The 2017-18 season has been one to remember. THEATREWORKS moved to a new, state of the art home in the Ent Center, sure to be Colorado Springs’ premiere destination for theatre-lovers for many years to come. We opened the building with a breathtaking gala and the new theater with a sold-out run of Oklahoma! What better way to cap it all off than with Peter Shaffer’s classic Amadeus?
Set in late 18 th-century Vienna, the play tells the story of jealousy, rivalry, and passion from the perspective of Antonio Salieri, who reflects back on a poisonous rivalry with Mozart. The aging court composer recalls his eclipse by the ambitious newcomer, whose seemingly effortless genius is both an object of amazement and bitter envy. Not to worry—Shaffer’s expert balance of drama and levity make for an evening with plenty of light to offset the dark.
The apocryphal legend of Salieri and Mozart’s feud, which gained popularity shortly after Mozart’s death, has inspired writers and artists throughout history. Alexander Pushkin, the revered Russian poet, playwright, and novelist considered by many to be the founder of modern Russian literature, was the first to explore the rumor of the competition’s deadly turn. In 1831, Pushkin published a short verse drama, Mozart and Salieri, one of his four “little tragedies:” short dramas in verse now placed among the masterpieces of Russian literature. In 1898, the great Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov adapted Pushkin’s story into a one-act opera by the same name, whose score incorporated famous melodies from works such as Mozart's Requiem and Don Giovanni.
Nearly a century later, the ever-versatile Peter Shaffer noted the dramatic potential of the famous scandal. Shaffer was, of course, intrigued by the legend that inspired Pushkin and Korsakov before him, as well as by Mozart’s talent, which he regarded as nearly untouchable. But he was also struck by the contrast between the sophisticated formality of Mozart’s music and the irreverence of his letters to friends and family (a far cry from the 19th-century notion of Mozart as a “porcelain figure at a porcelain piano”).
In an interview published by The Guardian in 2013, Shaffer expanded on how Mozart’s personality inspired his character in Amadeus: “I came up with the idea for this play after reading a lot about Mozart. I was struck by the contrast between the sublimity of his music and the vulgar buffoonery of his letters. I am often criticized for portraying him as an imbecile, but I was actually conveying his childlike side: his letters read like something written by an eight-year- old. At breakfast he'd be writing this puerile, foul-mouthed stuff to his cousin; by evening, he'd be completing a masterpiece while chatting to his wife.”
Though much of Shaffer’s initial inspiration stemmed from these letters, an obsession with his music, and the rumor of his demise by foul play, Shaffer was equally intrigued with Salieri as a representation of inner strife, self-loathing, and existential crisis: a figure tormented by the divine injustice of his unrewarded toil. This complexity is so central to the play that it was originally titled “Salieri.”
In Mozart’s character, we see a dichotomy of inanity and artistry. In Salieri, we see the struggle and ultimate failure to reconcile mediocrity in the face of free-running genius. By journeying into the dying man’s memory, we experience his anguish at being overshadowed by another’s brilliance. We also see the paradoxical nature of a love for what one destroys. Peter Hall, who directed the premier run of Amadeus in 1979 and its revival in 1998, describes Salieri’s turmoil: “By blocking his advancement in court in a thousand different covert ways, [Salieri] makes it impossible for Mozart to live. And by destroying him, he destroys himself, and the genius that the musician in him worships.”
Of course, the infamous confrontation between Salieri and Mozart is inarguably one of the most memorable parts of the play. Its climactic gravity had plagued Shaffer, who subjected the scene to a half-dozen revisions: indeed, he lamented that it was “hard to get right.” Surely, he was successful in the endeavor to humanize Salieri. One begins to feel he exists in all of us. One also begins to wonder, as Shaffer did: who was poisoning who?
The play’s thrilling storyline and dynamic characters will certainly captivate. The costume and sound design of our production are also not to be missed. The harpsichord, though exquisite, is “played” with sound cues; the instrument itself is not functional. Dialogue merges seamlessly with music, each overlaying and complementing the other during transitions from speech to song.
We recently sat down with Joseph Concha, who gave us a peek into the sound design process: “Working on any design requires both planning and flexibility. I typically combine high and low frequency sound ‘parts’ as the rehearsals become a full production. I usually grab a mix of thematic elements (in this case, string tremolos, piano sounding boards, and long woodwind tones) and classic design effects (low frequency synthetic drones, bending/warping metal, and the always useful thunder/lightning crack!) that later all become one big impact moment or one underlying effect.”
Stephanie Bradley, costume designer and THEATREWORKS costume shop manager, provided some insight on costuming for a historical setting. For Bradley, period costumes are a passion: specifically, her interest lies in creating over-the- top pieces full of rich, sumptuous details of the 18th century. Last year, she travelled to the Fashion Museum in Bath, England, for design inspiration, and includes historical paintings and portraits in her research. As you experience Shaffer’s acclaimed work, don’t forget to look closely: it’s all accurate to the period, down to the shoe buckles.
Amadeus is one of those rare works that has it all: a triumph of theatrical energy, music, and passion. We are truly excited to join you in the new Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater for what will be a stunning conclusion to a most extraordinary season. Tickets are available here.