January 21, 2019

“The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)” to premiere at Ojai Fest

In addition to Uri Caine’s appearance, another highlight of this year’s Ojai Music Festival sounds like a joke, and, at least in part, it is. Festival music director Jeremy Denk, 44, one of the finest pianists of his generation, wrote a libretto for an opera based on “The Classical Style,” Charles Rosen’s classic 1971 study of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven charting the rise and fall of that most reassuring and orderly composing style. 

“The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)” will have its premiere at Ojai’s Libbey Bowl on June 13.

“I came up with the idea as a joke,” said Denk, who knew Rosen, an award-winning writer and pianist who died in 2012 at 85. “I wrote out a cast of characters, then wondered, ‘What would the tonic say if they had an aria? What would the dominant say?’ All that joyous meta-music about music, and the madcap possibilities.”

The character of Mozart is a pants role (a woman playing a man), and there’s even a part for the intrusive Wagnerian “Tristan” chord, one of the musical developments sounding the death knell of the classical era.

“The piece is absolutely anti-pretentious,” said Steven Stucky, who composed the music. “Jeremy even invented a character — not Charles — who is a caricature of a bad musicologist.”

Would Rosen have gotten the humor? “Charles was funny, and he loved jokes,” Denk said, “but a lot of the comedy would have been pretty broad for him. And yet, there are moments in it where some of the greatness of the book comes through. The book has always been a part of my life, so I’d like to think, by the end, he would have come around and been happy.”

Directed by Mary Birnbaum and conducted by Robert Spano, the semi-staged production runs a classically lean 70 minutes.  

The Ojai Music Festival runs June 12-15. For information and tickets, call (805) 646-2053 or visit ojaifestival.org