Matthew Reddin

The Man Who Killed Mozart

The World's Stage Theater revives Amadeus, and its poisonous feud between Salieri and Mozart.

By - Mar 12th, 2014 11:24 am
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ProjectTitleSplashAntonio Salieri is one of classical music’s footnotes. A mainstay of the Habsburg Emperor’s court in Vienna in the late 18th and early 19th century, he wrote a variety of Italian-language operas that would influence later composers but were rarely performed after his death in 1825. The long obscure composer finally reemerged into the public eye 150 years later, although it’s likely Salieri wouldn’t have been thrilled with the reason for his new-found fame.

Salieri, you see, became the villain in Amadeus, a play by British writer Peter Shaffer that portrays a fictionalized relationship between Salieri and Mozart, the wunderkind who took Vienna by storm in the 1780s but would ultimately die early and in near-financial ruin by 1791. Amadeus became a hit for Shaffer in the ‘80s and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, but it too has faded from the public eye in Milwaukee, not seen since the Rep performed it shortly after its debut. But The World’s Stage Theater Company changes that this week, bringing Salieri and Mozart back to life within the ornate Villa Terrace Decorative Art Museum.

Shaffer’s work plays fast and loose with the truth by painting Salieri as a bitter rival of Mozart’s (in reality, the two did clash upon Mozart’s arrival in Vienna, but were at least cordial by the end of his life). That allows him to turn the story into a portrait of obsession, with Salieri a devout man who is shattered by the discovery of the irreverent prodigy, and decides to destroy Mozart to get revenge on the deity that never rewarded him for his years of work and suffering. It’s here that the play begins, as an aged Salieri talks of sabotaging Mozart’s chances with the court and blackmailing his wife Constanze.

Salieri, in Shaffer’s vision, was thunderstruck to encounter his rival’s genius, says Mack Heath, the actor playing Salieri in World’s Stage’s production. “Salieri was good and perfectly happy to be mediocre. … Until the supreme person showed up, he just didn’t realize it.”

It’s a premise that provokes questions of what makes art great, and who gets to decide this – questions director Catie O’Donnell has been exploring with her cast during rehearsals. “As artists, I think that’s something we struggle with on a daily basis,” O’Donnell says. Not only what make art good or great, “but how can I be better? How can I be the greatest? Or, is it worth it to be the greatest?”

But because Amadeus is such a multi-layered play, she adds, there’s much, much more to dig into – issues of class as Mozart and Constanze rise and fall, the idea of government-sponsored art (the only reason legendary works like Mozart’s exist in the first place) and Salieri’s core belief that the religious should be rewarded for their faith with fame or creative inspiration in life.

Jared McDaris, playing Mozart, adds another: the unrequited desire for approval. “Everyone, especially these two [Salieri and Mozart], wants approval from the only people who won’t give them it,” he says – Salieri seeks the approval of his Deity, Mozart seeks the approval of the Emperor and his court. “And the approval they do get seems worthless to them,” McDaris adds. “That is a very human thing.”

Lots of layers, and all of them adding up to what O’Donnell says she and World’s Stage artistic director Gretchen Makhorn (playing Constanze) consider to be a perfect play for the spring. The two came up with Amadeus during discussions about a follow-up to O’Donnell’s work with the company on The Unseen in 2012, while looking for a play they both wanted to do that would also make great use of the opulent setting at Villa Terrace. She says Amadeus’s mix of dark obsession, beautiful music, and bright palette of color and costume made it a perfect choice.

The play’s also got a level of ambiguity she says appealed to her long before signing on to direct. Mozart isn’t the bad person Salieri believes him to be, but he is a frivolous spendthrift. And Salieri’s not a cartoonish villain, but a man who simply thinks he has the right to do what he wants – the most realistic of impulses. “We as humans do that so often,” says O’Donnell. “We’re being bad, but we can justify it. So it’s okay.”

So is Salieri just like you and me? That may be the ultimate question raised by the play.

The World’s Stage Theater Company will stage Amadeus at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum from March 13 to 23, with performances at 7:30 p.m. all nights except Sundays, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $25, $22 for seniors and $18 for students, with a $15 opening night discount, and can be ordered online.

Hyrdrogen JukeboxPREVIEW: Hydrogen Jukebox at Skylight Music Theatre

I’ve got no real reason to be as excited as I am about Hydrogen Jukebox, the Skylight’s next offering at the Cabot Theatre. My affection for its composer, Philip Glass, is more recent and undeveloped than I’d like to admit; my knowledge of its lyricist, Allen Ginsberg, is more shallow and academic than I’d like to say. But there’s something inherently captivating about this hybrid work by two of America’s most out-of-the-box artists, the first an avant-garde musician who helped reshape Western composition and the second a Beat poet who helped fuel the counterculture movement.

Hydrogen Jukebox, developed after a chance encounter between the two in a New York bookshop, blends Glass’ score for six voices with lyrics pulled from Ginsberg’s poems, including the infamous “Howl,” to create a portrait of the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s that explores the social issues of the era, including the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, and environmental issues. It’s something new for the Skylight (literally – the company has never before performed a Glass opera), and something Milwaukee shouldn’t miss.

Hydrogen Jukebox will run March 14 to 30 at the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $22.50 to $65.50, and can be ordered at (414) 291-7800 or the Skylight’s online box office.

Sunset-LimitedPREVIEW: The Sunset Limited at Uprooted Theatre

This Cormac McCarthy play was meant to be the next fully staged production for Uprooted in Milwaukee this year, after their short play festival “Stretch Marks” and a traveling production of Marti Gobel’s one-woman show Truth, but the company announced earlier this week that actor Lee Palmer wouldn’t be able to perform in The Sunset Limited due to unexpected health issues. Rather than cancel the run, though, director Marti Gobel will be stepping into Palmer’s role opposite Jim Pickering, turning the show into a hybrid stage reading of McCarthy’s script, which tells the story of two nameless characters called “Black” and “White” who discuss human suffering, the existence of God and the value of life. Having to swap out an actor right before opening night is a tough situation, but Gobel’s surely up to the task and the play sounds worth the extra effort. Uprooted also has plans in place to remount the show at a later point, so consider this run just a taste until Palmer’s back in action.

The Sunset Limited will be performed March 12, 13, 14 and 20 at Next Act Theatre, with all performances at 7 p.m. and including a subsequent talkback. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online.


Milwaukee Rep: The Whipping Man, Stiemke Studio, through March 16

First Stage: Anatole, Todd Wehr Theatre, through March 16

In Tandem: Chesapeake, through March 16


Theatrical Tendencies: The Temperamentals, through March 22

Milwaukee Rep: An Iliad, Quadracci Powerhouse, through March 23; Ain’t Misbehavin’ (NEW!), Stackner Cabaret, through May 18

Sunset Playhouse: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (NEW!), through April 6

Fireside: Mary Poppins, through April 20

0 thoughts on “Theater: The Man Who Killed Mozart”

  1. Anonymous says:

    what does it tell us about business success when one of the greatest composers of all time died poor- maybe that you and are are more valuable than any wolf of wall street even if we are poor too!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t know about Antonio Salieri, so thanks so much for the review!

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