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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Operatic Precocity

Culture Culture & Society

On the fledgling musical career of Alma Deutscher.

A twelve-year-old British girl has written an opera of astounding wit, craft, and musical beauty. It received a theatrically riveting production by California’s Opera San José this December, with the composer, Alma Deutscher, playing the violin, piano, and organ. Given the current cultural imperative to champion “strong women” and “girl power,” you would think that Deutscher’s accomplishments would be widely known. They are not, however, because Deutscher and her opera pose a conscious challenge to contemporary values in classical music and art.

The phrase “child prodigy” produces revulsion in many people, conjuring images of trained human seals being exploited by greedy parents for financial gain. So let’s simply say that Deutscher is a phenomenal musical talent and that her parents are anything but exploitative, instead working zealously to protect her innocence. Since age five, she has been studying composition via Skype with a teacher in a Swiss village, who uses a method of training from eighteenth-century Naples. Young boys in a Neapolitan orphanage were efficiently turned into court and chapel musicians by improvising contrapuntal harmonies over bass lines. A third of the music in colonial Williamsburg was composed by products of the Naples school. Deutscher and her teacher, Tobias Cramm, improvise together across the Channel on their respective keyboards, turning phrases from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, say, upside-down and inside-out, experimenting with harmonies and modulations. Robert Gjerdingen, a Northwestern University musicologist, wrote the book on Neapolitan improvisation that inspired Deutscher’s father to seek out the same training for his musically precocious daughter. Gjerdingen has been offering advice on her compositions since then. “At five you could say that her music was childlike but showed promise,” he says. “At seven, she came back with something gorgeous. At ten, she started learning orchestration. Now she can improvise complex stuff beyond what music Ph.D.’s can do.”

Deutscher’s ear vacuums up musical languages from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Her piano concerto, which she premiered at the keyboard with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra in 2017, sounds like an amalgam of Muzio Clementi and Chopin, with some Donizetti thrown in for good measure. Her opera, Cinderella, is a massive step forward in terms of musical and psychological complexity. Deutscher has been fascinated with the Cinderella story since age three; a fantastically Fauvist drawing she made in 2011 depicts Cinderella and her two stepsisters with elongated limbs and torsos, swaying like exotic insects. Showing a “you go, girl!” streak herself, she objected to the fact that Cinderella’s defining attribute was her small foot. When she started collecting musical ideas in 2013 for an opera, she modified the story to make the title character a composer. The Prince, rather than seeking her out via her lost slipper, would track her down after the ball with one of her melodies.

Deutscher’s Cinderella is an alter ego for the composer; like Deutscher, she is assailed by tunes that keep pouring into her head. And the work is a send-up of the operatic genre itself, satirizing its conventions and singers’ foibles. Deutscher and her parents conceived the ingenious plot; it is tauter and more dramatically compelling than many a Verdian story. (Alma’s father, Guy Deutscher, is a linguist at Oxford University.) The libretto was a joint effort between her parents and various poets and dramaturgs. It started out in Hebrew, was translated into German for a Viennese performance in 2016, and ended up in English for the San Jose production. The text is both down-to-earth and literary, with a predilection for Shakespearean couplets to end scenes.

Cinderella lives with her stepmother and stepsisters in an opera house formerly run by her late father; she spends her days drearily copying out scores for their stage performances. The court minister arrives at the opera house to announce a royal ball whereat the Prince will choose a bride, but instead of leaving the family with the invitation, he mistakenly delivers a pharmacy prescription just given the king for his many ailments. The stepmother and stepsisters puzzle over the gruesome references to “ulcerations,” “fungal inflammations,” and “red and itchy boils,” before deciding that they have before them an example of “modern poetry,” written by the Prince to express his romantic pain. Since the ball will feature a singing competition for the amusement of the guests, they conclude that this is the text they are to set to music and perform. The tuneless stepsisters are unable to come up with a melody, but the stepmother finds a lilting song composed by Cinderella and steals it for her daughter to use when singing the medical prescription at the ball.

The stolen melody idea was inspired by Walther’s stolen poem in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Unlike Wagner, however, Deutscher has an effervescent sense of musical humor. The resulting complications from the switched medical prescription are musically and dramatically hilarious. Deutscher has been steeped in the buffa tradition; she estimates that she has seen “all of the happy operas,” certainly all of Rossini’s comedies. Guy Deutscher has been more careful doling out tragedies. Tosca was playing at the San Francisco Opera during Cinderella’s run, but the family did not attend it because the story is too dark. “I grew up in Israel,” he said before a matinee performance of Cinderella. “I know that an early exposure to ugliness can scar your soul.” Rigoletto has also been off limits, though Deutscher has seen La Traviata (her “first sad opera” she says), and she loves Eugene Onegin.

The  Cinderella score is melody-driven; leitmotifs pour forth in profusion, melding into each other. Its musical language is a pleasing hybrid of opera, operetta, and the American musical. The overture opens with a shimmering Wagnerian diminished chord that blooms into sunlight and the opera’s main themes. Schubert’s Ländler and rippling song accompaniments are a pervasive influence. Though it is unlikely Deutscher has heard Schubert’s operatic rarity Fierrabras, certain passages recall its harmonic progressions. She turns the opening of Dvořák’s bittersweet A-major waltz, Op. 54, into a love duet between the Prince and Cinderella. Der Rosenkavalier’s galumphing music for Baron Ochs and John Corigliano’s bumptious Figaro aria in The Ghosts of Versailles echo here in the comic ball and court scenes, though the connection with Corigliano likely represents a coincidental mining of musical possibilities rather than direct influence. Some of the wind writing—passing a motif from clarinet to oboe to bassoon—recalls Tchaikovsky. The Prince has the most thrilling melody of the opera—a passionate outcry of yearning, accompanied by a pounding pulse in the low strings and brass. Unfortunately, the theme, “Burn for me, flame of love,” doesn’t go anywhere after its first few modulations upwards, but is always cut off by another singer’s interjection.

Deutscher’s favorite musicals are My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music; here, the Fairy’s soaring invocation of a star called Hope is a pure Rodgers and Hammerstein paean to the power of positive thinking. A syncopated outburst from the King in response to his son’s romantic intransigence could come right out of Sweeney Todd, though there is no chance that Deutscher has heard that work, if Rigoletto is too sinister. Here, again, it turns out that there are different paths to similar musical discoveries.

To call up these comparisons is not to suggest that the opera sounds derivative. It is a unique work that speaks the language of a long musical tradition. To be sure, there are some pedestrian tunes and times when the orchestra merely parrots the vocal line. But the sheer amount of orchestral and vocal invention is stunning. Deutscher’s most impressive accomplishment is her mastery of the classical tradition’s rich resources for expressing dramatic conflict. After the ball, the Prince has a despairing minor-key soliloquy, trying to understand why the masked composer, whose song captivated him, ran off from their encounter without giving her name. The King enters in a rambunctious mood, believing that his son has finally found a mate. He tries to tease out the details of his son’s conquest. When the Prince pensively reveals that he not only went outside with a woman but went to the balcony with her, the King draws a prolonged, delighted breath: “Oh, the balcony!” and gives a knowing wink to his minister. The rapid alternations in their music—the Prince’s plaintive and introspective, the King’s rollicking and extroverted—vividly delineates their opposing mental states. The King’s joviality turns to exasperation when he learns that his son knows neither the name, face, nor social position of his balcony companion. The Prince interrupts at full tenorial bray, in an indistinct key: “And she is the girl I will maaaaa-rry!” The King and the minister wince and stick their fingers in their ears, one of the production’s many self-referential digs. The Prince draws an even more disgusted response from his father when he retorts that he knows everything that matters about the mystery woman: he knows the “melody of her soul.” “ ‘The melody of her soul!’ ” the King spits out in disbelief. “I’ve heard enough of this nonsense. Life is not an opera!”

Wit is an adult trait, entailing irony and distance. Comedy is harder to write than tragedy, which is why there are—sadly—so comparatively few of them. When a ten-year-old pianist captures the pathos of a Mozart minor-key concerto, the question arises whether a child can possibly understand the emotional depths that he is conveying, or if he is simply an unwitting mouthpiece for the music. Here, too, one wonders whether Deutscher is as wise about human foibles as her score suggests, or whether she has simply absorbed certain musical tropes which do the work on their own. It is hard to say, but her intellectual precocity suggests that she may be a quick learner in matters beyond music.

The inevitable benchmark presents itself: the young Amadeus. It is an impossible comparison, yet it worms its way in. Mozart, too, composed an opera at age twelve—more precisely, a Singspiel (a comedy in German with spoken dialogue). The bravura momentum of the orchestral music in Bastien und Bastienne, written at the height of the galant period, has no counterpart in Cinderella. But the psychological characterizations in the latter are far more acute; the characters in Mozart’s Singspiel remain bland pastoral stereotypes, despite Mozart’s music. He was likely hindered by the generic qualities of the text, which was a parody of Rousseau’s influential court entertainment Le devin du village. But Deutscher also has the resources of another 150 years of musical expression to draw upon.

The San Jose production was literally a labor of love. “Without exception, everyone adores her,” says the conductor, Jane Glover, a highly regarded Mozart specialist. “We all wanted to make it the best for her.” And they did. The baritone Nathan Stark as the King and the soprano Mary Dunleavy as the Stepmother stood out for their theatrical charisma. I spoke with a friend of Stark’s before the curtain rose. “She’s a genius,” he had told her. “It was amazing to be ordered around by a twelve-year-old.” Stark, whose voice is richly grained and resonant, exploited the comic delights of gestural exaggeration to the hilt, playing his emotions broadly and for maximal comic effect. Though young, he touchingly conveyed the wobbles and bluster of an old man.

Deutscher’s father may be trying to protect her from premature knowledge of evil, but the cruelty of Mary Dunleavy’s Stepmother was almost unbearable. Dunleavy’s clear soprano could switch instantaneously from hypocritical syrup to a full-throated shriek. Deutscher phonetically memorized in German “Der Hölle Rache,” the Queen of the Night’s show stopping aria from The Magic Flute, when she was four. The Stepmother’s rage-filled coloratura passages were part of the opera’s self-referential satire; Dunleavy furled them out with power and precision.

Stacey Tappan and Karin Mushegain as the two stepsisters uninhibitedly turned themselves into childish shrews, unafraid to distort their faces and voices in impotent jealousy. Jonas Hacker as the Prince enunciated his spoken lines with rounded aristocratic syllables reminiscent of the baritone Thomas Hampson; his tenor was warm and dignified. Vanessa Beccera had a more mature soprano and wide vibrato than might be ideal for the title role, but she nevertheless winningly conveyed Cinderella’s sweetness. The director, Brad Dalton, kept the stage action dynamic without gratuitous fussiness. The sets by Steven Kemp and the costumes by Johann Stegmeir were lovely recreations, in sky blue, dusty rose, and lemon yellow, of a Baroque theater and palace interiors. Glover led the Opera San José orchestra in a tight, windswept performance, clearly delineating the quicksilver changes of mood.

Deutscher is fully aware of the challenge her music poses to the classical composing establishment, as I discovered when we met. She has just bounced into the living room of a modest bungalow in San Jose, where she and her family are living for the duration of the run. She is in pigtails, pink socks, and a red crocheted tunic over red leggings; she radiates enthusiasm and good cheer, giving me a broad, happy smile and speaking breathlessly but precisely. “Quite a few people tell me this is not the kind of music that is allowed to be written now,” she says. “I have to find my own musical voice, they say. But I never lost my voice, I don’t need to find a new one. I’m writing in the language of music.” Deutscher rejects the idea that musical development is teleological and one-way. “I’m not going back,” she says emphatically. “I just want to write beautiful music that people want to listen to. This is the music that is performed everywhere. My music is therefore very modern. I’m alive, I’m a child, I’m not going back to the past.” She has been told that people search in vain for dissonance in her music. She counters that dissonance and its resolution inheres in the very structure of classical form.

Deutscher is not exaggerating the reaction to her music. Every composer I spoke to was dismissive at best, though their responses were undoubtedly driven by suspicion of the child prodigy phenomenon as well. None had heard the opera, but only clips of earlier works on the web.

An American music professor who teaches out West advised me: “Were I you, I would not dignify [her opera] by writing about it.” A British composer who has consulted for American orchestras said that he was barely able to sit still while listening to the web excerpts of Deutscher’s music. “I found the interviews pretty disturbing, too,” he said. “In fact very disturbing. The overall effect is, I think, thoroughly creepy. I just don’t hear her working the material, and I suppose that’s what I mean by composing. There’s so little sense of contradiction.”

Boris Zelkin, a film and TV composer living in Los Angeles, acknowledged her “tremendous talent,” but cautioned that “her ability to organize sounds in ways they have been organized before . . . says nothing about her abilities to create things that are new. She’s working with anachronisms. . . . Her choice to find her voice in the works of the past makes me less excited about her and it makes me question the current state of Serious Music,” he wrote in an email.

William Bolcom, best known for his piano rags and his cabaret collaborations with his wife Joan Morris, was the most tolerant. Her music is “uncanny,” he said. “But I don’t feel as if I’d heard from her so much as her near-perfect channeling of whatever obscure composer she has ‘contacted.’ ” Bolcom said he can easily empathize with someone who finds music today too discordant, because, as a product of our discordant world, it is. But his own writing, he said, though skirting many old styles, is “always transformed by the fact I’m here in this moment.”

Jane Glover was unequivocal about Deutscher’s accomplishments, but she, too, applied a teleological framework to them. Glover first encountered Deutscher’s music when a retired British music agent sent her a video of the less ambitious Cinderella production from Vienna. “I thought it was something extraordinary,” she says, sitting in the lobby of the Westin San Jose during an afternoon off. “I continue to be as startled by her gift as when I first looked at it. The craft of it is utterly remarkable.” Deutscher has a phenomenally good ear for instrumentation, Glover says. The orchestration (on which Deutscher has admittedly had advice) is “remarkably, incredibly competent,” if her vocal writing is still awkward at times.

But Glover was just as insistent that Deutscher was not yet speaking in her “own voice.” “She can’t go on writing like this for the rest of her life,” she said. “What is remarkable for a twelve-year-old wouldn’t be for an adult. The language of music has moved on.” And the sign that Deutscher has reached her own voice will be increasing dissonance in her music. Glover found the “moments of chaos” in the score most compelling. A theme associated with Cinderella is taken up by the orchestra and “distorted”—such passages provide a “glimpse of what might be,” Glover said.

Of course, if Deutscher were writing in a post-Reichian idiom, no one would accuse her of needing to find her voice. It was once taken for granted that artists would learn their craft by imitating the masters of the past. Few young composers today, however, have had an immersion in Classical theory and music. They draw instead on pop, film music, jazz, and hip-hop. It is no wonder that their writing is so remote from the tradition that Deutscher naturally breathes.

Admittedly, there is something intuitively persuasive about the teleological argument. We have become used to the ideas that artistic style moves in one direction only and that the artistic past is off limits for anything other than brief archaeological visits. Deutscher, however, presents a natural experiment in the evolution of musical expression. As she inhales more and more music, will she point the way towards a path not taken in the Western classical tradition, one that avoids going off the cliff of atonality? Perhaps she will reveal that the language of thematic development was not in fact exhausted, contrary to received wisdom. The predominant characteristic of today’s serious music is no longer even atonality; it is the substitution of mere sound for harmonic structure. Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin, with its mysterious soundscapes, is a prime example. Perhaps, however, music still remains to be written that allows a listener to enter the movement of a composer’s mind.

And yet, Deutscher may end up recreating the history of twentieth-century music, in an ontogeny-recapitulates-phylogeny moment, whether because the earlier harmonic language was in fact spent or because the influence of contemporary style is simply overwhelming.

Deutscher herself is not immune to the lure of novelty. She thought that she had found a new harmony, but then heard it in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. “I was annoyed,” she says. “He stole my chord.” She may find that twentieth-century musical history is always one step ahead of her own experiments. Or she may discover an alternative musical universe.

Many people are waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. “Professional musicians are asking themselves: ‘What is this and where does this go?’ ” says Gjerdingen. The conductor Simon Rattle was taken aback, Gjerdingen reports, when Deutscher came backstage after a performance of Rameau’s Les Boréades to inquire about a chord, which she played on the piano. “I haven’t seen anything like” her inborn sense of harmony, Rattle said in 2017.

There is still an enormous amount of music to be absorbed. She has not yet experienced the complete St. Matthew Passion. Glover would like her to listen to Janáček, in particular The Cunning Little Vixen. Deutscher said that after the San Jose run of Cinderella, she was planning to spend more time with Tristan und Isolde. Any work that you pour into her may change the output, so deeply does she synthesize musical influence.

What is clear is that it is premature to expect a twelve-year-old to have a defined artistic voice. It is enough to have mastered the structures of the past. The fact that she is a highly competent violinist and pianist also unites her to a bygone composing tradition. Most of today’s young composers can barely play any instrument, certainly not well, says Andrew Balio, the principal trumpet in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the founder of the Future Symphony Institute.

Deutscher’s current projects include a musical, for which she has been gathering melodies, though she doesn’t have a plot. Inevitably, she wants to write film music. She has composed a first movement for a symphony and some movements for a string quartet. “I love starting something but I get bored and it’s more difficult to finish,” she says, showing something in common with the rest of us.

The arts funding world is going to be painfully conflicted. On the one hand, she is female: Good! On the other hand, she writes in a traditional idiom and her imagination resonates to the West’s heroic narratives: Bad! Despite her girl-power revision, Deutscher’s Cinderella story rests on powerful archetypes of chivalry and romance. The Prince still kneels to put Cinderella’s slipper back on, though nothing in the plot hangs on the gesture, because the image embodies the ideal of masculine strength humbling itself before feminine grace.

Here, by contrast, are some of the contemporary operas that were staged around the time of Cinderella’s American premiere: Opera Philadelphia presented We Shall Not Be Moved, which explored persistent structural injustices, such as the marginalization of the gender-fluid, inflicted on Philadelphia’s communities of color. John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West premiered in San Francisco. The American Conservative’s Bradley Anderson described it as “peak identity politics.” The white males were all evil, responsible for the plot’s racial violence, environmental destruction, and capitalist predation. Pittsburgh Opera gave As One, a story of a transgender woman, earlier in 2017. Not surprisingly, its 2014 premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a magnet for foundation and government grants, receiving funding from opera America’s Opera Discovery Grants for Female Composers Program, the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York State Legislature, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Besides the Packard Humanities Institute, which underwrote the San Jose production, it is hard to think of many foundations that would be interested in funding an unironic fairy tale of love at first sight with a handsome prince. But Deutscher may not need much philanthropic support. In November 2017, 60 Minutes ran a profile of her in advance of the Cinderella premiere. As the segment traveled across U.S. time zones, tickets started selling out. By the time the profile aired on the West Coast, the entire run was booked. The company hurriedly added additional performances to accommodate local patrons. This customer demand is almost unheard of for a new work. A smart producer would mount Cinderella on Broadway. In addition to its comedic force, its score puts recent musicals to shame, whether from the Disney franchise or Andrew Lloyd Webber.

A large part of the public’s advance response to Cinderella was the enduring fascination exerted by child prodigies. But another part was the desire for music that marshals harmony and melody to create beauty. Deutscher is, as usual, one step ahead of her critics. In a 2017 video made for the Carinthian Summer Music Festival in Austria, she again responded to the claims that she needs to “discover the complexity of the modern world” and that the point of music is to show that complexity. “Well, let me tell you a huge secret,” she said. “I already know that the world is complex, and can be very ugly, but I think that these people have just got a little bit confused. If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier, with ugly music?”

It will be a fascinating test of music and of our culture to see what Deutscher is composing in fifteen years.

This piece originally appeared in the May 2018 Issue of The New Criterion


Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of The War on Cops.

This piece originally appeared in The New Criterion