Thursday, October 27, 2016

In Memory of Ann "Nancy" Storace, Mozart's Original Susanna, Whose Birthday is Today

Today I'll be traveling to Oklahoma City to the State Capitol for the Wreath of Hope Ceremony to help raise awareness about domestic violence. I'll be placing a rose on the wreath on behalf of my agency and personally in memory of Ann "Nancy" Storace, the 18th century English soprano whose birthday it is today, and who was the subject of my master's thesis as well as the historical fiction novel series I wrote about her life and relationship with Mozart. Nancy was a victim of domestic violence when she was only 18 years old, at the hands of her husband, John Fisher. She was living in Vienna at the time under the
employment of Emperor Joseph II as his "prima buffa" (First Comedienne), in his newly-formed Italian Comic Opera Company. The abuse was so bad, that it kept her off stage and out of performances for weeks at a time. Finally, the Emperor banished Fisher and sent him packing back to England, but not without it leaving permanent and life-altering scars on Nancy.

Historians have treated Nancy's abuse as just a tiny blip on her radar, not putting the subsequent tragedies and events that plagued her for the rest of her life together with her abuse. Shortly after Fisher's banishment, Nancy completely lost her voice for 4 months, and when she finally recovered it, it wasn't the same. Her critics wrote that it had a "raspy, coarse" quality and that it had lost its flexibility. Music that was composed for her, had to be written to accommodate these changes. Several years later, following her return to London, she began to suffer dizziness and fainting spells on stage. Finally she was put to bed and eventually diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage. An emergency procedure called "trepanning" by which a quarter-sized hole is opened up into the skull and blood drained from off the brain to release pressure, was performed and she survived, but her life remained in the balance for 3 months following. Her critics then began to complain that she was gaining weight, as well as losing her hair and she soon developed a condition known then as "dropsy" (high blood pressure). We now know that all of these symptoms together - weight gain, loss of hair, and high blood pressure - are symptoms of thyroid disease. Nancy eventually died as a result of a series of "cryptogenic" (meaning origin not known) strokes at the age of 51.

All of the symptoms that I have described above are strong indications that Nancy was not only a victim of domestic violence, but that she had been a victim of near-fatal strangulation, most likely on several occasions. It was so severe that it caused damage and scarring to her larynx, the soft tissues in her throat, to her thyroid gland, as well as permanent damage to her brain which eventually led to her death at the age of 51.

I share Nancy's story because 250 years later, we still don't readily or immediately recognize the symptoms of near-fatal strangulation in victims of domestic violence, and too many later succumb to their affects, sometimes 30 years down the line. Strangulation is found in around 50 percent of all domestic violence cases, and a woman who survives one instance of strangulation is 7 times more likely to be the victim of domestic violence homicide later on. We must do better. We must educate our law enforcement, EMTs, ER physicians, advocates, district attorneys/prosecutors, and jury pools about this most deadly form of domestic violence so that survivors will have a better chance for survival and a better of quality of life, and that the perpetrators of this heinous crime will not go unpunished.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

New Scholarship Demands a Rewrite

After several weeks of deliberation, I have decided that I'm going to rewrite my book series, "So Faithful a Heart" to reflect the most recent scholarship and discoveries concerning my main character, Nancy Storace, that have come to light in the past few months. It's going to require a complete reworking of many of the main plot points in the first book, and some additional information added to the second book. I've also decided that instead of dividing it up into two books in one volume (as it is now), I'm going to make it one book divided into three parts. My goal with this rewrite is to make more of the impact that her experience as a survivor of domestic violence and sexual abuse had upon her life, career, and relationships and how she not only survived the trauma but triumphed over it in an age when the lasting physical and emotional damage that domestic violence wrecks upon a person's life was even less understood than it is today. And although Mozart will still remain a central character in the story, I'm taking "The Love Story of Nancy Storace & Wolfgang Mozart" out of the subtitle and making the focus of the book about Nancy's personal journey and less focused on the relationships with the men in her life. I rewrote the first chapter tonight. I'm hoping to have it completed by the end of the summer and ready to publish by the end of the year.

There have been some fascinating new discoveries and scholarship surrounding the loss of her voice and the cantata that was composed for her in celebration of her return to the stage after the loss of her voice. And because of my experience as a vocal pedagogue, as well as my work in the field of domestic violence/sexual assault, I have unearthed a reason for the loss of her voice that has eluded historians. I'm the first to make the connection between her experience as a victim of domestic
violence and the loss of her voice as well as the permanent damage that she sustained to it, as well as other physical and emotional scars that plagued her for the rest of her life. I want my novelized account of her life to reflect these new discoveries and connections.

I will be dedicating this rewrite to all the survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault throughout history, as well as to my colleagues at the center/shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, where I now serve as the sexual assault advocate/educator.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Major Discovery: The REAL story behind Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia - KV 477a

The years 1784 and 1785 were significant for Nancy Storace in that they could be described as the most turbulent and life-changing years in her entire life. Having arrived in Vienna only the year before as Emperor Joseph II's "prima buffa" in his new Italian Opera Company, the then 17-year-old Ann Selina Storace experienced instant and wild popularity with the Viennese audience. She quickly garnered the admiration of the likes of the Emperor and the nobility, as well as her musical colleagues including, Antonio Salieri, Wolfgang Mozart, Martin y Soler, Francesco Benucci (Mozart's original Figaro), and the court librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte and became Europe's most popular and highest-paid stage performer. Her skills as a musician and actor, as well as her high energy on stage charmed and delighted her audiences, and propelled her into a stage career that was unparalleled by any before her.

Soon after Nancy's arrival in Vienna, her mother, Elizabeth Storace arranged a marriage for Nancy to an English violinist by the name of John Abraham Fisher. Fisher came to Vienna on sabbatical from Oxford and connected with the Storaces, as they were from London and he had been acquaintances of Nancy's parents there. Elizabeth, who hated Vienna and wanted to return to London, saw this marriage as insurance of their return once Fisher's sabbatical was complete. Fisher and Nancy were married in March of 1784 and almost immediately afterward it became evident that the marriage was a disaster as Fisher began beating and brutalizing Nancy very likely from the first day. In the first few
weeks after they married, Nancy was absent from the Burgtheater stage due to "illness" and started experiencing periods when she was off the stage more than she was on. This finally escalated to the point that Emperor Joseph intervened and sometime in August or September of 1784, he kicked Fisher out of Vienna and forbid him to return. There was a period of several weeks in this time when we have no accounting of Nancy's whereabouts. She was housed in the Imperial apartments but records indicate that only her mother remained in the apartments during those weeks and it is believed that Nancy was either hiding out from or being hidden from Fisher until the time he was out of the city and it was safe for Nancy to return to her residence.

Shortly after Nancy's return to the Burgtheater stage (most likely in early November of 1784), she announced that she was pregnant but the Emperor either didn't or wouldn't release her from her contract. Performance records show that she was on stage throughout its duration, despite indications of it being an extremely difficult pregnancy and Nancy experiencing periods of absence due to illness.

In January of 1785, Nancy's older brother, Stephen arrived in Vienna from London to fulfill a commission for an opera that apparently Nancy had arranged. How she was able to obtain such a commission for Stephen, who was an entirely unknown composer, remains a mystery. Some attribute it to the notion that she was Emperor Joseph's mistress. Others believe that she appealed to one of the nobles with a high position in the Emperor's court and offered him "favors" to obtain the commission. No one really knows how the commission came about, however what we do know is that Nancy was extremely close to her brother, and she needed his presence and support during what were the most traumatic times of her life. Shortly after his arrival her child was born. There is some dispute over the birth date of the child. Earlier research indicated that the child was born sometime in late May or early June of 1785, which would mean that Nancy was near full term at the time of the premiere of her brother's opera, in which she starred. Later scholarship by the Mozart scholar, Michael Lorenz indicates that the child, a baby girl, who was named Josefa Fisher, was born in late January of 1785. What we do know for certain is that the child was given to the Viennese foundling home and died only a month after her birth. Foundling home records from this period indicate that only children who were orphaned or proven to be bastards were accepted into the home. This is a strong indicator that Fisher wasn't the father of Nancy's child.

Despite the controversy over the actual birth date of Nancy's child, it is documented fact that during the premiere of her brother Stephen's opera in May of 1785, Nancy suffered a complete loss of her voice onstage. She had to be carried off stage and the performance shut down. Nancy's voice loss was so complete that she was off stage for a solid 4 months and there was some very substantiated concern that she would never recover. Historians have been baffled as to the reason for such a complete vocal demise citing possible emotional/psychological distress, a throat infection, and even hormonal changes being contributing factors. However, she did recover after a long period of rest, but she never regained her voice at full capacity. From that point on, her stage reviewers reported a
"hoarse", "throaty", even "harsh" edge to the voice as well as a loss of flexibility and suppleness. When composing the role of Susanna for her in Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart had to lower the tessitura of her parts in the ensemble pieces and greatly reduce the complexity of her arias, much to her personal frustration. Because of this, however, he promised her that he would compose a large-scale "bravura" aria for her for another time. The fulfillment of this promise came in the aria he composed as a gift for her to sing in her final Viennese concert on the night before she left the city to return to London, "Ch'io mi scordi di te...Non temer amato bene" K. 505. It has been noted by musicologists that while it was a large scale bravura aria, the tessitura is much lower than most arias for soprano voice, and the melismatic passages are fewer, shorter, and less complicated and easier to negotiate by the singer. This aria today is most often sung by what we now classify as Mezzo Sopranos.

All of the above is merely the backdrop for the events that led to the composition of the cantata, "Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia, KV 477a, which was a joint composition by Mozart, Salieri, and a mysterious composer by the name of Cornetti (thought by historians to be an alias).

When I began my research for my master's thesis (vocal performance and pedagogy) on the life and career of Nancy Storace in the spring of 1999, I was intrigued by this amazing woman who seemed to make a miraculous recovery after her two year ordeal as a victim of domestic violence. And like the historians whose biographies and articles I read, I got lost in her relationship with Mozart and the intrigue of a possible affair with him and with others, as well as dazzled by her amazing success throughout the rest of her career until her death in her estate home in Dulwich in 1817 - so much so, that I, like the others, started viewing her experience with domestic violence as just a small blip on her radar. Years later, even as I continued to research her life for my historical novel series "So Faithful a Heart", and as a vocal pedagogue, I
didn't see the connection between the loss and permanent damage to her voice to her being a victim of domestic violence. I attributed the complete loss of her voice to an emotional/psychological breakdown and still didn't make the real connection until years later, when in 2014 I was employed as receptionist/crisis intervention staff at a local center/shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It was while training for that position that I learned about the damaging, life-threatening, and permanent affects of strangulation on not only the voice, but upon the victim's health and life for the entirety of their lives. When I learned of the permanent scar tissue that can remain on the larynx and soft tissues of the vocal folds, I put it together. It isn't widely known that several years later in November of 1791 (the same time that Mozart fell sick with his final illness), Nancy started to experience bouts of dizziness and fainting and was eventually diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage and underwent a procedure called "trepanning" by which a quarter-sized hole is opened up in the victim's skull and the blood drained to relieve the pressure. She nearly died. This is entirely consistent with symptoms experienced by victims of strangulation, even years later, because of the pressure put on the carotid artery and the cutting off of the blood flow to the brain resulting in brain injury and blood clotting in the brain.

After a year of serving in the capacity of support staff at the center for victims of domestic violence/sexual assault I was sent to train as a Certified Domestic & Sexual Assault Response Professional and was promoted to the position of full time Sexual Assault Advocate/Educator. My training as a professional victim advocate further corroborated my theories, and I am now convinced beyond any doubt that Nancy Storace was a victim of strangulation during her abuse with her husband, John Fisher and that her voice loss and the permanent "hoarseness" and "edge" sustained to her voice, as well as her near death from a brain hemorrhage were all the result of strangulation.

Now, back to the cantata: I have been elated and at the same time disappointed and even appalled by the recent discovery and revelation of Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia in January of 2016. Historians and headlines are making this discovery entirely about Mozart and Salieri, and the myth perpetuated by the play and film ,"Amadeus", that Salieri was so jealous of Mozart's talent that he murdered him. Documented research long ago dispelled that myth, so for notable and serious music historians to present this discovery as some kind of "proof" that this dispels that myth is not only ridiculous, but is nothing but cheap sensationalism. This discovery isn't about the composers or their relationships with each other, but about the woman for whom this cantata was composed, and the joyous occasion it celebrated. It is about the triumph of a woman over her brutal and devastating abuse - her strength, her determination, and her unrelenting spirit. This cantata is about Ann "Nancy" Selina Storace a woman who was loved and celebrated by the likes of the Emperor of the greatest empire in the world at that time, and of men like Mozart, Salieri, and Lorenzo da Ponte. This discovery is about the triumph of the human spirit and our ability to rise above and conquer the affects of even the most devastating events of our lives.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Ride in My Time Machine

As a writer of historical fiction based on the lives of real people, I'm often asked how I know so much about these people's private lives. My answer is always that it isn't that I know so much as I intuit based on careful research and study. It's impossible to know exactly what people thought, felt, or what went on in their relationships behind closed doors, but there are ways of researching that can give one a pretty good idea, at least enough to write a plausible, historically accurate story based on the facts and events in people's lives.

The way I start is by obtaining the facts. These form the foundation or the skeleton of my story and of my characters. Facts are things like documented dates, places, and events and physical evidence such as letters, documents, and first person testimony. Once I've established these things as the foundation, then I begin to search for clues that can give me more insight into the culture in which the characters are living their lives, the time in history, the region, the customs,
the prominent religious, spiritual, and philosophical views of the culture, as well as the history just preceding the time-frame of the story and the history just following. I also research the fashions, foods, and popular entertainment. The next level of research involves a study of basic human psychology and behavior and how that fits with the culture and history. I can then predict how a certain character could and most likely would handle any given situation and/or crisis that he or she might encounter in their lives.

I also devote a lot of time and research into the study of people who history might not have necessarily deemed as important in a character's life, but who may add some perspective to the character that might easily have been missed
because of research that is too focused on one central character and/or event. A good writer/storyteller knows that people aren't islands. Life is about relationships and how human beings respond to the different relationships that they develop within their lives. To focus one's research on one person is to create a one-dimensional story that omits other truths and perspectives.

After all the research is done, the creativity comes in. I combine my research with my intuition and skill as a writer to tell the story. I've had several readers of my So Faithful a Heart novels say to me that they had a difficult time separating the facts from the "fiction" because the two were combined so seamlessly that they simply got lost in the story and in the lives of the characters. Many have said it was if they were there - that they were literally transported back in time and into the various salons, ballrooms, bedrooms, gardens, and palaces where these people lived, loved and worked. That's what a good writer of historical fiction does; we give you a "fly-on-the-wall" view of the intimate, private lives of the people and events that you've read about in history.

In a real sense, I'm giving you a ride in my very own time machine!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Amadeus: A Guilty Pleasure

The 19th of September, 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the brilliant Milos Forman film, Amadeus starring Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Mozart, and F. Murray Abraham as the Viennese Court Composer, and Mozart nemesis, Antonio Salieri. In celebration of the upcoming anniversary, a large group of Mozart lovers all over the world gathered yesterday in front of their television screens for an international "watch party" sponsored and promoted by an event registered on Facebook.

It had been several years since I had indulged in watching one of my all-time favorite films, so I decided to join in the fun. I popped a large bowl of popcorn and put our copy of the Director's Cut version of the film in our DVD player and sat back to watch 180 minutes of this not-so-historically-accurate-but-wonderfully-addictive tale, once again.

It is here I will note that as a Mozart historian, it is not "politically correct" for me to love this movie. In fact, the world of musicology is riddled with elitist snobs who would label me as a "dilettante" for even uttering the title of the film.
To them I say, "bite me". It wasn't intended to be a documentary or a biography. Like Mozart's operas, it's a  farce--a comedy (although like Don Giovanni, it has its elements of dark tragedy). I know the difference between Mozart fact and fiction. Now thirty years after the film's debut, most people know that Salieri didn't conspire to murder Mozart. They also know that Mozart probably wasn't quite as socially awkward and over-the-top as he was portrayed in the film. But there are some other things that were portrayed in this film that people take as fact, that weren't such, so I'm taking the opportunity to list some of them here.

1. Mozart never had an affair with the singer, Caterina Cavalieri, though it is almost certain that she was the mistress of Antonio Salieri (despite the character's claim in the film that he "never laid a finger on her").

2. There is no evidence to suggest that Mozart ever borrowed money from Salieri, nor would Salieri ever have known about Mozart's financial affairs. Mozart actually experienced a very prosperous period between 1784 and 1787 when his popularity in Vienna soared through a series of subscription concerts for which he composed and performed some of his finest piano concertos. He did fall into debt, that is true, but he borrowed money from a textile merchant and fellow Freemason, Michael Puchberg. His borrowing didn't begin until 1788, two years after the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro, and shortly after his next opera Don Giovanni, failed miserably in Vienna. There is also recent evidence to suggest that most of Mozart's largest debts were completely
paid off by the end of 1790 and that he entered once again, into a very prosperous period in 1791, which was the last year of his life.

3. Mozart did not die in poverty, nor was he buried in a pauper's grave. Contrary to the impression that the film leaves that the apartment was literally ransacked and everything sold to pay off debts, that is simply not true. As I stated above, by the end of 1790, Mozart was, once again, entering one of the most prosperous periods of his life. At the time of his death he was living in a fashionable apartment in a high-rent district in Vienna. He had a full staff of house servants, including several maids and a cook. His oldest son, Karl (the Mozarts had six children, with two surviving), was attending a very expensive private boarding school, and Mozart was maintaining the rent and household expenses for an apartment for Constanze at the spa in Baden (where she spent most of the last two years of their marriage).

Mozart's funeral and burial were paid for by the Freemasons as a benefit to his widow. The common grave was standard for a man of Mozart's educated working upper-middle class station. And unlike what was portrayed in the film, Constanze did not attend the funeral (nor did Salieri, for that matter).

4. The whole scene where the opera director, Herr Rosenberg, rips out the score of the "ballet" in Figaro, never took place. There was some controversy over whether or not the dance in Figaro and Susanna's wedding could be considered a ballet, resulting in a mild dispute between Rosenberg and Lorenzo da Ponte (the librettist). However, da Ponte, who was highly favored by the Emperor went directly to him and settled it in favor of keeping the dance in since it contained a major plot point in the story.

5. Mozart did not die suddenly after conducting a performance of The Magic Flute. He had actually fallen quite ill and took to his bed for two weeks before his death at 1:00 a.m. on December 5th, 1791. Constanze had to be summoned from the spa (as she didn't just suddenly sense that something was "wrong" as the film portrayed). Salieri was not present at Mozart's death bed, nor did he contribute to any part of the composing of Mozart's  Requiem (although that scene is probably one of my most favorites of the entire film).

If you get a chance during this 30th anniversary of the Amadeus film premiere, I encourage you to watch it again, and when you do, enjoy it for what it is; a beautifully made film filled with some of Hollywood's finest acting and memorable lines, costumes, sets, scenery, and of course, the music. We can't forget that, for in the end, it really is all about Mozart and his miraculous and beautiful music. And well...there it is.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Mozart's Motet for Castrato: Exultate Jubilate

Mozart's motet, Exultate Jubilate was composed for the castrato Vinanzio Rauzzini (later the voice teacher of young Nancy Storace), in 1773 when Mozart was visiting in Milan. Rauzinni was born in Camerino, Italy in 1746. Mozart first heard him sing in the Viennese court in 1767 and was so delighted with his voice that he offered him the premiere role in his opera Lucio Silla, when it was staged in Milan in 1772.

The Exultate Jubilate is a three movement motet consisting of an allegro movement followed by a slower andante movement, then another allegro movement known as the "Alleluja".

The two allegro movements are sung here by male soprano Michael Maniaci. Maniaci is a true male soprano and not a counter tenor or a castrato. This is the closest the 21st century ear will ever hear to how this piece sounded when Rauzzini sang it.