Orange County’s biggest and most prestigious arts organizations rub shoulders with each other in an impressive Costa Mesa cultural campus that’s been decades in the making. The Orange County Museum of Art will join their ranks when it opens later this year next to Segerstrom Concert Hall.
But there’s been little significant collaboration among those groups over the years. South Coast Repertory, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the many groups that perform there, including Pacific Symphony and the Pacific Chorale, conduct their seasons separately — which is, after all, typical of the signature performing arts companies in most American cities.
But lately there have been signs of change. In a recent conversation with me, Segerstrom Center President Casey Reitz said he’s interested in collaborating with other local arts organizations, though he had no plans to announce.
This weekend, though, we’ll be treated to something concrete: a production that brings together South Coast Repertory, Pacific Symphony and the Pacific Chorale in a novel creation called “Mozart & Salieri.” Based on “Amadeus,” Peter Shaffer’s hugely popular 1979 play, it tells the story of Mozart’s genius, career struggles and tragic demise through the eyes of a Viennese rival, composer Antonio Salieri.
SCR artistic director David Ivers was scheduled to play Salieri, a role he tackled in a 2015 production of “Amadeus” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. But Ivers had to bow out because of illness. He will be replaced by Marco Barricelli, who played Salieri in South Coast Repertory’s 2016 staging of “Amadeus.”
The first half of the program will feature the adaptation created by the production’s director, James Sullivan. We’ll be treated to some of Mozart’s most familiar and beloved works, including the Overture to Don Giovanni and an excerpt from The Magic Flute, and the musical forces will include soprano Celena Shafer, mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic, tenor John Pickle and baritone Michael Dean. There’s even a little of Salieri’s music thrown in — an excerpt of “Andantino grazioso” from Sinfonia in D Major (“La Veneziana”).
The second half will be devoted to Mozart’s haunting Requiem, which played a pivotal role in the play and in Miloš Forman’s acclaimed, 1984 film adaptation. The Pacific Chorale, which recently won a Grammy Award with four other groups for a recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, will share the stage with Pacific Symphony.
He’s No Villain
Like many collaborative projects, “Mozart & Salieri” was born during a casual restaurant conversation.
“It came together when David and I were having lunch,” recalled Pacific Symphony music director Carl St.Clair. It was one of the first meetings between the two men after Ivers arrived at SCR in 2018. “He’s such an engaging and creative and active guy. We just hit it off immediately, and we had all kinds of ideas about how we could collaborate.”
‘Mozart & Salieri’
When: May 19-21 at 8 p.m.
Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Information: 714-755-5799 or pacificsymphony.org
“From the beginning, it was structured as a collaboration between Carl St.Clair, myself and Jim Sullivan, who directed that 2015 production (of ‘Amadeus’) that I was in,” Ivers said. “Jim is a longtime friend of mine, and this (collaborative work) is Jim’s really smart invention.”
The project made sense to St.Clair for other reasons, too. “It was time for us to do the Mozart Requiem again. We haven’t done it in quite a while.”
Before he was sidelined by illness, Ivers’ told me he was looking forward to playing Salieri again. He said his familiarity with the role was counterbalanced by the challenges of portraying Salieri in an entirely different presentational format.
“It’s not easy to jump right back in, especially when the context is not similar at all. I’ll be in front of a huge orchestra.”
Shaffer’s play shows Salieri as a villain who had a hand in Mozart’s demise. (It’s central to the play’s plot, although there’s no historical evidence to support the idea.) But Ivers said he was careful not to paint him as one when he played the role.
“I don’t see him as a villain at all. I see him as someone who realized his limitations. He says that he was ‘born with a pair of ears.’ The tragedy of Salieri is that he possesses the ability to recognize genius, but isn’t one himself. And so rather than thinking of him as a villain, the one thing Jim (Sullivan) and I talked about a lot is that he actually kills what he loves. I think he’s in agony.”
“Here was a man who devoted himself to his art and was talented enough to hear what most people couldn’t hear at the time, which was the transcendent brilliance of Mozart’s music,” Sullivan said of Salieri. “He was talented, but he knew he was completely diminished by Mozart’s brilliance. So he’s consumed by the feeling of betrayal. ‘I devoted my life to this, I sacrificed for it, did what I thought was right. Then I was weighed in the balance and found wanting.’”
Sullivan thinks that the historical evidence does raise some questions about Salieri’s attitude towards Mozart.
“Is the story true? We can never know. Mozart died in deep poverty and was buried — no one knows just where — in a pauper’s grave. (He) failed to gain in Vienna the patronage he so desperately sought. Salieri, competent but unremarkable … prospered there. The same Salieri who held several influential music posts at the Viennese court, the same Salieri who certainly could have lifted young Mozart into a position of employment, if not prominence.”
Those doubts have prompted lively debate (and several speculative works of art) over the last two centuries, Sullivan pointed out, including an 1830 play by Alexander Pushkin, an 1897 Rimsky-Korsakov opera based on Pushkin’s drama, Shaffer’s hugely popular play, and Forman’s multiple Oscar-winning film.
The dramatic goals of this production are more modest than those works, St.Clair said. He cautioned that audiences shouldn’t expect to see a fully staged play with orchestral accompaniment. “It’s one person, so it’s not as though there’s an extensive set. At least part of the time (Salieri is) confined to a wheelchair. He’s old, so he’s not running around onstage ranting and raving. And there are no massive sets like we would have in our opera productions. It’s not an opera, it’s a dramatic soliloquy.”
Despite its production limitations, St.Clair thinks “Mozart & Salieri” represents a trend toward more out-of-the-box programming, involving multiple arts groups and/or nontraditional performers and artists, that appeals to a wider audience than arts groups customarily attract on their own. He referred to the recent world premiere of a percussion concerto by Danny Elfman with Pacific Symphony at Soka University as another example of programming with crossover appeal.
“I think the Elfman premiere was a sign that there are new audiences that are willing to come (to classical music events), if we can appeal to them. It was a different audience for us. Danny has a rock star relationship with his fans. Of course, it was also a terrific piece. That concert, and this collaboration, are the kinds of events that might draw in a new and more varied audience.”
Ivers believes the pandemic created a paradigm shift that encourages new ways of thinking about the arts’ relationship to audiences.
“I think the way in which arts organizations interface with our patrons and our community is going to keep shifting how the model works. And I think a large part of that has to do with COVID and the things that COVID revealed about what we want to see. We’re going to be hunting all the time to figure out the best ways, the best practices and the most exciting possibilities to get people back in the theater.”
Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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