Supreme Synergy on Stage

‘Communiversity’ production of Amadeus plays to sold-out houses

Amadeus at the Clarence Brown Theatre, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Aaron.

Amadeus at the Clarence Brown Theatre, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Aaron.

Some people might not consider the heart of East Tennessee a cultural center for theater, symphonic music, and opera; but this fall, university and community arts organizations in Knoxville combined their resources to offer a world-class production of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus.

The idea for a collaboration began to germinate in spring 2009 when the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was planning how to celebrate its upcoming 75th anniversary and honor the arts in the Knoxville community. KSO’s maestro Lucas Richman and executive director Rachel Ford approached the Clarence Brown Theatre’s artistic producing director and head of UT Knoxville’s Department of Theatre Calvin MacLean and Clarence Brown Theatre’s managing director Tom Cervone to talk about a collaboration of these two local arts organizations. It didn’t take long to choose Amadeus, which seemed to be the perfect project in which an orchestra and a dramatic production could share the stage

“We wanted to do something theatrical that was about music; something that truly combined theater and music,” says Richman. “By choosing Amadeus we were able to really highlight the creative process by telling the story of the great composer Mozart in a play with a full set, a cast of twenty-two actors, twelve singers, and a thirty-eight–piece orchestra on the Clarence Brown Theatre stage.”

Shaffer’s award-winning play is told from the point of view of the manipulative and sometimes malevolent character of the 18th-century Viennese court composer Salieri, who is forced to confront the limitations of his own musical talent when he meets the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri wages his own private war with God, who in his mind has betrayed him by giving the vulgar, insolent Mozart the musical talent that Salieri, a virtuous and pious man, feels he deserves.

Salieri tries his best throughout the play to manipulate and undermine Mozart, trying to make sure that it is the name of Antonio Salieri, not Wolfgang Mozart’s, that is remembered as a great composer. Yet the audience knows his efforts will fail: Salieri’s music has been virtually forgotten, while the music of Mozart is still performed, listened to, and loved around the world every day.

Although based on a number of facts and real circumstances, the story is a work of fiction. Shaffer’s masterful storytelling, however, plausibly weaves history and human nature together, and his script transcends its 18th-century setting to confront contemporary audiences with eternal moral truths.

“For me, the story is about something quite commonplace: that no matter how good we might feel about what we do, how satisfied or unsatisfied we may feel about our abilities, how much the world values our contribution and talent, there is always somebody who does it better,” MacLean says. “For creative artists, this realization comes upon us almost daily, and it can become terrible. It can destroy talent, take over lives, and displace our conception of who we are. Amadeus takes this condition and dramatizes it vividly, operatically, and beautifully.”

Amadeus at the Clarence Brown Theatre, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Aaron.

Amadeus at the Clarence Brown Theatre, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Aaron.

Because the music of both composers is essential to the underlying structure of the story, the play is usually performed with recorded music of both Mozart and Salieri. However, MacLean and Richman envisioned a live theatrical and musical experience that would integrate the music of both composers seamlessly into Shaffer’s story. Not only would the actors be on stage, but the orchestra and opera singers would be, as well, performing the music as part of the storytelling.

A lot of hard work and long hours went into making the play a high-level professional artistic production. Richman and MacLean started 9 months before rehearsals began, going through the script and researching and selecting music. The obsolescence of Salieri’s music necessitated some creative problem-solving, however. One of Salieri’s arias had to be specially ordered from Vienna, and for Salieri compositions that are no longer in print, Richman listened to recordings of the pieces and transcribed the notes onto paper.

As the collaboration continued, more players joined the mix. Professionals from around the country came to work alongside UT theater students and the professional designers and actors of the Clarence Brown Theatre Company who are members of the Department of Theatre faculty. UTK’s School of Music inevitably became part of the collaboration, as a number of KSO performers are also faculty members there. Music graduate and undergraduate students from the UT Opera Theatre joined professional singers from the community to form the operatic choir for the play.

Roger Stephens, director of the School of Music credits the long-going relationship between the School of Music and the community for laying the foundation for his unit’s participation in this cultural and educational partnership. “The creative arts intrinsically unite the Knoxville community perhaps more than any other aspect of the educational enterprise, making a successful town-gown relationship like this possible.”

James Fellenbaum, professor in the School of Music and conductor of the UT Symphony, agrees and notes, “We are fortunate to have such outstanding professional musicians as part of the School of Music faculty and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. We also take pride in the School of Music’s great vocal department that attracted outstanding, talented singers who could perform the difficult music for this production.”

Besides the normal challenges that come with a production of this size, MacLean, who was the director of the production, faced the unique challenge of harmonizing three very different performance idioms into one theatrical piece. “Orchestral, operatic, and theatrical performance are approached quite differently in methods of rehearsal, the way they are presented to an audience, and the expectations the audience has of the experience,” says MacLean. “The range of sound and the scale of performance required are all different, as well.”

“Much of my time as a director was spent not merely inserting concert and operatic performances into the play but also harmonizing the scale—opening up the theatricality without overwhelming the small, human story of the authors of this grand music,” MacLean says.

Yet the challenges were overcome, and the months of hard work involved paid off when the show’s September 8–19 run played to sold-out houses, standing ovations, and rave reviews, in both the Knoxville News Sentinel and Metro Pulse. When the audience was able to see and hear the symphony play the actual notes that the character Mozart says he hears in his head, the dramatic impact of the story was greatly heightened.

Liza Zenni, director of the Arts and Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville, praised Amadeus for being a rare and beautiful representation of what can be achieved when a true community of artists is nurtured.

“The ambition of many cities, not just in America but around the world, is to attract the kind of mature artists across disciplines who are not predictably focused on their singular visions. Such artists seek to share and weave together through collaboration with other artists an entirely new audience experience,” Zenni says.

“Certainly, the joint production of Amadeus achieved many economies of scale and facilitated the promotion of live symphonic music to theater aficionados and vice versa,” she adds. “In my view, however, the most remarkable accomplishment of this collaboration was that it resulted in an experience for the audience that was so lovely, polished, and fresh.”

Richman says he considers every symphonic concert to be a theatrical production. “Creating music on stage is a way of telling stories, so I personally find it very natural to combine other art forms into symphonic presentations. I am always happy and eager to work with artists outside the realm of the normal symphonic concerts, and this production of Amadeus was a wonderful way to do that. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event and a unique opportunity for our audiences.”

MacLean agrees that the play was extraordinary in every way: “I cannot imagine a more supportive place for such a collaboration than Knoxville. The combination of talent, commitment, and community pride made the experience one of the richest in my career,” MacLean says.

For years, Knoxville has taken pride in hosting record numbers of spirited sports fans who fill Neyland Stadium for UT’s home football games. Now Knoxville has a new source of pride with another ticket. The critical acclaim and box office success of the ‘communiversity’ production of Amadeus suggests Knoxville is becoming an attraction for cultural and artistic enthusiasts as well.

—Kim Midkiff