In today’s alt-rock-saturated consumer culture, so-called “rebellion” is sold easily as stock. And it’s a pretty callow sight, too: Marilyn Manson makes a spectacle of Satanism, one of rock’s most tired clichés, then sprains his ankle jumping off amplifiers. Courtney Love threatens the targets of her wrath with lawsuits, then slips into her Versace dress for a photo shoot. Meanwhile, the rest of the pop music industry frets about keeping its profits safe from the Internet’s latest threat, MP3 recording technology.
It’s all one big yawn, folks.
That’s because there’s a convincing case for Ludwig Van Beethoven as music’s very first renegade—a punk rocker, if you will.
Never mind the fact that his artistic achievement stands at the center of Western culture, not to mention the heart of German idealism. Never mind the fact that his artistic vision was so strong and boundless it broke through the insurmountable barrier of total deafness.
Plenty of people think they know Beethoven, or some part of him passed down through others’ pre-conceived notions. But there’s a lot you probably don’t know. For example, he smashed piano keys hard enough to break the strings. He used vulgar language. Baffled by Beethoven’s iconoclastic composing style, a group of string musicians refused to play the last movement of his 13th quartet. Beethoven’s response was blunt: “What do I care about you and your fucking fiddles?”
He bathed infrequently and was more or less your average slob—leaving plates of food around the house. Rather than compose solely for some court of European royalty he went independent, taking commissions from various sources. His expression was frequently described as “ferocious and menacing,” and, before his death during a thunderstorm, he shook his clenched fist skyward. While alive, the aristocracy saw him as a misfit, the “wild man” of the salons. And, much like the Sex Pistols and other British punk bands, Beethoven loathed the aristocracy, not to mention most people in general.
Still skeptical of the “Beethoven-as-punk-rebel” thesis? Consider this 1925 assessment by Brave New World author Aldous Huxley: “Ultimately and indirectly, Beethoven is responsible for all that is maudlin and violent in our popular music. He is responsible because it was he who first devised really effective musical methods for the direct expression of emotion.”
Beneath all this, though, was a heart finely tuned to politics of the time. Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, is considered by many his most complete socio-political statement, a summation of all he held in esteem. In it, justice triumphs over tyranny and love aids in liberation. Like many Europeans of the early 18th century, this burly German held high hopes for the ideals of the French Revolution, which offered a constitutional government and declarations of human rights in place of the feudal, aristocratic class system choking most of Europe.
Beethoven revered Napoleon, until the protector of the French Revolution announced himself “Emperor of France,” a move that recalled old aristocratic ways. Still, he never lost sight of the ideals his idol ultimately abandoned. At the time of its debut, this opera of a man unjustly imprisoned and later saved by his wife recalled the storming of the Bastille. Today, Fidelio should hold relevance for any left-leaning progressive who believes Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal are innocent of all charges.
Our hero is Leonore, a gutsy woman who hides her identity and gender as the young man Fidelio, then infiltrates one of Spain’s state prisons to save her husband Florestan. Illegally chained to a rock for two years, Florestan subsists on next to nothing. But after resisting romantic advances by the jailer’s daughter, and after a perfectly timed visit by a minister of the state, Leonore manages to wrest her husband free.
Critics have complained about the opera’s plodding plot. And, in terms of structure, Fidelio is hardly perfect. But Beethoven’s uncompromising vision and the splendor of his music sees it through. It boasts a glorious chorus by Florestan’s fellow inmates, an achingly beautiful tenor aria by Florestan and a love duet that renders words like “transcendent” obsolete.
No wonder Wilhelm Furtwängler, considered the greatest German conductor of the century, said, “Fidelio is, in truth a Mass rather than an opera.” Beyond its musical importance, though, the opera also boasts Leonore, a character oft-cited as “opera’s first proto-feminist.” The sight of a woman who plans, and succeeds, in freeing her husband was something new to 19th-century audiences.
Even in Europe it’s rarely performed. So, if you’ve never seen an opera before, consider marking your calendar for Utah Opera’s production. It boasts a fine lineup, evidenced by the fact that the company cast soprano Margaret Jane Wray as Leonora. Wray, who speaks in a wry tone between sips of cherry Coke, boasts a string of performance debuts including Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, Paris’ L’Opera Bastille and the Chicago Symphony. After a short stint studying jazz singing at North Texas State University, she apprenticed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Wray personally rates Fidelio in her top-five favorite operas of all time. And she’s well-acquainted with her role, having performed it previously with a company in Catania, Italy.
“It’s a long opera, and it’s a difficult opera,” Wray says. “After cracking the score the first thing you do is cry. At first it’s really difficult, like doing your taxes. But then you start falling in love with the music, and suddenly it’s the best role you’ve ever had.”
Beethoven never wrote with the sensitivities of the human voice in mind. Rather, he wrote for the voice as a musical instrument. Wray likens her singing part to the range of a clarinet. And she shakes off the opera’s feminist subtext, concentrating instead on its music.
“The music is so wonderful, it speaks for itself,” she says. “I don’t think in terms of pro-feminist or anti-feminist. But yes, the strong character attracts me to the role. If my husband was in prison I’d go to those lengths.”
Instead, Wray responds more to the opera’s stark contrast to the real-life actions of the composer. In Fidelio and his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven professed a love for humanity. But by reputation he treated others in an abominable manner, especially his nephew Karl, who attempted suicide while living under the unreasonable demands of uncle Beethoven.
This puts Fidelio in the harsh light of irony, but, as Wray points out, it tells us that above all else art may be our sole salvation.
“Every great man or woman has a fatal flaw,” she says. “Beethoven wanted to think of himself as a just man, even if he couldn’t be just to his nephew. People may not control their lives as they like, but you can be as free as you want to in your imagination. We can channel our passion into art. You can be as free as you want to in that area.”
Fidelio plays at Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, March 26 and 28. Phone 355-ARTS for tickets and times.