By Aaron Barksdale-Burns
“How am I to present a hypocrite on the stage without making him perform outwardly the gestures of an honest man?” - Molière
On Molière’s 400th birthday, the international community can celebrate the evergreen relevance of his enlightened age satire, Tartuffe (1664). The dramatist is a true rock star of French culture, proven by his fame-of-one-name, which is something that even Louis XIV himself cannot boast. This reputation is due in no small part to his lapidary pièce de théâtre about the hypocrisy of an imposter and his faux piety, which speaks to audiences across both space and time. The treatment of universal themes in Molière’s brilliant satire demolishes falsehood and reveals truth.
For Molière, farcical satire did much more to change society than did the philosophical treatises of his contemporaries. In Tartuffe we recognize that hypocrisy is still alive and well in daily life from the banks of the Seine to the banks of the Missouri river. Therefore, it is not to be ignored that the only known operatic work based on Molière’s Tartuffe rightly takes its unique place among masterpieces of American opera – and this, thanks to a Kansas boy.
Indeed, Kansas native, Kirke Mechem (b. 1925) is one of the most influential voices in the wide-ranging genres of classical music for generations of American performers of the 20th and 21st centuries. His compositions have, in fact, delighted listeners in over 42 countries and range in scope from symphonies to chamber music. Moreover, his choral works have been an integral part of the American choral experience for decades, with several seminal works such as the secular, yet otherworldly, Island in Space (Dona Nobis Pacem). The composition is written to the words of Apollo 9 astronaut, Russell Schweikart who viewed Earth from space and said that he heard true silence. The Stanford graduate studied at Harvard under Randall Thompson and in 2012 received an honorary Doctorate from the University of Kansas for "notable contributions to choral music and opera."
Born in Wichita and raised in Topeka, the composer is best known to Kansas City audiences for his opera John Brown, about the antagonistic abolitionist and his confidant, the brilliant orator Frederick Douglass, in their anti-slavery campaign. Written in the 1990’s, it did not receive its premiere until 2008 at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and still today its themes on the relationship between violence and justice in the American story have never been more relevant.
Mechem’s operas are written in a very accessible style; but remain inaccessible in definitive studio recordings that have not yet been produced. In contrast, his other vocal works are widely performed and appreciated across the United States. As a choral composer, he is known for motets, folksongs, anthems, choral variations and his American Madrigals such as his arrangement of Kansas Boys. A wonderful example of his virtuosity in writing for the human voice can be heard in Blow Ye the Trumpet. The atheist composer fashioned a powerful prayer, excerpted from his opera, John Brown. It has been scored for both mixed and men’s choruses and is a fabulous example of his composition and influence on young America.
Blow ye the trumpet, blow,
Sweet is Thy work, my God, my King.
I’ll praise my Maker with all my breath.
O happy is the man who hears.
Why should we start, and fear to die,
With songs and honors sounding loud.
Ah, lovely appearance of death.
Even still, his first opera, Tartuffe (1980), the only operatic treatment of Molière’s famous satire, was an immediate success on the international scene. With a libretto in English, written by the composer himself, the opera was premiered at San Francisco Opera. In the years since, it has seen over 400 productions in six countries including Canada, China, Russia, Austria. Germany, and the United States.
Mechem wrote all of his own libretti, and Tartuffe required a rhyming English translation of Molière’s French which retains key dialogue. As librettist, he also made several changes in the original play, most notably by omitting the enlightened Cléante, enlarging the women’s roles and doing away with Molière’s Hellenistic ending that formulaically featured le Roi Soleil himself saving the day. Mechem’s version has “a sillier, more Mozartean-style conclusion of daffy reverse trickery: Orgon’s kin disguise themselves as public officials, fake an arrest, and Tartuffe flees the scene, to swindle another day,” - Pierre Ruhe (Arts Atlanta).
Mechem addressed this change in his written commentaries on the opera. “There are really two Tartuffes by Molière—the three-act comedy he originally wrote, and the five-act comic morality play he was forced to make of it in order to get it past the censors. Unfortunately, we have only the latter, but evidence suggests that the first version was a straight satire of human character. The tedious disclaiming of impiety and the deus ex machina ending are generally acknowledged to be unwelcome additions.”
The storytelling of this stage work relies in part on its format as opera buffa, meaning that the musical structure draws inspiration from 18th century works and offers a clear delineation between its arias, cabalette and ensembles. The structure of the stage work rather resembles neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951) and the lyricism of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (1958). In contrast, the music seems to be the polar opposite of the rhythmically experimental minimalism and the avant-garde operatic conceptions that were introduced in Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Satyagraha (1979).
In this regard, the composer's treatment of the piece in a somewhat stylized manner is the outcome of his musical style in response to the text and not, as is sometimes misunderstood, a spoof on operatic traditions. Pierre Ruhe wrote: “Mechem’s construction is very fluid, moving gracefully from semi-sung parlando to light arietta to ensemble numbers and back. The score tingles with ear-friendly American
modernism, evoking Stravinsky and Barber and comic musical quotations from Wagner and Beethoven: (a perfectly timed) knock at the door. Da da da dum.”
Mechem describes the opera harmonically as “patently 20th Century American”, but regarding its form he says, “Tartuffe is a ‘numbers’ opera because I wanted to revive the flamboyant spirit of Molière, which considerably predates 18th century opera. We know that Molière was a great actor of farce; it is a mistake to load onto his plays the dark ‘social commentary’ style of the 20th century.” Mechem’s sensibility is to discourage the trivialization or brutalization of music that he feels is commonplace in our day. Moreover, he continues “In Molière’s plays, not only hypocrites but con men (Tartuffe), dupes (Orgon), and naïves (Mariane and Damis) are laughed at for mouthing words that the audience recognizes as shopworn clichés. To get the same effect in opera, these characters must occasionally sing in styles equally recognizable as musical clichés”.
The adaptation is known for its gay instrumentation and musical tags, such as the hymnic harmonies associated with the faker, Tartuffe and the flourishing absurdity of the leitmotif that accompanies the duped bourgeois Orgon, a bass-baritone. Appearing early in the score, the cheeky folk ballad “Fair Robin, I love” is perhaps the most famous song and a main theme, as it is sung by Dorine (soubrette soprano), who, as the maid in service of a wealthy family, is perhaps the wisest of characters. In the opera’s finale “all’s well that ends well”, her playful tune is adopted by her superiors who reprise the theme in a contrapuntal ensemble that exposes the lies of Tartuffe, the ostentatious fraudster who had successfully preyed upon the family.
With his modern interpretation of Molière’s masterpiece, Kirke Mechem has secured a place in an underappreciated history of opera, among other American greats: Virgil Thompson, and his more popular countrymen George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Berstein.
“The composer cannot, of course, be his own judge. I can say only that I have tried, like Yeats, ‘to rediscover an art of the theatre which shall be joyful, fantastic, extravagant, whimsical, beautiful, resonant and altogether reckless.’ It sounds like a good description of Molière.”
— Kirke Mechem
About the Author: Tenor Aaron Barksdale-Burns is a Master of Music and a freelance musician, writer and translator who is native to Kansas City. As a soloist, Aaron has performed across the Midwest and in Europe. He was greatly influenced by performing Kirke Mechem’s compositions throughout his musical training. Aaron is a graduate of DePaul University and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He is also a private teacher and a linguist with interests in Germanic and Romance languages. Aaron is currently collaborating with both the Goethe Institut Pop-Up in KC and the Alliance Française de Kansas City on upcoming programs. With his family, he previously worked at Californos Westport and hosted a monthly Opera Supper from 2007-2019. He lives in Midtown Kansas City with his husband of 12 years, Christopher Barksdale, formerly a principal dancer at the Kansas City Ballet (1988-2009).
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