PREFACE TO THE OPERA
Tartuffe and Musical Humor
MOLIÈRE’S Tartuffe had been a favorite play of mine for years, but not until I saw the American Conservatory Theater production of it in San Francisco in the early 70’s did I realize its possibilities for comic opera. The rhymed verse, the stylized, broadly comic acting bordering on choreography made Tartuffe almost an opera buffa without music. It became one of A.C.T.’s greatest successes. The director, William Ball, certainly knew that both Molière and opera buffa had their roots in commedia dell’arte; his production reminded me of this important fact.
There are really two Tartuffes by Molière—the three-act comedy he originally wrote, and the five-act comic morality play he was forced to make of it in order to get it past the censors. Unfortunately, we have only the latter, but evidence suggests that the first version was a straight satire of human character. The tedious disclaiming of impiety and the deus ex machina ending are generally acknowledged to be unwelcome additions.
But an opera is quite different from a play, and librettists are given license to make changes not permitted in the spoken theater. I removed whatever I thought Molière had added against his will, and invented an ending which conforms as closely as possible to his own without requiring the gratuitous intervention of the king. Being my own librettist, I was able to reconstruct the play along musical lines, making further changes as I composed the music.
Molière had fun with language and so did I. He invented words, he punned, and he told literary purists that the end of comedy was to please—that his success was his justification. I have taken the same attitude as composer. The score abounds in musical jokes, parody, caricature, even musical puns. If this disturbs some purist who thinks an opera should have a rigid stylistic unity in order to be quite honest, I reply as Molière did to his pious critics: “How am I to present a hypocrite on the stage without making him perform outwardly the gestures of an honest man?”
In Molière’s plays, not only hypocrites but con men (Tartuffe), dupes (Orgon), and naïves (Mariane and Damis) are laughed at for mouthing words that the audience recognizes as shopworn clichés. To get the same effect in opera, these characters must occasionally sing in styles equally recognizable as musical clichés. In some cases the composer must walk a tightrope between making fun of the character and letting us sympathize with the character’s misguided or naive sentiment. When composing Orgon’s first aria I naturally wanted to mock the stereotypes of operatic religiosity in the same way that Molière ridiculed the tone of Orgon’s newly-found sanctimony. But as an aria lasts considerably longer than the spoken words, I thought it necessary to give genuine musical interest, even beauty, to Orgon’s conventional posturing. And I’ve been pleased to find that in spite of the humor and exaggeration, this aria actually moves some listeners. Perhaps this only shows how sentimental and conventional some people’s taste is; I prefer to believe that it proves music can operate on several levels at the same time. Richard Strauss, for instance, intended his most famous Rosenkavalier waltz as pure parody, but it was, in Norman Del Mar’s words, “hailed as a true example—indeed, one of the finest ever written—of the very thing of which it was originally a satire.” (Incidentally, Rosenkavalier is full of musical borrowings, caricature, local in-jokes and what purists like to stigmatize as “anachronisms.” But so is almost every comic opera, and even some more serious works, such as Don Giovanni.)
Parody, including the occasional outrageous quotation, is a trenchant form of satire, whether verbal or musical. The operatic Tartuffe’s audiences and critics have shown by their laughter and their generous reviews that they understand this very well—only one or two humorless music critics have missed the point. One wrote a review about the “bewilderingly eclectic music” without giving any hint that satire or parody were involved. But because I occasionally parody a style (as in Orgon’s aria) rather than a specific piece, the reverse of this happens more often. In their eagerness to catch all the references, listeners frequently credit me with parodying or quoting composers and musical passages that I don’t even know. Relax, folks, there aren’t many quotations.
The fact that Tartuffe is a “numbers” opera—with arias, duets, trios and large ensembles—has led some to the mistaken belief that the entire work is meant to be little more than a spoof of operatic tradition, a “pseudo 18th century opera.” At the other end of the spectrum are those directors who have insisted on staging my opera in later periods because, as one of them put it, “the work is so patently 20th century American.”
Tartuffe is a “numbers” opera because I wanted to revive the flamboyant spirit of Molière, which considerably predates 18th century opera. We know that Molière was a great actor of farce; it is a mistake to load onto his plays the dark “social commentary” style of the 20th century. In his preface to Tartuffe, Molière wrote, “The most beautiful ideas in a serious philosophy are less powerful most of the time than those in a satire. . . . It’s a terrible blow to vice to expose it to everyone’s laughter. One can easily bear reproof; but no one can bear to be mocked . . . no one wants to be ridiculous.” Yet the idea persists in some quarters that Molière’s plays (and operas made from them) must be produced with a bitter, even somber tone; otherwise they are not to be taken seriously!
And even Molière has occasionally suffered from the kind of obtuseness that cannot differentiate between parody and pilfering. It has been written and often repeated that Molière is one of the few great writers who has no style, but rather the styles of all his characters. There is a grain of truth in this but it omits the important fact that his characters didn’t write the plays—Molière did. And though I have followed his example in using satire and burlesque—both verbal and musical—99 percent of the music is, for better or worse, original.
I must also point out that satire may be either witty or heavy-handed. A pun may be funny or dumb. If the Beethoven quotation in Act III did not grow naturally out of both the situation and the musical material, it would not give listeners a swift perception of an incongruous relationship and they would not laugh.
It is certainly true that one can overdo this kind of humor. Particularly in music, comic effect is not enough to sustain interest very long—not, for instance, through an entire duet like that of Dorine and Mariane in Act I. Musical and dramatic movement must be maintained or the joke wears thin. But the effect need not always be purely comic. Gentle satire can produce charm, amusement, or “set up incongruities which serve in a kindly way to demolish falsehood and reveal truth” (S. Leacock).
The composer cannot, of course, be his own judge. I can say only that I have tried, like Yeats, “to rediscover an art of the theatre which shall be joyful, fantastic, extravagant, whimsical, beautiful, resonant and altogether reckless.” It sounds like a good description of Molière. — K. M.
From program notes for Lake George Opera’s Tartuffe, 1982. Revised and expanded, 1993.