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.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro in 1786

On the 1st of May, 1786, at the Burgtheater in Vienna, the audience, which included Emperor Joseph II of Austria, were treated to the premiere of what would come to be regarded as one of the world's greatest and most beloved of all operas, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. The premiere actually didn't go all that smoothly and was fraught with intrigue. Neither was it given as many performances, only nine in its first run, (with a tenth given at the Emperor's palace theater at his country estate in Laxenburg), as Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte had hoped for. However, despite it's rough beginnings, it still stands as the most performed opera in the entire opera repertoire. 

As the first of the three collaborations of the great team of Mozart and Da Ponte, Figaro stood out among the three as the most successful. While Don Giovanni is regarded by musicologists as probably the greatest opera in history, and Cosi Fan Tutte contains some of Mozart's most divinely inspired music, their Viennese premiere runs were even shorter than Figaro's and audience favor less enthusiastic. After the first two performances (both conducted by Mozart himself), in which the audiences demanded that all numbers be encored, the Emperor had to order an edict that only the ensemble pieces could be repeated, in order that the performances not last six hours.

The reviews were for the most part, outstanding. The newspaper, Weiner Realzeitung, printed a review on 11 July, 1786 that referred to the hired cabals and disruptions from some of the singers themselves in the first performance (probably paid by the Spanish composer, Martín y Soler, who was upset that his new opera, Una Cosa Rara hadn't been chosen as the season opener).

Mozart's music was generally admired by connoisseurs already at the first performance, if I except only those whose self-love and conceit will not allow them to find merit in anything not written by themselves.
The public, however ... did not really know on the first day where it stood. It heard many a bravo from unbiassed connoisseurs, but obstreperous louts in the uppermost storey exerted their hired lungs with all their might to deafen singers and audience alike with their St! and Pst; and consequently opinions were divided at the end of the piece.
Apart from that, it is true that the first performance was none of the best, owing to the difficulties of the composition.
But now, after several performances, one would be subscribing either to the cabal or to tastelessness if one were to maintain that Herr Mozart's music is anything but a masterpiece of art.
It contains so many beauties, and such a wealth of ideas, as can be drawn only from the source of innate genius.
The Hungarian poet, Ferenc Kazinczy, was present in one of the May performances and later recalled the impressions that Nancy Storace in the role of Susanna, as well as Mozart's score made on him.

Storace, the beautiful singer, enchanted eye, ear, and soul. – Mozart directed the orchestra, playing his fortepiano; the joy which this music causes is so far removed from all sensuality that one cannot speak of it. Where could words be found that are worthy to describe such joy? 
To this day, the role of Susanna is regarded as the consummate soprano role and some of the world's greatest sopranos have begun their careers singing it. It was the first role in opera history to be completely constructed around a singer's personality, thus forming a tribute to the original Susanna, Nancy Storace.
When one sees Susanna, one sees Nancy Storace herself, and in a very real sense, Nancy is resurrected each time the opera is performed.

On this, the 228th anniversary of the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro, I hope that if you've never seen the opera that you will carve out some time to watch it. And if you have seen it ( and in my case performed in it as well as seen it more times than I can count), I hope that you will take the time to enjoy it once again, for every time it is seen its magic is only increased and Mozart and his beloved Susanna live again.

The 1994 Glyndebourne performance of Le Nozze di Figaro starring Alison Hagley as Susanna.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Nancy Storace Sings Handel's Messiah

In the spring of 1787, just after Nancy's arrival back in London from Vienna, she was engaged in a performance of the annual Handel Commemoration Festival at Westminster Abbey in which a large group of musicians gathered to sing the very popular oratorio, Messiah. She was to sing the popular soprano solo, I know that my Redeemer liveth. It was written by several of London's music critics, that in this particular setting, Nancy's voice was never more beautiful and that the acoustical conditions at Westminster provided a perfect atmosphere for her warm voice quality. One critic wrote, "She sung to best effect: in my opinion she rarely appeared to greater advantage, for in that space the harshness of her voice was lost, while its power and clearness filled the whole of it".

It was during a performance in another year at the Three Choirs Festival in Salisbury when a female Quaker heckler, who was disgruntled with the fact that a "sinful" theater actress was engaged to sing the sacred work, stood in the middle of Nancy's performance and shouted "O fie on thee! Shame! Shame! It is rank idolatry!" The woman was escorted out of the church and the performance continued.

Featured here is soprano, Lynne Dawson, singing I know that my redeemer liveth, from Messiah in a very similar setting as that in which Nancy Storace sang this same piece two-hundred years before.

Monday, April 7, 2014

So Faithful a Heart: Book III, A Prequel

When I finished the second book of the So Faithful a Heart series, I thought the story was finished, until someone came to me recently and asked when I was going to write the book about Nancy's childhood. The first book began in 1783, when Nancy was seventeen years old and getting ready to go to Vienna, where she had been hired as the prima buffa of Emperor Joseph II's new Italian Opera company. It wasn't long after I published it, that a friend came to me and asked if I was going to write a second book about the rest of Nancy's life. Out of that was born book II, When Love Won't Die, and I believed then, that it was truly finished.

Now I have been challenged to write a prequel, turning the two-book series into a trilogy. I've decided that it will begin in the summer of 1765, just before the Mozarts, who traveled to London in 1764 with young Wolfgang and his sister, Nannerl, leave to return to their home in Salzburg. Eight-year-old Wolfgang meets Stefano Storace who gives him lessons in the bass violin and is so impressed with the Mozart children that he decides that he will raise three-year-old Stephen and his then unborn child (Ann), in the same manner as Leopold Mozart raised his two "wonder children". The story will follow Nancy through her early years and her first Italian tour up until 1783, just before she leaves for Vienna, as well as following Mozart through his travels in Italy as an adolescent, his courtship and breakup with Aloysia Weber, and his courtship with Aloysia's younger sister, Constanze. All of this will serve as a lead-up to their meeting upon Nancy's arrival in the Austrian capital city and Mozart's desire to compose an opera for her that will make the Viennese stand up and take notice.

In this book I will introduce several new characters including, the young English musical prodigy, Thomas Linley, Stephen and Nancy Storace's Italian father, Stefano, Mozart's older sister, Nannerl, and their father, Leopold Mozart, as well as reintroduce the reader to Nancy's dear friend, Michael Kelly.

I'll keep you up with the developments! This may prove to be the most challenging and exciting book yet!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Women's History Month - Ann "Nancy" Storace: A Woman Who Made Theater History

Although opera and musical theater were very popular forms of entertainment in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the women who took up the profession of acting were considered little more than common prostitutes. Many, if not most of them were pretty girls who came from lower class poor families and saw a way to get out of poverty by acting on the stage. If they were lucky, they'd capture the attention of some nobleman and become his mistress and he, in turn, would make her a star. Few had any formal education, and most were illiterate. If they landed a wealthy, noble patron, they could be the beneficiary of learning to read, and sometimes they would be sent to "finishing school" where they'd receive lessons in singing and perhaps playing the fortepiano, and sometimes acting.

When Nancy Storace arrived from London in Naples, Italy in 1778 at the age of 13, she already had the benefit of a formal education with studies in several languages, including Latin, Italian, and French as well as extensive training in singing and a formal musical education that included theory and composition, playing the fortepiano, harpsichord, and guitar, as well as study of the popular operatic literature of the time. Her father, Stepfano, was a musician and the director of the theater orchestra at the Marylebone Pleasure Gardens in London. Nancy's mother's family had been the proprietors of the gardens for years and had established themselves as one of the wealthiest and most successful educated working class families in London. When Leopold Mozart brought his wife and two young children, Nannerl and Wolfgang to London in 1764, they met Stefano Storace, who gave young Wolfgang lessons on the bass violin and pointers on composing for theatrical orchestras. Stefano was impressed with the Mozart children and the manner in which they were educated and he was determined to raise his children in the same way. His son, Stephen, was only two years old at the time and Nancy arrived in October of 1765. Like the Mozart children, both Stephen and Nancy displayed prodigious musical abilities.

After a successful performance tour of Italy, Nancy landed a prestigious position as the prima buffa of the newly-formed Italian Opera Company which was housed in the Burgtheater of the court of Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, Austria. Nancy was the highest-paid performer in all of Europe at the age of 17, and was celebrated for her intelligent and informed acting as well as her musical skill and education, which was
virtually unheard of for a woman of the theater in her time. It was there that she captured the attention of Wolfgang Mozart who was interested in composing an Italian comic opera that would showcase the popular singer. It was in 1786 that Nancy premiered the role of Susanna in Mozart's comic opera "Le Nozze di Figaro" (The Marriage of Figaro). Susanna has since been regarded as the quintessential Mozart soprano role. It is no secret that Mozart admired her for her intelligence and her professionalism, and when she returned to London in early 1787, he wanted to go with her.

After her return to London, she starred on the stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden in her brother's operas, which were all composed especially for her. Her professional stage career ended when she retired in 1803, having been regarded as the first truly professional stage actress who won her acclaim and recognition through her own merits, skill, and efforts. She died a wealthy woman at her country estate in Dulwich on August 24, 1817 and was regarded as one of London's most beloved and respected singers and stage actresses of all time.

© K. Lynette Erwin, 2014

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Irish tenor, Michael Kelly: Mozart's original Don Basilio and Don Curzio

Looming large in the Mozart and Storace stories is the Irish tenor, Michael Kelly. Born December 25th, 1762, Kelly first met Stephen and Nancy Storace when he was 18 years old at the harbor in Liverno, Italy. Kelly recounted in his Remininscences that Nancy, upon seeing his long, flowing locks of blond hair, mistook him for a girl and shouted out loud, "Look at that girl dressed in boy's clothes!" In typical flamboyant Michael Kelly fashion, he turned to her with a flourish and replied, "You are mistaken, Miss, for I am a very proper he animal and quite at your service!" He stated that the incident embarked them upon a friendship that lasted their entire lives. It was actually Kelly who first called Ann Storace,"Nancy" and it became the name that history remembered her by. Kelly later traveled with his friend, Nancy Storace, to Vienna in January of 1783 where they had been hired as premiere singers in Emperor Joseph II's brand new Italian Opera Company. It was during their time in Vienna that they met and befriended Wolfgang Mozart and later starred in his comic opera, The Marriage of Figaro. In February of 1787, the Storaces and Kelly returned together to London, where they finished out the rest of their careers together in London's theaters and opera houses in Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

In Mozart legend, Kelly was known as the creator of the part of the "stuttering judge" in The Marriage of Figaro, named Don Curzio. Kelly recounted that he and Mozart actually had words over his giving the judge a stutter. Mozart objected, fearing that it took away from the music. However, Kelly won the argument because of the audience's favorable response to the hilarious effect, and so it stayed. Consequently, the part of Don Curzio has always been played with a stutter.

Kelly played a double role in Figaro. In addition to the stuttering Don Curzio, he also played the lecherous music instructor, Don Basilio. The following is a performance of Basilio's rarely performed Act IV aria, "In quegl'anni, in cui val poco".

© K. Lynette Erwin, 2014

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Research Behind the "So Faithful a Heart" Novel Series

My Anna Storace Website was created as a companion website for my Master's thesis/project on Anna "Nancy" Storace in 2000. This contains the results of the research I did on her at that time. This was the project that launched the 8 additional years of research that I put in to create my novel series entitled, So Faithful a Heart.

It was the view of the late Mozart historian, Alfred Einstein, that more existed between Mozart and Storace than what previous or current Mozart scholarship presented and I later learned that he based this belief on the transcripts of Nancy Storace's death inquest which brought up a visit to her estate in July of 1817 from "two German men" who were looking for some "letters from Vienna". Nancy was so upset by their visit that she suffered a stroke that same day and died as the result of complications several weeks later. It was later revealed that these two "German men" were sent by none other than Constanze Mozart's second husband, Georg Nissen. They were in the process of gathering and confiscating any and all information, letters, and artifacts that pertained to Mozart. This is most compelling because Constanze and Nissen were known to destroy any evidence that might show her or her late husband Wolfgang Mozart, in a bad or compromising light. Nancy's son (by the English tenor John Braham), later wrote to their good friend John Soane (famous English architect), that he may have inadvertently helped Nancy to destroy the letters, which he believed were from Mozart on that very same day that the "German men" came to their home, as she was going through some old papers and letters and burning them.

One of my major resources for my original research was a biography of Nancy (the only biography about her), entitled Anna Susanna: Mozart's Original Susanna, Her Life & Times, by an English musical layman by the name of Geoffrey Brace. Brace stated at the outset that he wasn't of the same opinion as Einstein about the Mozart/Storace relationship and that in his biography he wanted to separate her from Mozart and bring her to light on her own. It was a good basic resource and outline of her life, but in trying to prove his thesis, Brace intentionally left out the whole incident with the two German men as the major factor in the stroke that would lead to her death and he left out the inquest in which Nancy's maid testified to the incident, which was considered a major factor in her death. He also left out the letters between Nancy's son Spencer and Sir John Soane which discussed the incident. It was the current English conductor and Mozart historian, Jane Glover, whose research on the Storaces brought these things back to light. It was Glover who stated in her book Mozart's Women, that Mozart instructed Da Ponte to create the character of Susanna as a mirror image of Nancy Storace. She wouldn't go as far as to say that Mozart was in love with Nancy, as Alfred Einstein did, but she did say that Mozart was in love with Susanna and that Susanna was Mozart's "ideal woman".

© K. Lynette Erwin, 2014

Saturday, February 8, 2014

There's Nothing Like Mozart to Draw a Crowd

I live and work in a small community that is home to a major state university. While our university is large, and does have active and thriving arts and humanities departments, it is not known for them. It is primarily an agricultural university with a very large and popular sports program, especially when it comes to football and basketball. Right now we are in the middle of basketball season and I can tell you that on home game days, there is not a parking place to be found anywhere near or on campus. The town is almost literally shut down with the traffic. That's why it's so remarkable that while all of this is going on, one can still walk into the Seretean Center (which houses the music and theater departments), on a Friday night and find the large concert hall nearly packed out for an uncut student performance of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, sung in Italian, presented by the Oklahoma State University Music Department students and faculty.

I can also tell you that this production was one of the finest student productions of Figaro, that I have ever experienced, and believe me, I have seen many productions of Figaro, both professional and student. And in many respects, this student performance rivaled some of the professional productions that I have not only
seen, but in which I have performed. The orchestra was superb, the Italian diction was impeccable (and those Mozart recitatives are a bear), the singing and acting were magnificent. Although they were all outstanding, the standout performances for me were given by senior voice major, Bill Sheets as Count Almaviva, senior voice major, Lydia Bechtel, as Mozart's darling Susanna, and sophomore voice major, Brittany Wright, who charmed and delighted us all as the lovesick Cherubino. And special kudos to the principal bassoonist, Zac Bohanan, who carried off one of the most difficult and active bassoon parts in all of opera with professional finesse.

One other thing that this performance tells me: Opera is not dead. If you could have been in that concert hall last night and experienced the utter delight of that audience, heard the laughter, the cheering, the "Bravos" and "Bravas", the enthusiastic applause, and seen the energy, professionalism, and excitement of the
performers, there would be no doubt in your mind that as long as there are people who keep performing opera, there will be an audience. I have never known anything by Mozart that doesn't draw a crowd.

Bravo, OSU Music Department! You absolutely delighted this lover of Mozart!

P.S. For any locals who want to catch this performance, it is also being played tonight (Saturday, February 8th), with a second cast at the OSU Seretean Center concert hall. Curtain is at 7:30. General admission tickets are only $8.00 and $6.00 for senior citizens. Such a low price for such quality entertainment.

Photo Credit: S.K. Waller

UPDATE 2/9/14: We decided to attend the Saturday night performance so that we could see it with the second cast. Special recognition goes to Bernardo Medeiros for his outstanding performance in the title role of Figaro and to Renae Perry for her hilarious rendition of Marcellina. Well-done!

© K. Lynette Erwin, 2014