Hershey Felder’s latest musical film examines little-known librettist’s relationship with Mozart


Most opera and classical music lovers know the history of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his operas. But few people know about the colorful life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was the librettist of three of the composer’s best-known operas, “Les Noces de Figaro”, “Don Giovanni” and Cosi fan tutte.

Da Ponte’s unusual life – and his prospect of working alongside the Austrian composer – is the subject of “Mozart and Figaro in Vienna”. This is the latest musical film written and directed by and starring playwright-pianist Hershey Felder. Airing at 5 p.m. on January 9, the film is co-presented by the San Diego Repertory Theater and nearly two dozen other US theaters. Felder lives and works in Florence, Italy, and all scenes in the film were filmed in the Tuscan city as part of his “Live from Florence” film series.

Hershey Felder, seen here as librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte in his later years, shooting a scene for the new musical film ‘Mozart and Figaro in Vienna’.

(Hershey Felder)

Da Ponte was born Jewish but his family secretly changed their name and converted to Catholicism. During his long career he served as a priest, was convicted of running a brothel in Venice and banished, went bankrupt and fled to the United States, where he founded the first American opera house in New York.

The film will feature an international cast of opera singers, including American baritones Nathan Gunn and Timothy Renner and Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina as well as members of the Italian Maggio Musicale Orchestra. Felder plays Da Ponte, both as a young court musician in Vienna, and in his later years in New York City, where he became a US citizen and died in 1838. Felder answered a few questions about his latest project by e-mail last week.

Question: Where did you get the idea for this piece and its focus on Da Ponte?

A: “I have always been fascinated by Da Ponte. He worked with Mozart, no doubt giving Mozart the material to become eternal in the world of opera. I loved the way Da Ponte talked about Mozart, and I’m quite moved by the way we refer to “Mozart operas”, but not to Mozart and Da Ponte operas. Da Ponte was also a real character, and you could do many episodes in her life. The story is about being in the presence of a genius and contributing to that genius, and perhaps not being recognized for doing so.

Question: Where did you film “Mozart and Figaro in Vienna”?

A: “Unfortunately, Vienna was completely blocked off, so we were able to film in the magnificent Palazzo Gianfigliazzi Bonaparte in central Florence, which has exactly the interior that a late 18th century Viennese palace, the Emperor’s Palace, would have. The palace itself is historic and the decor dates exactly from the period Mozart is said to have visited and performed. It is a beautiful palace which still has the decor, now fully restored to its original glory.

Question: What would most theatergoers be surprised to learn about Mozart that only composers and pianists like you know?

A: “While he was definitely scatological in his letter writing, he was much more serious and calm in his work and his relationships. The other thing is that audiences might be interested in what it’s like to be surrounded by genius, as music allows us, but unlike Antonio Salieri who was portrayed in the movie “Amadeus” as an enemy jealous capable (perhaps) of murder. … Very dramatic and engaging, but not historically grounded. I love the movie and I love the drama, but I also think there’s a place to tell a human story that could be a little closer to what we think happened.

Question: What’s new in your “Live From Florence” film series and when do you plan to return to live performances in the US?

A: “We are expanding with audiences and are interested in word of mouth. Slowly the series is making a living and theaters continue to share with their audiences. Theaters have a big challenge this year as this strange virus transforms and challenges theater makers. I also hope to be back in a live theater at some point when the going is safe, but at the moment it’s hard to know, and of course the live performance requires stability for both the public and artists, we must therefore hope for it and ensure its possibility. “

“Mozart and Figaro in Vienna”

Diffusion: 5 p.m. Sunday January 9

Tickets: $ 55

In line: hersheyfelder.net

Kragen written in theater for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email him at pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com.


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