. All it does is imitate life’s flowing moods. Mozart’s its great master, every phrase of his operas simultaneously capturing all life’s moods. He’s the ph7 of expression. Composers tried to bring us back to ph7 ever since, and no one got closer, or further away, than Richard Strauss.
Strauss is Exhibit A that mediocrities can be geniuses. No composer displayed more creativity in music’s superficialities. Strauss does with 5,000 notes what Mozart does with five.
I’ve always had a pet theory: Strauss was a born entertainer doomed to become an artist. He was musical royalty — son of Wagner’s favorite horn player. Possessing infinities of musical talent and no profound thoughts, young Strauss translated the profound thoughts of Cervantes and Nietzsche to their musical equivalents in what we call “Tone Poems.” His adoring musical public thought him a great intellectual, but Strauss’s music parodied intellectuals contemptuously.
In dotage, Strauss became a Nazi collaborator, but his personality was like a Jewish caricature: materialistic, practical, cynical, greedy. To make art worthy of the name, he needed a temperamental opposite.
English readers never read Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but German readers think his early poetry as perfect as Keats or Rimbaud. The latter two were dead by their mid-30s, but when Hofmannsthal began work with Strauss, he was 35 and washed up. Strauss viewed creativity with the banality of a sausage factory, but Hofmannsthal came from one of those wealthy German-Jewish families that viewed art and culture as a substitute for the religion they renounced.
The great secret of creators like Mozart is that there’s no distinction between art and entertainment. When you’re a transcendent genius, it doesn’t matter whether you create art or entertainment because everything you do is both entertaining and meaningful.
When Strauss paired with Hofmannsthal, he found a collaborator who viewed art as something more than banality, and his music glowed with Mozartian light. Rosenkavalier’s so true to life that twenty minutes pass while you forget you’re listening to music rather than conversation. But even with Hofmannsthal, there are soulstates Strauss never expresses.
To Mozart, happiness is something we deserve, but never achieve. To Strauss, happiness is achievable for some, who deserve happiness at others’ expense. Mozart makes low-class characters the scene-stealers, showering them with affection and dignity. In Strauss, lower classes are anonymous masses, footstools onto which aristocrats lay smelly extremities.
To aristocrats of 2017, Der Rosenkavalier could be a manifesto. The 1911 world bequeathed Rosenkavalier was smeared with bullshit that seems as familiar as distant. The rules of social order were unbreakable. No one can say what they mean or mean what they say, and their world cries out for a demagogue who destroys their world by making his rage appear sincere.
Der Rosenkavalier makes you care about the world of aristocrats. It reduces generations of white males like me to puddles of feelings as we watch a woman approaching middle age realize that a whole new generation of privileged women will feel trapped like breeding mares by their patriarchal husbands, and treats it as the world’s most consequential issue. Meanwhile a death machine prepares a hundred million early graves.
I’m an opera-loving white male stick in the mud. I’ve never gotten my nose around the feculence of faux-revolutionary concepts that smell like rage of the marginally less entitled than those whom they fight against. But as I watched the Metropolitan Opera’s movie relay of Der Rosenkavalier last week, it was impossible not to see the oafishly villainous Baron Ochs as Donald Trump incarnate — a hurricane of toxic masculinity whose constant sexual harassment masks complete cowardice. It was impossible to view Renee Fleming’s Marschallin, her luminous 58 playing 32, her character knowing she’s of age for the pasture in a society that only values women for looks, without rage for her plight. It was impossible to view Elina Garanca, a beautiful 40 playing Marschallin’s 17-year-old boy lover Octavian, without thinking that maybe, just maybe, the cycle of men raised to do evil can be broken by the purity of adolescent love. For five hours, the world’s most aristocratic art form convinced me that patriarchy really is the defining concept of world history, and gender’s nothing but a social construct.
When you watch Marschallin selflessly surrender Octavian to the love of the 16-year-old Sophie, you really do believe the future can be better. If adults act better, maybe the next generation can extend the purity of first love all the way through adult love’s infinite complications. Maybe young men can be better men, and we can break the cycle of toxic masculinity. Such is the stuff which fairy tales are made, and only aristocrats believe them.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.