Jeremy Denk is a ham, but the 44-year-old pianist and writer is also exceptionally bright: so, a smart ham. The opera The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts), for which Denk supplied the libretto, had its New York première at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall last week to riotous laughter and applause. This, after Mr Denk took the stage himself and performed Mozart’s Fantasia and Sonata in C minor, K. 475/457.

There was much talk of musicology throughout the evening, most of it chiding, which I found strange considering how musicological Mr Denk’s piano playing can be (in his own sense of the word). He has a clear agenda, and he gets his points across quite well but lets the details get muddled, which resulted in missed notes and garbled phrases during the Sonata’s first movement. Nevertheless, he conveys a crisp yet meandering tone that snatches the listener up from the start. Despite any clumsiness, his playing is more pensive and intelligent than one might expect.

Jeremy Denk © Chris Lee
Jeremy Denk
© Chris Lee

Less pensive was the opera (“of sorts”) itself, essentially a 75-minute-long inside joke for anybody who has taken a Music History or Theory 101 course. There are plenty of Don Giovanni quotations (both in the form of musical excerpts and in winking shout-outs from the libretto), arias by dead composers sung in that composer’s personal style, and an ensemble piece on the sonata form. The opera, directed by Mary Birnbaum, rotates through a cast of characters including Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant as well as a be-wigged Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The villain is a musicology student named Snibblesworth, and the hero is Charles Rosen himself, the author of the acclaimed 1971 book The Classical Style.

During the first scene, the dead composers, sung energetically by Dominic Armstrong, Jennifer Zetlan and Ashraf Sewailam, squabble over who is the greatest composer in between rounds of Scrabble (Beethoven scores triple word points with words like “Weltanschauung” while all Mozart and Haydn can come up with is “Scheisse” and “Bier”, respectively). Eventually they come across a copy of Charles Rosen’s book and head off on a quest to find him. The fictional Rosen, played by Kim Josephson, is preoccupied with rereading his own writings and dodging a symposium invite. Along the way, the dead composers encounter a New York Times article proclaiming classical music dead (“What’s classical music?”) and the previously mentioned sonata form symposium. On their own separate journey (which mostly consists of pestering a bartender, flirting with each other, and downing shots when their advances are rejected), Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant struggle to “resolve” their “tensions”, but realize how easy they have it upon meeting the Tristan chord.

Mr Denk’s libretto is silly and self-referential but, at least, self-aware. At one point a character comments that “So much was said to so little effect,” which seemingly could apply to academia, the classical style, The Classical Style, or The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). This opera certainly contains very many words (and notes), without leaving much of an impression, but it still made for a delightful evening. There are memorable moments to be sure, such as Mr Denk’s transfiguration of Mozart’s “catalogue aria” into a list of figures rattled off: the number of performances of Beethoven’s Ninth (and the accompanying “interminable pre-concert lectures”), the number of ringtones to interrupt Beethoven’s Ninth, and, by the way, “5000 people think Beethoven was a dog!”

© Chris Lee
© Chris Lee

The stand-out performers were bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock as the self-obsessed Tonic and tenor Keith Jameson as the sniveling Snibblesworth. Both commanded the audience’s attention with rich singing and vibrant--even, in Mr Allicock’s case, borderline acrobatic--stage presences. Conductor Robert Spano was superb, as were the performers he was leading, The Knights. The music bumbling along beneath this drama, composed by Steven Stucky, was nearly as clever as Mr Denk’s libretto: it mimicked the classical style and conventions throughout. The score finally gained more interest and momentum towards the end, in the form of new harmonies and phrasing accompanying the appearance of Robert Schumann’s ghost. “It’s a miracle, Charles, and it could never be repeated,” Schumann says, referring to the classical style. But Denk's reverence seems once again to apply to The Classical Style, reminding us that despite its carefree surface, this quirky work of music is at heart an homage to the late great Charles Rosen.