BERKELEY -- "The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)" is an opera for real. Friday at the Ojai North Music Festival, it also proved to be an unexpectedly witty, illuminating and all-around delightful 70 minutes of entertainment. Too bad it's not running for a week or two; everybody who loves classical music should see it, as should everybody who thinks classical music is a bore.
Who knew? Jeremy Denk, the pianist, essayist and MacArthur "genius" award winner, is the amiable polymath who came up with the concept, which on its face seems beyond obscure. The opera is inspired by a musicological book -- "The Classical Style," by the late Charles Rosen, also a polymath, a snarky one, famous as pianist and barbed essayist. His tome, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1972, is a biography (of sorts) of "the classical style" created by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
This new opera -- a love letter to the wonders of those composers and to the miracle of art itself -- has a libretto by Denk and a score by Steven Stucky, the Pulitzer Prize winner. With a clever hand, Denk has used excerpts from Rosen's book as the kernels of a fantasy, with the above three composers as leading characters. With equal elegance and humor, Stucky has built a score that is awash with allusions to (and quotations from) the charms of Haydn, the shadowy breezes of Mozart, the storms of Beethoven.
Premiered last week at Southern California's Ojai Music Festival, the opera is the centerpiece of Ojai North, which runs through Saturday, presented by Cal Performances at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall, with Denk as music director. The East Bay festival features wall-to-wall programs, imaginatively conceived by Denk with an impressive list of guests. Still, what a shame that "The Classical Style" is receiving only two performances.
Directed by Mary Birnbaum, with Robert Spano conducting the chamber orchestra known as The Knights -- and with an all-around terrific cast -- this charmer of a one-act opera begins with a game of Scrabble. Around a table in heaven, the three composers compete: Beethoven hits the jackpot ("183 points!") with a triple word score; Mozart keeps spelling out expletives. They've just read a New York Times article declaring the death of classical music, when Haydn pulls a random book off a shelf: "The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven" by one Charles Rosen.
Then begins the hunt, as the three geniuses descend to Earth, searching for Rosen at his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment and at a musicological symposium, hoping "the eminent pianist and thinker" (they've noticed the blurb on the book) can help them achieve renewed relevance. The plot also detours to a bar, where, just briefly, the music gets slippery with blue notes. This is where we meet the characters Tonic, Dominant and Subdominant. (Hilariously, Denk has personified the three fundamental chords of Western classical music.)
It's as if the Marx Brothers are teaching lessons on music theory and sonata-allegro form. There are plenty of in-jokes, but this shouldn't deter anyone from seeing the opera -- because anyone can hear what counts: the bliss and beauty of the music. One also hears the dark tensions that grow via Mozart and Beethoven -- and Wagner, whose Tristan Chord character walks in and explains himself, smelling of subversion and sex.
There's no room here to describe each of the eight singers, so let's just name them, alphabetically: bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock as Tonic ("Me! Me! Me!"); tenor Dominic Armstrong as Haydn ("Papa! Papa! Papa!"); mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway as Dominant; tenor Keith Jameson as Snibblesworth (a Nutty Professor-ish Ph.D. student in musicology from UC Berkeley); baritone Kim Josephson as Rosen (and as Tristan Chord); bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam as Beethoven; mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell as sultry Subdominant; soprano Jennifer Zetlan as coloratura Mozart.
Stucky's score alludes at times to passages some listeners will recognize, including the Scherzo from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and a Mozart number (from "The Abduction from the Seraglio") that catalogs the wonders of women. The latter gets spoofed, at least to my ears, emerging as a "Catalog Aria" for Snibblesworth about the nerdy wonders of musicological obsessions ("887 papers on tonal functions").
"The Classical Style" is gorgeous to hear, and filled with laughs. And the opera is deep. Because underneath it all, it's a meditation on the miracle of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. "The classical style was a synthesis of forces that lay all around but dormant," sings Josephson (as Rosen), quoting from the book. "They created a language out of chaos."
That language -- that "style" -- was laid to rest a long time ago, having given birth to another style, and then another. Yet the music of the three masters lives on: "You are loved. Loved to death!" Rosen sings to them, assuringly.
Proof is right here in this winning little opera.
Presenting 'The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)' (through June 20) and numerous other programs
Through: June 21
Where: Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley campus
Tickets: Single tickets $20-$40; 510-642-9988, calperformances.org