Madamina, il catalogo è questo – 1003 in Spain, 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey. But what might il catalogo refer to in this case? Bank failures following the financial crisis? Best value wines rated 90+ by Wine Spectator? Active Champions League footballers? All reasonable guesses, but unfortunately completely wide off the mark. Opera buffs, of course, would instantly recognize Don Giovanni’s catalog of carnal conquests from Mozart’s eponymous masterpiece, which we saw performed at London’s always magnificent Royal Opera House last week.
My own views on opera are somewhat mixed, and aligned with Napoleon’s thoughts on warfare – there is frequently only a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous. Take Verdi’s Rigoletto, for example, which combines the rollicking aria La Donna e Mobile and the haunting quartet Bella Figlia dell’Amore with a plot that borders on the downright silly. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, with the ultimate tear-jerking aria Un Bel Di Vedremo, is ruined by the “wtf” construct of Cio-Cio San performing a ritual suicide using her father’s hara-kiri knife while her blindfolded son sits by, calmly brandishing an American flag. Some operas are worth watching for sheer spectacle alone; for example, Aida performed under the stars in Verona should be on everyone’s bucket list. Others fall short despite an extravagant staging. Turandot performed in Beijing’s Forbidden City, with Zubin Mehta conducting, verged on the spectacular but casting proved a fatal flaw. Quite simply, for a man to risk decapitation his prize must look more like Gisele Bundchen rather than a female Sumo wrestler. But Mozart is in an altogether different league; if his operas have an element of ridicule, it is either laced with irony or intended as outright comedy. One gets the sense, for example, that a contemporary Wolfgang might be a fan of The Big Lebowski. Love and romance feature, but never of the maudlin variety favored by Puccini. The music always has an element of lyrical playfulness, so that when Mozart resorts to the dramatic – the finale of Don Giovanni for example – it truly resonates, in this case exploring complex themes of divine retribution, morality and mortality. A healthy dose of sexual innuendo is a Mozart trademark; at Covent Garden last week, the Director exercised some license and introduced a delightful menage a trios involving a couple of shapely blondes whose auditions presumably involved more libido than libretto. Mercifully, and such was his genius, Mozart operas almost never feature fat ladies, I’m sure a very deliberate function of the vocal range scored by the maestro for his elegant divas. Keep the plump Turandots, give me that sleek and sexy Queen of the Night anytime.
Speaking of genius, this brings up a question I have frequently reflected on over the years – what is the essence of genius, musical or otherwise? I suppose everyone has their own take on this, but for me the answer is simplicity and elegance, which in turn leads to a beauty that stimulates the mind in a fashion that sometimes defies description. Conversely, complexity is all too often confused with true brilliance. Take literature for example. Golfer’s, or at least those with a bookish disposition, have an expression for a putt that seems impossibly difficult to read – a “Salman Rushdie.” It took me three attempts to get through Midnight’s Children, and fellow victims of Rushdie’s pomposity will relate when I confess to some sympathy with the Ayatollah’s fatwa. But if you think Rushdie is a tough read, try Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, the 1971 Pullitzer Prize winning classic treatise by Douglas Hofstadter, I started the book while in college in 1983, fascinated by the notion that someone might unlock for me the threads that connect mathematical, artistic and musical genius. 30 years on, I finally gave up, concluding that life is too short for these mental space odysseys. A Wagner opera evokes a similar reaction – wtf dude? Mozart, on the other hand, turns me on in much the same way as does Einstein’s General Relativity and John Nash’s Equilibrium – I guess I’m a math geek at heart – the common thread being the monumental ability to take the incredibly complex and profound and reduce it to a simple message, delivered via an equation or a musical score, or a work of art or simple prose for that matter.
Sounds flaky? Turns out Mozart’s greatest fan was Einstein, who saw a great affinity in their respective creative processes. Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart’s “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.” Einstein believed much the same of physics; that the laws of nature were “waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with a sympathetic ear”. Neuroscience is constantly coming to grips with this phenomena of what truly energises and activates the mind. For example, in 1993, neurologists at the University of California (Irvine) observed the so called “Mozart Effect” in a laboratory experiment. Students who had a Mozart sonata playing in the background consistently scored 10% higher in spatial IQ tests relative to a control group who listened to random “relaxation music”. More recently, in an experiment conducted on 60 mathematicians, neurologists at the University College London discovered that the same emotional brain centres used to appreciate art and music were being stimulated by “beautiful” math. Euler’s Identity – simple and elegant, yet profound – topped the charts in terms of generating the maximum level of excitement in the medial orbito-frontal cortex (the “emotional brain”), while poor Srinivas Ramanujan and his Infinite Series brought up the rear. As harsh as this sounds, this would make the gifted Rushdie, at least in my estimation, the “not so beautiful” literary counterpart to Ramanujan, which of course begs an altogether different question – wtf is the deal with these Indians?
Coming back to Mozart and dragging this all down to earth, the last word must surely go to German one-hit wonder Falco, who has the singular distinction of outdoing Einstein on what was always Albert’s favourite subject. In his 80s classic hit Rock Me Amadeus, Falco captures the essence of Mozart more eloquently than Einstein ever did:
With a bottle of wine in one hand and a woman in the other
‘Cause he was a ladies man
He never stopped to worry what the next day would bring
Because the girls would sing:
Rock me Amadeus
His mind was on rock and roll and having fun
Because he lived so fast he had to die so young.
But he made his mark in history.
Still ev’rybody says:
Rock me Amadeus
Now that’s my kind of genius.