Conductor Steven White interviews himself about Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

Mar 21, 2023

SW: Thanks for letting me pick your brain about a subject that I know means a great deal to you—namely, Mozart’s great masterpiece, Le nozze di Figaro. Do you have anything you’d like to say to get us started?

SW: Well, why don’t I just state the obvious.

SW: OK. I’ve noticed you do that fairly often.

SW: There is no higher manifestation of mankind’s ability to rise above the squalor of routine than through the sublimely insightful beauty that Mozart has bequeathed us, most particularly in this, the first of his three great collaborations with his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, the other two being…

SW: Yes, we know: Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Please don’t feel compelled to give us a music history lesson at every turn. Tell us more about what you mean about rising “above the squalor of routine.”

SW: Almost every aspect of The Marriage of Figaro, from the musical notes on the page, to the structure of the entire piece, and, of course, to Mozart’s treatment of the characters—in all these elements, he has taken things that we could perhaps call “common” and has transformed them into treasures that are exceedingly “rare.”

SW: Tell us what you mean by “common,” and how Mozart pulled off these various transformations.

SW: Well, let me just speak in the broadest terms first. The Marriage of Figaro is a comedy. Operatic comedies were all the rage around 1786—very common, you might say. Opera buffa is what the genre is called, and there is simply nothing funnier than Mozart’s opera! Mozart went “all in” for the laughs. Yet…

SW: I knew a “yet” was coming.

SW: Yes, you know me pretty well by now. As I was saying, Mozart unabashedly plays to his audience’s “common” sense of humor, yet he gives us music, combined with dramatic circumstance, that is as sublimely profound as anything ever created by a human being! And don’t accuse me of exaggerating.

SW: I’d never do that. Give us an example of the profound.

SW: Well, I’m somewhat reluctant to give away too many plot details, but at the end, when the Count is finally revealed publicly to be a preposterous cad (I’m speaking euphemistically), he begs forgiveness of his wife with a line of such poignancy that it seems like nothing could match it in its sheer beauty. Yet the Contessa immediately forgives him with music that can only be described as other-worldly. And THEN...the entire ensemble sings that same music in a communal hymn that brings “common” humanity as close to the transcendent “divine” as any theater music ever has or ever could. It’s quite simply “music of the spheres.” You notice, I can’t even talk about it without getting tears in my eyes!

SW: Are there other moments in the piece that affect you that way? I’m talking about the juxtaposition of comedy and profundity.

SW: Are you kidding me? On virtually every page! And, to make a larger point, this is characteristic of Mozart—throughout his life, in all his music, not just opera. And, of course, that’s what separates him from everyone else. The elegance and buoyant vitality that immediately charms our ears is always underlined by a sometimes-indefinable depth that earns our deepest affection. But getting back to The Marriage of Figaro

SW: I was going to suggest that.

SW: Quite literally, I could make this same point in every number of this opera. But for the sake of time, I’ll simply point out the fact that in the Act III sextet, we discover dramatic circumstances that are just over-the-top hilarious. Yet, while completely supporting the almost slapstick absurdity of the moment, the music takes us to a higher plane of rarified contentment and ineffable joy. Mozart himself was particularly happy with his achievement in this movement.

SW: Would you say that there are other “desert-island” moments in the opera?

SW: The whole opera, of course…but specifically, how could one possibly be expected to carry on without "Sull’aria", the Susanna/Contessa duet in the third act? Or both Contessa arias? Would you want to live in a world without Susanna’s "Deh vieni non tardar"?

SW: Of course not! Nor would I want to live in a world without Cherubino’s "Voi che sapete".

SW: Right! It’s an absolute Grecian urn of equipoise and sentiment—as perfect an operatic “song” as there could ever be. And this, from a teenage boy whose voice has yet to change! Do you think Mozart saw any of himself in Cherubino?

SW: Probably so! But listen, I think we need to wrap it up. Is there anything else you’d like to add…quickly?

SW: Oh, my goodness. We’re just getting started! How I wish we had time to talk about the Act II finale, or the Act I and Act II trios!

SW: Well, some other time, perhaps.

SW: Alright. Then I’ll close by saying that Le nozze di Figaro is a masterpiece of endless musical and dramaturgical detail that has been analyzed in countless scholarly volumes. But the bottom line, and the real reason for its enduring popularity is that Mozart, wielding one of the most divinely gifted intellects and spirits in the history of humanity—like cupid with a bow—strikes us in the center of our hearts with his music, kindling the spark of divinity that exists in all of us, common human beings that we are.

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