Just what does it take to become a music legend? Being considered a prodigy or a true genius certainly doesn’t hurt. Neither does dying young. A vast body of innovative compositions might do it, if an abundance of essential works and undeniable masterpieces are scattered throughout. Yet the formula for the making of a legend is a bit more complicated than that, and it can be helped along by a few other intangibles—say, a somewhat mysterious cause of death, some rampant speculation, and a lot of good old-fashioned rumor.
Without doubt, then, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a legend. His reputation as the creator of iconic works in classical music has been augmented by that mystery, speculation, and rumor that has grown up around the circumstances of his life and early death. And, down through the years since he died in 1791, we just can’t seem to get enough of the legend. After all, a little mystery can be useful and fun—as well as creatively profitable.
Indeed, Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus has certainly proved to be creatively profitable in contributing to the Mozart legend. Although Mozart has never gone wanting for audiences or listeners, the play, along with the subsequent 1984 film version directed by Milos Forman, stimulated a surge of interest in Mozart’s music among classical-music listeners, and introduced Mozart and his music to new and larger audiences. Knoxville audiences, whether seasoned or new, will be able to immerse themselves in Shaffer’s somewhat controversial take on the Mozart legend as the Clarence Brown Theatre joins with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in a unique production of Amadeus featuring the integration of live music, performed by an onstage orchestra, into the play.
At the Amadeus Broadway opening in 1980, some critics snidely suggested that a more apt title for the play would have been Salieri. Therein lies a touch of irony. While Mozart and his music are the backbone of the play, Shaffer structured his premise from the perspective of Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s contemporary and rival. Avoiding the idea of dry objective biography and exercising considerable artistic license, Shaffer coupled the mystery of Mozart’s final illness and death with the unfounded historical speculation that Salieri had made a death-bed confession in 1825, admitting to a role in Mozart’s demise. Shaffer then created his drama with three partially assumed aspects of Salieri’s character: envy and resentment of Mozart’s ability; his narcissistic anger with God for favoring a crude and immature buffoon like Mozart over him; and his willingness to destroy the career, if not the life, of the object of his hatred. However, Shaffer was not the first to take this intriguing and dramatic—but unsubstantiated—premise. In Alexander Pushkin’s short drama Mozart and Salieri, from 1830, and in a Rimsky-Korsakov opera based on the Pushkin play, Salieri poisons Mozart because Mozart’s god-given gifts have made a mockery of his lifelong devotion to music and created within him the sin of envy. The inescapable irony that is common to both reality and the fiction of the Mozart legend is that Salieri, by the time of his death, found himself and his music in virtual obscurity, while interest in Mozart and his music grew and flourished.
Shaffer’s premise proved so compelling that contemporary audiences willingly accepted the dramatic license as historical fact. Amadeus, which first opened at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1979, ran for 1,181 performances over three years on Broadway, winning the 1981 Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Actor in a Play (Ian McKellen as Salieri), Best Director (Peter Hall), and for both Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design. A Broadway revival in 1999 ran for 173 performances, with David Suchet as Salieri and Michael Sheen as Mozart. Both play and film set off a wave of Mozart-mania that completely dwarfed the traditional concert-hall status quo of the Mozart legend. Sales of Mozart recordings skyrocketed.
The collaboration of director Calvin MacLean of the CBT and music director Lucas Richman of the KSO promises a theatrical experience that is neither straight play nor straight music, neither opera nor musical theater, but a combination with all sorts of creative possibilities. “Thrilling” and “visceral” seem to be the operative words.
“Most often when the play is done, it is presented with recorded music,” Richman says. “But having live musicians participating gives it a whole different visceral experience.… When Salieri [played by John Feltch] talks about hearing the oboe wafting above the other instruments, he is 5 feet away from our principal oboist Phylis Secrist. It’s almost as if you can reach out and touch the music itself.”
MacLean concurs: “The emotionalism of the music complements not only the rich humanity of the story, but its theatricality as well. Then there is the thrill of live performance—of the text, of the orchestra, of the vocal music.”
Although Shaffer’s script does refer to a number of specific Mozart works, MacLean and Richman have seized the opportunity to expand and elaborate on the musical moments.
“Lucas and I spent many hours discussing the music, the excerpts already in the script, and several that were not.” MacLean says. “We chose selections, and specific sections of the selections, with staging in mind. It helped evolve a very musical staging with the music carefully integrated into the action.”
“There is this very cute speech between Constanza and Mozart throughout the play in which they call each other by pet names, silly and scatological names,” Richman says. “And that evolves into the banter ‘pa-pa-pa papapapa’, a clear reference to Papageno and Papagena in The Magic Flute. Shaffer did not specifically indicate at that point to use that music, but we created an underscore of the music while that scene is being played.”
Richman adds, “There are 41 different music cues throughout the show, ranging from three of the symphonies to excerpts from the Requiem and the C-minor Mass. We’ve put in several pieces by Salieri himself and we’ve expanded the role of Katerina Cavalieri, a coloratura soprano who becomes the mistress of Salieri.”
However, integrating live music into what is essentially a straight play is not without its own set of challenges. “We knew that we would have to harmonize the sonic difference between human voices and full orchestras,” MacLean says. “We tried to anticipate and prepare for as many of these problems as we could imagine. It was, in many ways, the most intensive aspect of the collaboration, preparing for the few rehearsals we would all have together.”
But what of Shaffer’s “creative” adaptation of history for the sake of a theatrical Mozart legend?
“Well, Shakespeare took license too, often, in his histories,” MacLean says. “This may not be an accurate rendering of Salieri or Mozart, but it is a work of art about creative genius and human envy—and as such, its license is well used.”