Wednesday, August 21, 2019
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Mozart in Manhattan
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The new opera "Mozart in Manhattan" imagines what might have happened if Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had lived a long life and eventually made his way to the shores of the New World. (Photo by Gina Gregory)
While Europe is the birthplace of classical music, several great European composers were influenced by time spent in America. Antonin Dvorak, Kurt Weill and Igor Stravinsky all composed music inspired by their visits. So what if Mozart had travelled to America? The new opera "Mozart in Manhattan" premiering in St Paul this weekend presents one possible answer.

St. Paul, Minn. — First a clarification; "Mozart in Manhattan" is not really about Mozart. Its about Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the librettos for Mozart's three acclaimed Italian operas La Nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan Tutti and Don Giovanni. While Mozart is a main character of this new comic opera, director Karen Coe Miller says the audience might be surprised to discover he plays the straight man.

"This is a Mozart that is much more staid than the Mozart we think of from, say, Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus," says Miller. "It's not the wild and impulsive Mozart; it's a Mozart who's been tempered by his experiences and his life and his illness. And so Da Ponte is really the kind of wild card in this production."

Mozart in Manhattan rewrites history. Instead of dying of a mysterious illness in 1791, Mozart recovers. In 1805, an older, wiser Mozart sails to America to visit his old friend, da Ponte, who has only recently moved there.

Da Ponte actually did move to America. Librettist Brian Fogerty says he read Da Ponte's memoirs. They proved highly entertaining.

"The guy was one of the finest liars of two centuries, I think," says Fogerty. "He could tell whoppers like nobody's business. His memoirs really read like a supermarket tabloid except the language is this mellifluous flowery overblown language which finds its way into the story, too."

Da Ponte at turns claimed he'd make the United States the opera capital of the world, and that he was singlehandedly saving the Italian language. So many conflicting stories remain about Da Ponte's life that Fogerty says he felt free to pick and choose. This is Fogerty's first libretto. He's a sociology professor at the College of St. Catherine. He says composer and fellow professor Al Biales convinced him to give it a try.

"I thought I'd do one scene - and I knew the opening scene has to have Mozart arrive and they greet each other and we'd see what happens and to my astonishment Al thought it was okay and wrote some music and of course once that happens you feel kind of committed," says Fogerty.

Mozart comes to America looking for work, not realizing that Da Ponte's letters exaggerated his own success in the new world. The two decide to write an opera and set about finding backers. At a fundraising party two charming voice students dare to perform a recital of Mozart's own music for him. Composer Al Biales says while Mozart's music has its moments in the show, Mozart in Manhattan is not anything like a Mozart opera.

"People say, 'Well, does your music sound like Mozart's?' and I say 'Absolutely not! It doesn't sound like Mozart - it sounds like me, like the music I'd write,'" says Biales. "Mozart was obviously a great composer and I would not attempt to try to write music for an opera that would emulate his style."

Biales and Fogerty say, like Mozart and Da Ponte, they encountered many obstacles and adventures in putting together their new opera. After moments of both high drama and hijinks, they're looking forward to seeing it make its world premiere.

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