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).
By Rebecca Smith
L’ Avare (The Miser) is one of Molière’s best-known plays. First performed in 1668 and published in 1669, it revolves around protagonist Harpagon’s total obsession with l’argent (money) to the detriment of everyone and everything in his life.
Oh, if only Harpagon could have lasted another 3 centuries - what a thrill would have awaited him! His progenitor and his greatest purpose in life – together in one.
In July of 1959, the Banque de France unveiled the 500-Franc Molière banknote, marked “nouveau franc, or, NF”.
The original “franc” named a gold coin minted in 1360 by King John II. In the 1600s such coins were no longer minted, but the term continued to be used to refer to a new coin, the “livre tournois”. The first paper currency was issued in 1701, but crashed in 1720 due to overproduction. A second attempt failed in 1793. In 1795 the republican government of the French Revolution instituted the 5-franc silver piece and later the 20-franc gold piece. The franc, divided into 10 decimos and 100 centimes, became the established French currency unit in 1799. In 1803 the Bank of France was given authority to distribute paper francs but only in high amounts and for restricted use. In 1857 the first 50-franc notes were made available for widespread use.
In 1950, after World War II, 5-, 10- and 20-franc notes were replaced by coins. A few years later 50- and 100-franc notes went the same route. In 1954, 10,000-franc notes were presented and, in April 1956, the Bank of France was set to introduce a new 50,000-franc banknote featuring the portrait of Georges Clemenceau. The plan was cut short, however, when further monetary reforms were announced. The bank then chose to design smaller value banknotes and Moliere’s was one of the portraits chosen.
Molière wasn't the only, or even the first, author honored; Victor Hugo preceded him. Henry IV, Richelieu and Napoleon made appearances; Pascal followed him. Sadly, these notable items of tender were relatively short-lived. Printed between July 1959 and January 1966, they were withdrawn from circulation as of March 9, 1970 and ceased to be legal tender 30 April 1971.
So Harpagon would have had a little more than a decade to bask in his named glory. And with his sole focus on wealth value, he would have had shown little appreciation for the art and social significance of the note.
The image was designed by Jean Lefeuvre and engraved by Jules Piel and André Marliat. The premiere colors were of reds, browns and ochers and it measured 182 mm x 97 mm. The watermark was of Armande Béjart of the renowned Béjart theater family. She was one of the most famous French stage actors of the 17th-century and also, of course, the wife/muse of Molière and the daughter of Madeleine Béjart, with whom he cofounded the IllustreThéâtre in 1643. Thus, it wasn’t just the playwright esteemed on the note but his family and theater company, as well.
Those unique and endearing elements have even more impact now that the Euro has replaced the no-longer-legal-tender-since-2002 franc, and all traces of French national character and history have gone missing. Every Euro shows the EU flag, the signature of the President of the European Central Bank, the Bank’s initials in different EU languages, a listing of EU territories and an enumeration of security features.
But then, only the denomination would have mattered to Harpagon.
By Aaron Barksdale-Burns & Catherine Rush Thompson
During this time of uncertainty, many parents ask: Can a child living in Kansas City get a free high quality total immersion French education?
The answer is a resounding “yes.”
Académie Lafayette, a charter school and model full-immersion program in Kansas City, Missouri, offers French instruction starting in kindergarten. Children in grades kindergarten through 8th grade receive the “gift of a second language, the joy of diverse friendships, and the reward of an excellent education from one of the region’s top-ranked schools…our focus is on helping each student become a critical thinker, engaged learner, and global citizen.”
Founded in 1999, Académie Lafayette has successfully served hundreds of students within the boundaries of the Kansas City Missouri Public School District. Sponsored by the University of Central Missouri, the school is funded by public monies, but relies on philanthropic support as well. As part of its strategic plan, Académie Lafayette serves a diverse student population and has deliberately increased its efforts to enroll more minority students and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Current enrollment is approximately 1,150 students based at three campuses: (1) the Cherry Campus (for grades kindergarten through 4th grade); (2) the Oak Campus (for kindergarten through 5th grade), and the (3) Armour Campus (for grades 6 through 9).
How does it work?
According to the French American School of Denver, “Immersion education is a research-based educational methodology that has been shown to improve academic achievement, reduce the achievement gap between white and minority students, boost economic potential and deliver lifelong cognitive benefits.” Studies have shown that bilingual individuals “consistently outperform their monolingual counterparts on tasks involving executive control.”
In the immersion program at Académie Lafayette, the French language is used as the vehicle for acquiring knowledge from different subject areas. Content and language teaching are integrated so that the second language is perceived by the learner as a tool for information-gathering. Students toggle between the two languages and, ultimately, become willing and able to work outside their comfort zone and expand their knowledge.
As a result of this learning method, students have higher academic achievement, outperforming their peers in suburban school districts in the field of English language arts. Académie Lafayette has consistently outperformed the state average, including scoring 24 percentage points higher in proficiency than the state average in English language arts and math combined. “I am exceptionally proud that our students of color and our students who are on free-and-reduced lunch are excelling in state testing, scoring 51% proficient or above in both English language arts and math, which is 19 points ahead of the state of Missouri,” states M. Elimane Mbengue, the Head of School at Académie Lafayette.
“Our teachers come from all over the world which gives us the opportunity to share best educational practices and develop our students’ adaptability to different teaching styles and different French accents. Our foreign teachers have very high expectations for every learner, which we know produces better academic outcomes,” reports Mbengue. This is part of what makes the French Immersion program work as an educational model. Students at Académie Lafayette are focused and independent. They learn to do their homework and projects with less parental involvement.
Has Académie Lafayette successfully adapted to the pandemic?
“Each challenge, no matter how difficult, is met with a spirit of determination and anticipation”, states the Head of School at Académie Lafayette, M. Elimane Mbengue. The gradual process of leveraging technology to enhance the classroom experience has been turned on its head with the urgent need for distance learning. The Covid-19 pandemic has revolutionized the way all students learn and its impact is notable. Due to the increased viral threat currently at hand, the program’s adaptations have been quickened and the e-learning has both salvaged and transformed the elementary school experience at AL. Now, in addition to a world-class education, students are guaranteed a 21st century education.
The school made good choices when they immediately went to online learning in April 2020 and did not stray from their nearly year-round schedule, continuing with their successful summer sessions. Some parents have credited this successful transition to strong, internationally minded leadership. Families with children in grades kindergarten through 3rd grade were offered one of two tracks at the beginning of the Fall semester: (1) “virtual” instruction involving exclusively online education or (2) “hybrid” instruction with a mix of both online instruction complemented by small group instruction in the school building. This second option involving school-based learning has been short-lived due to health realities.
Fortunately, in the past nine months, even first graders at Académie Lafayette have already developed many of the tools required of them in these extraordinary times. Students in kindergarten through second grade continue to develop essential (but personalized) math and English skills with an online platform (IXL Analytics real-time learning), while receiving both recorded and face-to-face instruction from teachers online. Now familiar with navigating web-browsers, hyperlinks and the Google Meet user experience, the process has required technical know-how and independent learning for very young children. The school has been incredibly supportive during the process despite the many challenges. As a result of this support and family involvement, distance learning has been an overall success.
How can I apply for my child’s admission to this free program?
According to the school website: “Because there are typically more applicants than places available, a lottery system is used to generate a random list for the incoming kindergarten class, admitting 198 new students per year.” Because the program is total immersion, it does not accept students after kindergarten unless the student is already fluent in French. The system is expanding as it has just opened Académie Lafayette International High School, which is a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. Those interested in details of admission and application can refer to: http://academielafayette.org/admissions/, as application deadlines are approaching.
What do parents say about their children’s education from Académie Lafayette?
“Our children graduated from Académie Lafayette with more than a world-class education. They have a global awareness that most kids don’t [have]. They have learned to be resourceful, committed, and focused in their studies. They remain connected with their former AL classmates and teachers. With their help, our kids have gained a love of learning that we are sure will last a lifetime. As a parent, what more could you possibly want?”— Angela and Ron Michka, Alumni Parents:
About the Authors
Aaron Barksdale-Burns is a blogger, freelance linguist and musician who is active in an international exchange with the Goethe-Institut of Germany, through the Goethe Pop Up Kansas City. Aaron studied and performed in Chicago and in Europe. He lived in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands before settling in Kansas City. He is fascinated by the diverse perspectives offered through authentic language and culture. His nephew and niece currently attend Académie Lafayette.
Catherine Rush Thompson, PhD, MS, PT, has an interdisciplinary PhD in psychology, education & neuroscience and served on the Desegregation Monitoring Committee for the Kansas City School District that oversaw Kansas City's first magnet schools, including the first French immersion education program offered in Kansas City. Both of her sons graduated from École Longan, have earned graduate degrees, and have used their French skills to serve others. Catherine's French heritage and her love of history have led to her current role as Blog Editor for the KC MOLIÈRE: 400 IN 2022 website.
Académie Lafayette website: https://academielafayette.org/
Bialystok E. Reshaping the Mind: The Benefits of Bilingualism: https://content.apa.org/record/2011-20230-001
Schoolsmart Kansas City website: https://www.schoolsmartkc.org/
Manning. Study: Portland Immersion Students Become Better Readers, English Speakers: https://www.opb.org/news/article/study-portland-immersion-students-become-better-readers-english-speakers/
Parent testimonials: https://academielafayette.org/admissions/testimonials/
The Advantages of an Immersion Education – Source: https://www.fasdenver.org/immersion/
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