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Arts and Entertainment

Springfield Regional Opera Pits "Mozart vs. Salieri" in Double Bill

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(Poster design courtesy Springfield Regional Opera)
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One of two opera productions in Springfield next weekend (you can read and hear about the other one here) comes courtesy of Springfield Regional Opera. In February 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria set up a ‘musical competition’ in his Vienna palace, pitting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart against the Emperor’s own court musician, Antonio Salieri, in a battle of one-act operas:  Mozart’s “The Impresario” versus Salieri’s “First the Music, Then the Words.”  A highly fictionalized account of the evening is portrayed in the play (and later movie) “Amadeus.”  But SRO will let Springfield operagoers decide for themselves in their double bill of these two works, Friday November 16 at 7:30pm in the Ballroom at the Hotel Vandivort on Walnut Street just west of the Landers Theatre.

Salieri’s piece apparently came out on top in the audience’s opinion at the Emperor’s palace in 1786, but that means little to 21st-century music lovers, says SRO Artistic Director Michael Spyres. “Everyone knows who Mozart is, but few people know who Salieri is.” Of course, “Amadeus” perpetuated the idea that the two men were bitter rivals—which, jokes Spyres, was exaggerated “just a hair” for dramatic purposes. Their supposed rivalry was also portrayed in an opera, “Mozart and Salieri,” by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov. Just to underline the idea that the animosity between the men has been overplayed, Smithsonian Magazine (www.smithsonianmag.com) reported two years ago that, according to the Reuters news agency, a musicologist in Prague discovered a long-lost composition on which Mozart and Salieri actually collaborated.  It was a short piece they put together to wish a British singer a speedy recovery from illness... and apparently it wasn’t a very good piece.  But it does exist.  The whole “Salieri plotted against his young rival Mozart and maybe even poisoned him” legend doesn’t appear to be at all true, but as Spyres says, “it makes a good story.”

He adds, “We’re having a really good time rehearsing it, and we’re doing it in the original languages, German (Mozart) and Italian (Salieri).  Originally there was lots of dialogue in both of them, and we’ve had to translate our own.” Andy Curtis of SRO has provided an English-language script for the production. “We’ve tied the two operas together to try to put a little more context in. But we’re keeping all the original music,” says Spyres.  “What we’re trying to bring back to life is that opera was never this fixed piece that you would go into a museum and look and say, ‘Oh... I guess that’s opera. How interesting.’ It was always a living, breathing art form.” Of course, back in the 18th century the opera house was a place to see and be seen, with lots of “talking and eating and drinking, and then they would clap every once in a while when the singers were done singing. But it was an event, to see and be see and be part of this living art form. And that’s what we’re trying to recreate, because opera can be extremely fun and interactive, and we’re going to do some live voting to see who likes which opera’s music better.”

Spyres notes that the dimensions of the Vandivort 4th-floor ballroom are nearly identical to that of Emperor Joseph II’s music room in Vienna.  The production features actors, opera singers and a 30-piece orchestra. 

Tickets are $30 per person, which includes both operas and a complimentary glass of wine. For an additional $40 a “Red Curtain Affair” pre-performance party is offered, featuring appetizers and cash bar in the Vandivort Master Suite with Michael Spyres.

“I will be giving a little back story about Mozart himself.  I’ve become one of today’s Mozart ‘experts’ because I’ve done lots and lots of operas of Mozart, with some of the best people... and I studied in Vienna.  They shove it down your throat in Vienna—and that’s a good thing for me! I do know a lot about it.”  Spyres, himself a leading tenor in opera and concert both in Europe and America, will sing a couple of what he calls “Mozart’s more famous tunes” along with his wife, soprano Tara Stafford-Spyres. For ticket information visit www.sropera.org or call 863-1960.  Tickets are also available through the Missouri State University Opera Workshop webpage, http://missouristate.edu/opera, where you can order tickets both for “Mozart vs. Salieri” and for MSU’s “holiday double bill” co-production with Messiah Project.  Michael Spyres says he’s “very excited about the collaboration (with MSU).  We’re all part of the same arts community, and MSU is an integral part of SROpera.  So we’re so glad we can partner with other organizations.  To have two organizations that are doing real opera in a city this size, on the same weekend, is quite extraordinary.”

I asked Michael about the cast for the production, and he had to beg off trying to list them live on the air, referring us instead to the SRO website. This sent us off on a side discussion about Michael’s own very active operatic career, which continues to be centered mostly in Europe. One of the side effects of an international singing career is jet-lag, and he just returned home two days ago from his first concert recital in Bordeaux, France “where I did 17 pieces. And I’m still trying to figure out, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m back in Springfield!’”  He’s performed in twelve countries this year.  But he gets a whopping two months off over the holidays here at home.  He says this is the first time that’s happened since he first moved to Vienna, Austria some seventeen years ago to study and further his career.  Coming up in January Spyres has a solo concert in Genoa, Italy, and soon after that makes his belated Vienna Staatsoper (State Opera) debut as the Prince in Rossini’s comic opera “Cenerentola” (Cinderella).  It’s an especially meaningful debut for Spyres because of his early years studying in Vienna and singing with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, which has specialized in the music of Mozart both in concert and on numerous recordings.  Speaking of recording, Spyres will return to the recording studio himself next year for three more CDs.  His Erato recording of Berlioz’s opera “Les Troyens,” in which he sings the lead tenor role of Aeneas opposite mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, was just awarded Gramophone Magazine’s 2018 Opera Recording of the Year.

And speaking of belated debuts... while Michael has been able to build an enviable international opera career for himself in Europe, it’s been something of a sore point for his friends and fans in the Ozarks that America’s own Metropolitan Opera has seemingly neglected him... until now.  “Next season I’ll be making my MET debut, and we’ll see. We’re still talking about the future, but I’m very, very excited to make my debut next year. Next year will probably be—I keep saying every year that I can’t imagine a better trajectory for my career, ‘this is the best year of my life!’  But next year’s going to be even better!”