Mozart and the Mob

Despite the name, television drama The Sopranos has nothing to do with opera – or does it?

Classics Family Literature Modern Life Music North America Theatre

Singers spend an inordinate amount of time travelling and staying in hotels. While rock stars are reputed to — and maybe contractually required to — trash their luxury suites, whiling away the nights, and probably days, between gigs in an orgy of drink, drugs and, well, orgy, classical singers in their more modest accommodation pursue a quieter life in which rest plays an enormous role.

The physical requirements of the unamplified voice are neurosis-inducing, and the question of how to fill the downtime is perennial. I’ve always read a lot, but sometimes reading is just that little bit too strenuous. I used to watch CNN a lot, but the endless ­repetition of the increasingly extruded and etiolated news cycle was, in the end, too much. For me, as for many other travellers, the DVD has been a godsend, and the HBO series The Sopranos hit the spot. If I wasn’t OD-ing on drugs, drink and dissolution, at least I could quietly watch some other people doing it.

When, as a distant echo from the depths of popular culture, I first became aware of The Sopranos, I did, of course, pathetically assume that it was about singers. It would be nice to pretend that The Sopranos was a ­television ­series about a hard-bitten gang of coloraturas and mezzos, who indulge themselves in a spot of casual violence, racket­eering and lap-dancing.

It was only when I read a long and appreciative essay review in the New York Review of Books a year or two back, that I realised that here was something not to be missed, and that the subject matter was the New Jersey Mob.So for the past four months, while travelling the world singing Bach, Schubert, Britten, Kurt Weill and Mozart, I have had a disorientating and intermittent immersion in more than 100 hours of the Soprano family, their joys (not so many) and woes: Tony, the boss’s murderous mother, Livia (surely named for the Emperor Augustus’s poisoner of a wife); Tony’s sessions with his psychotherapist, Dr Jennifer Melfi; his troubles with the New York family across the bridge from New Jersey; the killings he ­commissions; the punches he throws; the school and college trajectories of his children, Anthony Junior (dropout) and Meadow (high-achieving Columbia undergrad).

The great Swiss tenor, Hugues Cuénod, who sang Noël Coward’s Bitter Sweet in New York in the 1920s, Monteverdi madrigals with Nadia Boulanger in the 1930s, created the auctioneer in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, made his Met debut in his ninth decade, and has just turned 106, told me that the paintings I saw, the books I read and, by implication, the films I watched should all feed my imagination as a singer.

All these forms of ­relaxation are also meritorious ­labour, which seemed a nice way to make a living. The Sopranos make an obvious contribution to my singing of Weill’s gangster ballad, Mack the Knife, I suppose. But the theme that has resonated most through my work in the past months has been that of children, parenthood and sacrifice in the context of concert performances of Mozart’s first great ­opera, Idomeneo.

The plot of Idomeneo is simple: Idomeneo saves himself from a storm by promising the life of the first living creature he sees in sacrifice to Neptune. That creature is his own son, Idamante, who is only saved by the love and self-sacrifice of the Trojan, and hence enemy princess, the captive Ilia. Idomeneo abdicates; Idamante and Ilia will rule in his stead. Only Electra, Idamante’s original intended, and Agamemnon’s daughter, is left raging and unreconciled with music of extraordinary ferocity.

If, as so many commentators have observed, The Sopranos is not really about the Mob, but about the American family and its discontents, neither is Idomeneo really about the relationship between the mythic and ­human orders in an archaic Greek kingdom. The trend in musicological writing about Idomeneo — and, it should be said, in many of the reviews of our performances of the piece — has been to emphasise the formal aspects of the opera, its heroic cast, its grandeur. This seems to me almost entirely a mistake.

Like The Sopranos — which starts with an uncle and mother trying to murder the central character, and ends with that same character murdering a nephew who has been a son to him — Idomeneo is obsessed with the wrongs, the losses, the status of children and adopted children.

How can we do our best for them, how protect them, how save them? These questions run through the opera with an extraordinary urgency from the outset: Ilia lamenting the loss of her father and brothers in the Trojan Wars; Idamante desperately receiving the (false) news of his father’s death; the profoundly moving recognition scene, in which father and son recognise each other ­after a 10-year separation, and the father, burdened by his terrible oath, refuses to ­acknowledge him; the funereal largo as Idamante enters to be sacrificed by his father, clad in white, his words “Padre, mio caro ­padre, ah dolce nome” set to music of melting tenderness.

Even Electra, so often seen as peri­pheral, if musically magnificent, has a parallel history, the reason for her asylum in Crete — a history barely mentioned in the ­opera, but looming over it. Electra has a whole series of skeletons in the cupboard: her sister Iphi­genia sacrificed by her father, her father murdered by her mother and her lover, she herself complicit in the murder of her mother. The same theme is reiterated again and again in music of fury, emptiness, pathos and desperation.

Mozart’s own relationship with his father was very much in his mind in the years leading up to the composition of Idomeneo. It was while he was in Paris in 1778, researching librettos for a new opera, that his mother died. Mozart was, for the first time, a lone adult, ­responsible for himself. The relationship with his father, in Salzburg, entered a crucial phase resulting in a semi-estrangement. The dynamics of self-sacrifice — the son for the ­father, the father for the son — which were part of a child prodigy’s existence (and Mozart had been the great child prodigy of the age), may not have been at the front of Mozart’s mind, and may not account for the choice of such a personally appropriate libretto. The choice was that of the court at Munich, although the musicologist Daniel Heartz has argued that Mozart may have found the 1712 Danchet original in Paris.

Regardless of this, it cannot but be the case that these family concerns inform and infuse the emotional aesthetic of this very great ­opera.

In the summer of 1783, during a visit of Wolfgang and his wife Constanze to Salzburg, the Mozart family sang through the great quartet from the third act of Idomeneo, in which Idamante resolves to leave his father, “Andro ramingo e solo”. Mozart would have sung Idamante; his wife Ilia; his sister Nannerl, Electra; his father Leopold, Idomeneo. Mozart ran out of the room in tears.