Classical music buffs certainly have heard Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but we suspect they've never heard them sing. Next June, the 2014 Ojai Music Festival will give them the chance.
The three great composers are among the characters in a new comic opera, "The Classical Style," that will have its premiere on June 13, the second night of the four-day annual festival. They won't be singing their own stuff, but music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky.
The librettist putting words in their mouths is Jeremy Denk, the pianist and recent MacArthur Foundation "genius award" winner who's curating the festival as its music director. He's getting some help from Charles Rosen, the pianist and author who won a 1972 National Book Award for "The Classical Style," an in-depth analysis of what made Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven's music tick.
The new opera is a fanciful riff on Rosen's book, adding to the immortality of its noted author, who died a year ago but will be reincarnated onstage as one of the opera's characters.
Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony, will conduct, and the Knights, a New York-based orchestral collective, will serve as the opera's orchestra as part of their residency throughout the festival. The cast of eight singers will be announced later.
Amplifying a bit on his website, Denk writes that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven will find themselves confronted by "various disgruntled young musicians" during the course of the opera.
"Although those of us who perform and love this music like to cultivate an air of seriousness, at times we have to realize there is something ridiculous about the level to which we've subjected this music to consideration, analysis, thought," Denk adds. "The opera buffa genre is simply a way of exposing this absurdity, turning music inside out to reflect on itself, with hopefully hilarious and intriguing results."
Gina Gutierrez, the Ojai Music Festival's spokeswoman, said that Denk was a friend of Rosen, and discussed his plans for the comic opera based on "The Classical Style" before Rosen's death last December. "So we got his blessing."
After its Friday the 13th premiere at the Libbey Bowl in Ojai, "The Classical Style" will travel to the Ojai North! sister festival presented by Cal Performances at UC Berkeley for two additional performances June 19-20. It's booked for later performances at the Aspen Music Festival, which Spano directs, and at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. The four organizations co-commissioned the opera.
Sharing the bill at Ojai on which "The Classical Style" will be performed is Haydn's "Rider" string quartet, played by the Brooklyn Rider quartet.
Other highlights of the 68th Ojai Music Festival schedule announced Tuesday include:
-A program featuring "Mahler Re-imagined," by jazz pianist Uri Caine and his ensemble, followed by Denk interweaving short piano pieces by Franz Schubert with Leos Janacek's "On an Overgrown Path." (June 12).
-The world premiere of a festival-commissioned piano piece by Andrew Norman, performed by Denk. On the same bill, pianist Timo Andres and the Knights will play Andres' "reimagining" of Mozart's "Coronation" concerto, which adds his own counterpoint and harmonies to Mozart's core piano and orchestral parts (June 14).
-A second evening concert on June 14 features the Knights, led by their regular conductor, Eric Jacobson, in works by Luigi Boccherini, Charles Ives, Morton Feldman and Karlheinz Stockhausen, followed by singer Storm Large and the Hudson Shad vocal quartet performing Kurt Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins."
Violinist Jennifer Frautschi will make her Ojai festival debut, joining Denk for Ives' Sonatas for Violin and Piano in a morning concert June 14, and performing Bach's Sonata No. 3 in a late-night concert the same day -- a program also featuring Feldman's "Rothko Chapel" with the Ojai Festival singers and members of the Knights, conducted by Spano.
The festival's final day, Sunday, June 15, will focus on Mozart in the morning -- the Knights led by Jacobson performing the "Jupiter" Symphony No. 41 -- followed by an early-evening program of Ligeti piano etudes played by Denk, Ives' "Psalm 90" performed by the Ojai Festival singers, and Denk, the singers and Jacobson and the Knights joining forces for Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy."
Various series passes are priced from $55 to $730. Information: (805) 646-2053 or ojaifestival.org.