In his forthcoming book, The Impossible Art, composer Matthew Aucoin likens his early immersion in opera not to the pageantry of going to a live performance, but rather to the solitude of reading a book. “Operas, like the young-adult fiction I was reading at the time, felt to me like interior adventures rather than extravagant spectacles,” he writes, adding in the following chapter that “opera can, at its best, spark a liberating uncertainty—call it the negative capability—in the listener.” 

Consider the end of “Das Rheingold.” The noblesse oblige of Wagner’s brass lines give us the sense of triumph and wonder of Wotan and his consort entering Valhalla. Yet the strings and woodwinds recapitulate the opening “Rheingold” leitmotif. The Rhinemaidens reappear, but they’re not awestruck. They’re desolate, as it’s their loss that enabled Valhalla. Wagner gives them the last word: Only in the depths of the Rhine’s waters is their gold trustworthy and true. “What’s happy up there is false and cowardly.”

Stephen Sondheim, who died on November 26 at the age of 91, was no fan of Wagner. “Too thick and too long,” he quipped in the Detroit Free Press. He wasn’t even an opera fan. His teacher Milton Babbitt attempted to get him into the operas of Strauss—an effort aborted after the “endlessly boring” first act of “Der Rosenkavalier.” His disdain for opera became its own leitmotif, one he summed up for David Savran: “I’ve never liked opera and I’ve never understood it.” 

"I've never liked opera and I've never understood it." On the operatic impulses in Stephen Sondheim's works. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

There’s a certain amount of logistical calculus required to decipher this statement given its source. Sondheim’s works tend to have more in common with opera than the American musical theater canon. Take, for instance, the final number of “Assassins,” Sondheim’s rogues’ gallery of the killers and would-be killers of American presidents. After Lee Harvey Oswald shoots John F. Kennedy, the character of John Wilkes Booth (who all but puts the rifle in Oswald’s hand) picks up a Stephen Foster-esque tune that has carried throughout the work, singing: “Everybody’s got the right to be happy.” It’s hard not to read the same cynicism in this line as in the closing moments of “Rheingold.” Here, too, happiness is an omen. 

It’s not that Sondheim had a wholesale disdain for classical music. A prolific collector, he donated an estimated 11-13,000 records to the Library of Congress as part of his archives. Dominating the inventory were works by Ravel, Debussy, Britten, Bach, and Stravinsky—names that come up time and again as he discusses his works and their influences. His most popular work with opera companies and orchestras, the penny-dreadful “Sweeney Todd,” owes a good amount of its DNA to Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Berg’s “Wozzeck” (an opera Sondheim consistently praised, as much for its musical drama as for the fact that it has no intermission). The score for “A Little Night Music,” his adaptation of an early Ingmar Bergman comedy, is built around the waltz and its triple-meter cousins—polonaises, mazurkas, sarabands. 

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He also owned his fair share of opera recordings, including the complete works of Puccini, admitting that he “cried for two-and-a-half hours straight” when he saw “La Bohème” in a 700-seat theater. For Sondheim, who codified the genre of “concept musicals”—works built around a central theme or question as opposed to a narrative plot—it’s unsurprising that he was drawn to Puccini, whose own works occupy a cabinet of curiosities. Both built meticulous worlds as engrossing as they were diverse. On one side of the timeline: the American West, Napoleonic Rome, Bohemian Paris, and Meiji-era Japan. On the other: Grimm fairy tales, turn-of-the-century Swedish society, Georges Seurat’s Island of La Grande Jatte and, well, Meiji-era Japan. If we can now superimpose themes of colonialism, orientalism, and imperialism onto “Madama Butterfly,” those throughlines are made more explicitly manifest in “Pacific Overtures,” whose sequence of increasingly bombastic foreign emissaries is cast from the same mould as “The Star-Spangled Banner” cameo in “Dovunque al mondo.” 

Yet Sondheim’s legacy seems to eclipse that of Puccini’s. Within his own lifetime, he became the namesake for theaters in New York’s Broadway district and London’s West End. Actors who have performed his works on stage and screen include Madonna, Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, Boy George, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Colbert, Vanessa Williams, Madeline Kahn, and Adam Driver (and that’s not even considering the number of classical musicians who have taken on roles in opera houses and on Broadway). His lyrics have been quoted by politicians, used as the basis for philosophical essays, and have even reached the level of common lexicon (see: “everything’s coming up roses,” “send in the clowns”). Sondheim himself has been a character on “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” and the new Netflix adaptation of “Tick, Tick… Boom!” Even in condensed form, this reads more like the legacy of a Wagner

This goes beyond cultural reference points. In 2005, Diana Louise Calderazzo argued for a greater intersection between Sondheim’s concept-driven musicals and Wagner’s notion of a Gesamtkunstwerk, one “involving structural parallels such as leitmotif, minor chord development, and intricate lyricism.…[and communicating with] audiences on the emotional and intellectual levels [that] also recall those utilized by Wagner over a century earlier.” In 1998, Kurt Weill scholar Kim Kowalke wrote that Sondheim “inarguably has engaged diverse musico-dramatic and melopoetic problems more consistently and imaginatively than any composer since Richard Wagner.” 

For his part, Sondheim was aware of these parallels, but shrugged them off, telling the Free Press, “​I like the people who stole from him better than him.” Yet there it is, throughout “Sweeney Todd”: an unsettlingly tweaked minor major seventh referred to as the “Sweeney Chord.” Musically, it’s an homage to Hitchcock composer Bernard Hermann. Dramaturgically, it comes from the same cloth as Wagner’s “Tristan Chord.” More than a character trademark, the Sweeney Chord, like its operatic predecessor, presages the work’s ultimate denouement. It permeates the Prelude to “Sweeney,” catching at the listener’s ankles like overgrown ivy and dragging us into its own liberating uncertainty. (Where else are you going to silently root for a murderous barber and his cannibalistic landlady?) 

Wagner may have been too thick and too long for Sondheim’s tastes, but the way both composer-dramatists shaped their characters—and their audiences’ relationship to those characters—is uniquely similar. Puccini’s villains and heroines have the tendency to come across as objects of pity versus empathy, figures viewed in dioramas. Wagner, however, wrote from the trenches: “I see in this fellow-suffering the most salient feature of my moral being, and presumably it is this that is the well-spring of my art,” he wrote to​​ Mathilde Wesendonck in 1858. Likewise, Sondheim was in the shit with his characters, training the spotlight on their moments of complicated interiority. 

On a recent episode of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” host Glen Weldon describes Sondheim’s songs as “emotional autopsies.” They’re sung by characters who are complicated, morally ambiguous and often forced to contend with spiritual examination in the span of 32 bars. “No more questions, please,” sings a devastated, drained Baker in the twilight of “Into the Woods,” a line delivered to an estranged father who enters and exits the play like Erda. Even in a more lyrically-packed moment of breakneck patter, such as Amy’s referential and breathless “Not Getting Married Today” in “Company,” he still reaches the same emotional core, so specific that it becomes universal. It’s not too far off from what Alex Ross describes as Wagner’s ability to create “ambiguity and certitude in equal measure. Whatever is flitting through the subject’s mind is amplified and reinforced by a deep engagement with the music.” What is the “Liebestod” if not Isolde performing her own emotional autopsy? 

In 2000, as “Sweeney Todd” was being prepared for a concert performance with the New York Philharmonic, composer Ned Rorem grilled Sondheim for the New York Times in an attempt to categorically place his works in one of two boxes: opera and musical theater. It’s a well-seasoned gingersnap of mutual antagonism; the more Sondheim demurs, the more Rorem advances. “There’s a philosophy that says the object changes in terms of how it’s viewed,” Sondheim says in a final checkmate. “It’s how it’s received by the audience that changes the whole color, changes the relationship of the performers onstage to the audience—which is the necessary part of a theater experience.” 

In this way, Sondheim is, like Wagner, enlisting us as active—at times even complicit—participants within his works. We become students of anatomy, understanding how hearts decay and where flesh meets bone. It’s an interior adventure that leaves us queasy, fascinated, confused, and illuminated. 

At that point, genre becomes superfluous. ¶

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