Turning Culture on Its Axis

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On Huntington Avenue, Mozart's music — the play of its light and intelligence, its frolic and clarity — fills a theater packed with young people. It is a Boston University student production of "The Marriage of Figaro," done in Italian, "Le Nozze de Figaro," the full four acts, uncut, lasting almost four hours. It seems like half an hour. The lovely production could be moved to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera without much apology or revision.

It's the youth and talent of the performers that makes the evening so moving — and the immense, concentrated hard work that went to stage "Figaro"'s bright silliness. Mozart's late-18th-century opera flows from the mouths and instruments (violins, cellos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns, trumpets, timpani) of early-21st-century students, fresh and young. They put dew on the music of another young man, long dead, and roses in its notes.

It's good to see the vertical lines of transmission in such good shape, after the damage that's been done on the horizontal.

My theory of the vertical and the horizontal runs as follows: Mozart comes down to us vertically through time, renewed from one generation to the next, and passed on as an item of permanent worth. Culture likes to work on the vertical axis, by accumulating tradition. About 35 years ago, however, we pivoted around to the horizontal. Culture, instead of being passed down vertically through time, began to move along instead on a vast frothing horizontal, across the generation — a great wave advancing on a broad front and transmitting a popular culture about 15 minutes deep: a shallow, throwaway, universal culture in the form of globally shared television shows, movies, music, drugs and other sensations of interchangeable news and entertainment.

Not far from the theater where I saw the opera, I went into a large chain record store that sells the accumulation of the horizontal culture. Some of it is sardonically funny and talented and diverting, but on the whole, the good tends to be overwhelmed by wanton outpourings of id — the literature on tattooing and body-piercing and drugs and grim sexual mess (domination, S&M and the like), and CDs of rock bands with names taken from an obsessed, sophomoric metaphysics of death. In the democracy of trash, Jeffrey Dahmer achieves afterlife as Hannibal Lecter. The atmosphere of mutilation and stupidity and sickness and unhappiness and emptiness is suffocating. It is the culture of Columbine. To refuse to speak ill of this stuff ("Oh, that's just another right-wing Bill Bennett type talking") is like refusing to oppose cancer because to do so would compromise the disease's freedom of expression.

Columbine should have been the new generation's Altamont: cautionary notice that there's real death lurking in the id, real evil that can be conjured up out of the American shopping malls and God knows what cocktails of brainlessness and lovelessness and dank anger and adolescence marinated in hate. In the last couple of weeks, high school students in Colorado, California and Kansas have turned in other teenagers who may have been planning school massacres to celebrate the second anniversary of Columbine in April.

It has been said that listening to Mozart makes you smarter, that something in the musical patterns stimulates intelligence. The author Stefan Kanfer proposes a counter-theory, which he calls the "Trazom Effect," after Mozart spelled backward. Kanfer's idea is that listening to certain people, or ideas, or music, can make a person dangerously stupid. The Trazom Effect is at work up and down the pop-cultural horizontal on which we live now.

Dispiriting. The Trazom Effect goes to work on the lazy, the ignorant, the passive. But I was there when the students of the Boston University School for the Arts Opera Programs and Chamber Orchestra performed "Le Nozze de Figaro." Putting together that magic four hours required brains, talent, and training — after all, apart from mastering the gaily demanding music, they had to learn Italian in order to sing the libretto.