As I took my seat at the Seattle Public Library’s preview of Ariadne auf Naxos, I was reminded that in the opera world, 40 is young. Or maybe I’m just the only opera fan under 60 who is free to attend a lecture at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. Of course the library hosts opera preview lectures at a number of different times and locations, which is fortunate because the lectures are very good.
I wasn’t properly prepared for Semele, so this time I determined to find out what I was in for in advance. The preview lecture I attended was presented by Seattle Opera’s Director of Public Programs and Media, Jonathan Dean. He won me over early in the presentation when he referred to Circe as “a self-made woman.” As one would expect, the lecture included a summary of the story. A rich man has commissioned a tragic opera (Ariadne auf Naxos) to be performed at his party. He has also hired a commedia dell’arte troupe. At the last minute, he decides the program is too long and the two performances must be merged. Hijinks ensue.
Of course, a detour through the myth of Ariadne is required. Dean explained, “Ariadne has been dumped and marooned by her faithless lover – probably a tenor.” We also learn about the opera itself, which uses Shakespeare’s beloved play-within-a-play structure. Act One (called the Prologue) takes place backstage and sets up the story. Act Two consists entirely of the mash-up performance of the opera and the comedy (with occasional jaunts into the stage-audience).
If the opera were to be summarized in word, we learned that it would be gesamptkunstwerk, the idea of universal artwork. This is explored both in the themes of the story – the dueling attitudes of the high-brow opera composer and the audience-friendly comedienne Zerbinetta – as well as the structure of the opera, which includes a little dancing, a lot of comedy, a variety of (operatic) singing styles, and some fireworks (again, both literal and metaphorical). While the high-art characters remain unnamed, evocative perhaps of their Platonic nature, the comedians are individuals with typically Italian opera-character names. Hmm.
I have often observed that the best artworks mirror the conditions under which they were created. The members of the Firefly cast talk about how filming the show felt like being the crew of an underdog ship. The documentary on Singing in the Rain talks about how the genius Gene Kelly was frustrated by his female costar’s inexperience in dance, just as his character had to find a way around Lena’s inability to sing. And the backstory on Ariadne auf Naxos reveals a serious poet crafting a libretto for a poker-playing composer. One wonders how many of the melodramatic lines sung by The Composer were actually a librettist’s hearfelt sentiments.
The preview lecture in which I learned these things wasn’t a passive experience. Dean asked as many questions of the audience as he answered, and in the course of the discussion I discovered that I have rather strong views on the artificiality of the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow.
Acknowledging the setting, Dean recommended a few books. But in keeping with the themes of the opera, his recommendations were not books about the composer or the opera. Instead he recommended the mythology-based historical fiction novels of Mary Renault.