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David Robertson, on Taking a Snapshot of Mozart’s Brain

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Mozart’s unfinished opera is also one of his most intriguing works. Containing no overture and no third act, Zaïde (1780) is at once opera seria and opera buffa, balancing the melodramatic with the comic under the guise of a “rescue” opera, a popular art form of the late-1700s.

Several attempts have been made to flesh out the bare-bones work, most notably with Peter Sellars’s production for the 2006 Mostly Mozart Festival (which also ran in Vienna and London). As Sellars then pointed out, part of the charm of Zaïde is that it’s the first opera that Mozart wrote “on his own terms. No one commissioned it." That fact also probably explains why it went unfinished as Mozart accepted a commission to write Idomeneo the next year. Among the fragments, however, is one of Mozart’s most famous soprano arias, “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben.”

Equally unique and intriguing is Ensemble ACJW’s performance of Zaïde tonight at Zankel Hall. The Ensemble—which draws on the talents of the Academy, a program of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute—seeks not to complete Zaïde. Rather, it combines it with the New York premiere of Luciano Berio’s 1995 “commento,” Vor, während, nach Zaide (Before, Middle and After Zaïde).

Leading a cast of young singers already making pleasant noise around the City—including soprano Deanna Breiwick, Paul Appleby, Shenyang and Kelly Markgraf—is David Robertson, a longtime friend of ACJW. In between rehearsals, we caught up with Robertson to talk about the talent on board, this rare Mozart work and its combination with an instrumental piece written over 200 years later.

You’ve worked extensively with Ensemble ACJW in its five years of operations. What keeps you coming back?

I love the way in which they’re completely open to new experiences, and so they bring a kind of freshness together with an amazing, energetic virtuosity to everything. And that means that you can both explore things in-depth and you can use the opportunity to not only learn what one is supposed to do with the actual music, but put that music in some sort of context and some sort of understanding. And then I feel that that makes the performances that much richer—and more fun—for the audience.

You’re marrying two very diverse works on Thursday’s program with the Mozart and the Berio. Can you speak a bit more to how they’re being combined?

Well, Zaïde is Mozart’s unfinished opera. And it’s unfinished for reasons that many different people speculate upon but no one actually knows. We have a manuscript of works that were completed; we have no libretto that is not in Mozart’s handwriting connecting them together, so in a sense they’re these wonderful numbers but no actual glue to connect them together into the story. And it finishes at a point in the story where it would have really required someone like Mozart to make a proper completion. We don’t know what he would have done. He went on to compose Idomeneo and other works.

And after Idomeneo he returns to the harem with The Abduction from the Seraglio.

It’s very different from the Abduction from the Seraglio in many different ways. Although it deals with the same subject of people trying to escape from a foreign land—in [Zaïde’s] case, some Muslim sultan. And we don’t really know what’s going on. None of the characters are the sort of one- or two-dimensional characters. For example, the Sultan is portrayed—unlike many contemporary pieces at the close of the 18th Century, beginning of the 19th Century—not as some sort of comic buffoon, but as a real, living, breathing person and, in fact, with cultural considerations and feelings that are every bit as important and treated as importantly by Mozart as the other characters.

So the question is: What do you do? It’s beautiful music. You want to play it. But it either has to be kind of put into some pastiche where you add other works of Mozart. Or, in the case of someone like Luciano Berio, he looked at it and said, I’d like to not necessarily restore this to an original state—because we’d never know what that is—but to put a frame similar to what you find in restorations of masterpieces say in a church where there may have been water damage or an earthquake so certain parts of the images are gone forever. And rather than try to compose something in the style of Mozart, or to have pictures that seem to join up to the pictures already there, Berio says, ‘Let’s do something which allows us to contemplate what is there with the Mozart, what its meanings are, and how they might have led on to other things.’

Berio often talked about something which he [called] “remembering the future.” And it sounds ironic, except that the past is continually informing what we do in the present, and therefore how we approach the future. And so in a sense, for Berio, the most important thing was getting a sense of remembering the future; of being aware as it comes to you; of what you had in the past. So, “Before, Middle, and After Zaïde,” which is the translation of Vor, während, nach Zaide, is Berio’s way of framing the pieces of Mozart that we have in such a way that it allows us to really enjoy the genius of Mozart and, at the same time, realize that one of the amazing things about creativity is that it’s entirely unique and without Mozart there to finish it, there’s nothing else in existence.

Can you speak more to the specific style of Berio as a composer?

Berio composes in his own style. He was very knowledgeable about music of the past. What happens in the music that Berio has made to go with Mozart’s Zaïde is that you have lots of small, little snippets of the Mozart, which are there but just barely under the conscious level so they inform the music but they’re not terribly obvious. And in a way it’s almost like having a snapshot of what Mozart’s brain would have been like when he was talking to someone else, or doing something other than composing, and yet this music was completely alive and bouncing around inside of his cranium. It’s very much like some of the Italian frescoes in the churches in Tuscany and Umbria, where you have the originals that are surrounded not by something trying to complete the image, but something trying to allow that image to come through very clearly, and yet at the same time giving it the feeling that it is being cared for—but not trying to pretend that one could somehow come back to the completeness of the original.

To follow another art metaphor, the Carnegie Hall blog describes the evening as akin to walking through Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates (the 2005 art installation in Central Park).

In a sense I think it does allow one to sort of hear the Mozart and not take it for granted, which is one of the things that of course Berio was so frustrated about—things from the past that one just assumed they were there and that’s that. And of course for someone who’s a creative, they realize that if the creator doesn’t do something then it wouldn’t exist. So I suppose for Berio the idea is that Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony contains two movements, but there are two others that exist and there are no way of us ever knowing them because they’re not something that can be discovered without the uniqueness of the human being behind it.

With the production, there’s also going to be a significant use of blackboards as a staging prop. How do those factor in?

Well, Berio introduces text and wanted to introduce text without it being sung, and without it being spoken. And that way, his way of doing it, was to have the parts of his work connected up with screens in a certain way. And he uses blackboards because there’s this whole notion of trying to figure something out in academia, and various different musicologists saying, “Well, this is what it was” and “That was what it was.” So there’s a certain degree of humor, but also poignancy of musical archaeologists trying to go back and figure out exactly what was going on and how things were working. So the blackboards are used both in terms of presenting that information but also in a way that I’m sure Berio would have enjoyed with the sounds of the blackboards being part of the actual mix.

Last but not least there’s an amazing wealth of young singers in this performance. What has this journey with ACJW been like?

The thing that’s been fun is for them to discover how much this music really just means; and how smart Mozart was at the age of 23, how many clues he’s giving us to what they’re thinking. And this is what’s fascinating: We don’t really know the background, so we don’t know what the characters are coming onstage to sing about other than their text. And yet there’s so much extra information just in the accompaniment figures, in the turns-of-phrases, in the way that Mozart uses the voice, in how he sets words in different places. There are so many different things that you can pull out from this, that you can deduce, that it’s been a very instructive experience for everyone, to find these things and feel almost as though Mozart is giving them stage directions.