A Wicked Welcome to Susan Larson!

I was delighted to meet Susan in December when she, Hank Phillippi Ryan and I did a talkback together after a production of Murder on the Orient Express at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. I’d known of Susan before that. But I’ll let her explain about her path to writing her debut mystery, The Murder of Figaro.

Susan Larson as Cherubino in Peter Sellars’s PBS “The Marriage of Figaro”

I used to be an opera diva. I sang in lots of Mozart operas. That’s my street cred.

Having lost my nice soprano voice, and having had the requisite nervous breakdown about it, I became a music writer for the Boston Globe and other publications. When I decided to try and write a murder mystery, I chose the opera world as my setting, and my beloved W.A. Mozart as my detective. The result is The Murder of Figaro.

The real Mozart was not who we think he was. He was classically educated, a true Enlightenment humanist. He was a Freemason, politically savvy and intensely curious about the world. Having read his letters I can tell you that he was also a punster, a practical joker, a lover of riddles and puzzles; the perfect sleuth for my mystery! Except he didn’t want the gig; he was busy putting his opera “The Marriage of Figaro” onto the stage at the Court Theater. It took a certain amount of arm-twisting, plus an Imperial decree, to make him do it.  

I pasted a murder mystery on top of Mozart’s rehearsal schedule: With a little cheating, it fit fairly well: stagings, detecting, coachings, detecting, piano run, coffee & snacks, piano dress, more coffee, more detecting; orchestra dress, the Big Reveals. The mystery plot loosely follows the plot of the opera, with bits from other Mozart operas and some content from Thomas Jefferson tossed in as needed.

Mrs. Mozart, AKA Constanze, turned out to be a better Sherlock than her husband. She is often written off as a bimbo (q.v. “Amadeus”), so I have written her back on as the clever, musical and loving woman that she really was. Mozart also gets some help from the poet and scalawag Lorenzo Da Ponte (who wrote “The Marriage” libretto, and who, in “The Murder,” spends most of his time in jail). I have read his memoirs; though he never spent time in jail, he could have.

In Da Ponte’s honor, I wrote the mystery as a libretto, i.e., It’s almost all dialogue, with a few stage directions and scene settings. There are three zippy overtures, a handy cast list and a brief program note, all to settle you into your seat at the theatre in Vienna,1786.

Then, the action begins! Opera, with all its color and craziness: the bitchy sopranos, preening tenors, and bombastic baritones! The scheming rivals, the uptight administrators, pit players, spies, gossips, patrons, fangirls, stage moms, and even the Emperor himself!  All of them hiding dark secrets! Plus, the corpse!

Almost all my characters are based on the real historical people I researched and then contorted them into caricatures. I made them say and do rather awful things. In reality they were mostly good hard-working theater folk, trying their best. I ask their forgiveness.

If you have never heard the opera The Marriage of Figaro, and you want to treat yourself, I can recommend the one that I am performing in, the Peter Sellars/Craig Smith CDs on London Records.

Question: Do historical mysteries make good reading if the reader is not up on the history? I’d really, really like to know.  

About The Murder of Figaro:

Vienna, April 1786. “The Marriage of Figaro,” a new comic opera by Amadé Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, has just begun its first onstage rehearsal when a corpse is discovered in the wings: it’s the universally-loathed Imperial Censor who was trying to kill the show. Despite a verdict of suicide, Da Ponte is arrested, and singers accuse each other of murder. In a desperate scramble to save “Figaro,” Da Ponte, and their very lives, Mozart and his clever wife Constanze untangle a web of lies, scandal, sex and international intrigue. Can they solve this deadly mystery? Will “Figaro” play in Vienna?

The Murder of Figaro is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through your preferred Epub platform.

About Susan:

Susan Larson has been an opera star, an actress, a music teacher, a journalist, a novelist, and an easel painter. She has written one previous novel, “Sam (a pastoral),” a story about a problem kid growing up with the help and love of a very special horse. Her website is here.

28 Thoughts

  1. Amazing. What better setting for a murder mystery than an opera. All that drama, those personalities. Well done and congratulations on the debut.

    A compelling story is what draws me into a book, historical or otherwise. Learning the history of the setting through the book is a lagniappe.

    1. Thanks, Kait! I do love the 18th century, because there was so much going on! Revolution in the air! People getting ideas, about science, law, medicine, everything. The opera’s story is about the triumph or ordinary people over the aristocracy, but also about understanding human nature and forgiving each other’s foibles. The book is about that, too. A ‘soft’ revolution.

  2. What a fascinating setting – I’m sure there was plenty of backstage intrigue to keep a story going!

    I like to have a little familiarity with a historical period, but I enjoy learning things as I read, too.

    1. Thanks, Liz. A few years back, when I was wrestling with this book, I learned that Beaumarchais, who wrote the revolutionary play “The Marriage of Figaro,” later set to music by Mozart, was also smuggling military equipment to the Continental Army in America. How wild is that? The Beaumarchais play contains a long speech about the arrogance of the nobility, who were noble, after all, by ‘the mere accident of being born.’ Mozart, wisely, took this combustible rant out. But I put it back in, and look at the trouble it caused!

    2. Backstage Intrigue there is, to be sure. And the period, omg, the Age of Revolution, both social and Industrial! America has just wound up its revolution, and France is gearing up for its own. Free-thinking and Freemasonry challenge the old feudal ideas. Science, law, medicine, political systems, economics, everything in western society is shifting! Operas like “The Marriage of Figaro,” featuring ordinary people as protagonists, take the stage. But there is still and always will be, backstage intrigues, scandals and gossip. That at least will never change.

  3. Welcome to the blog, Susan – and what a fun premise for your book! I’ve had readers tell me how much history they learned by reading my late 1880s series, so I’ll answer the question with a Yes.

    1. Thanks, Edith. Mozart was a monarchist, and he was patronized by the nobility, which he didn’t mind. But he considered himself the equal of any man (and woman) and some people didn’t like his attitude. A musician, no matter how great, belonged to the servant class. “The Marriage of Figaro” is all about the servant class rising up and insisting on justice. It didn’t actually go over that well in Vienna, at least among the titled aristocracy. In “The Murder of Figaro,” Mozart talks some smack to his betters, but he is very aware of who has power over whom, and adjusts accordingly. But he puts his life and livelihood at risk to rescue a victimized performer, at least as I write it. He was a very charitable and caring little person, and I love him.

  4. This sounded so intriguing that I immediately bought it from Kobo. Can’t wait to start reading!

    I enjoy opera, but only in a peripheral way. Now I get the chance for a deep dive into the opera world. I like well-researched historical novels, even though my knowledge of history is patchy, specifically because it helps me learn! It’s helpful when the author provides a bit at the end that says where the author took some license with the known hustory.

    1. Thanks, Avis. A lot of the things in my book happened, but they are sandwiched between things that did not, in all likelihood, happen. Nobody knows what went down during production week for “The Marriage of Figaro.” No letters written, no mentions in other people’s diaries, nothing. I had a field day filling up that open space! Feudal nobles angrily defending their ancient rights, nervous administrators hoping the opera’s racy politics would not cause riots, lower-class men struggling to defend their women from the predations of the privileged élites, and opera singers, god bless ’em, working out their psychosexual situations in full view of almost everybody. And the Emperor, who styled himself as a benevolent dictator, earnestly trying to bring Enlightenment ideas to his backward domain. And Mozart. I love these people.

  5. Congratulation on what sounds like a totally amazing book!

    I, personally, love historical mysteries. They give us both a glimpse of another time frame but also how limited the resources were in solving them.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

    1. Thank you, Kay. Whee, no forensic science! Except for two rather primitive tries: one by a doctor’s son who had seen some things, and who made a wild guess at the murderer’s weapon and M.O., and the other by Mozart himself, who jumps into a common pit grave to examine…well, you’ll see. The police worked with witnesses and denunciations, and orders from on high, naturally. Torture was still used to extract confessions, and cruel and unusual punishments were trotted out pretty often. All pretty medieval. Spies and snitches worked the streets and the courts, selling information and disinformation. The opera company in my book has a snitch who tattles to the C.O.O.’s office and the cops, depending. So justice and truth are murky concepts at best in 1786. And some truths actually never get out at all. As in life, I believe.

    1. Thanks. I love the 18th century. The first time when, for good or ill, more people worked in industry than on the land. A time of new ideas in politics, economics, music, art, law, fashion, everything. So much fresh bold thinking, and also a lot of pain and hardship as revolutions destroyed the old ways. Americans are lucky in that after their Revolution there was little or no Terror, as there was in France. Of course my Native American friends have a different take on that…but in my book Mozart is optimistic about the future, and welcomes all the changes the Enlightenment is bringing!

  6. Sounds very creative and a lot of fun.

    Yes, historical mysteries can be good even when the reader doesn’t know that much about the period if the author does a good job of explaining things as they are slipped into the plot. An afterwards can help separate fact from fiction.

    1. We shall see how it all plays out. Will people know that Emperor Joseph II’s sister is Marie Antoinette? Cuz, like, I did not explain that…

  7. Welcome to the Wickeds, Susan. I am so impressed by your research and your cleverness about weaving this plot. I need to get my hands on this book immediately!

    1. Thank you, Barbara. It took a while. It was fun living in the 18th century. Everybody was so optimistic about the Enlightenment and the perfectibility of humankind. Alas, it did not necessarily turn out as they hoped it would…

  8. Welcome to the Wickeds, Susan! What a fun concept for a mystery! I loved hearing about your journey and also about the way you constructed this mystery! I hope that readers enjoy historical mysteries as much for what they learn as for the mystery!

    1. Thanks, glad to be among you. I love all my characters, and I love the actual people from whom they are derived. Mozart especially, because he taught me so much about singing, and about music. Da Ponte too, although he was a scamp…he ended up as an American citizen, and was the founder of the Italian Department at Columbia University. What a guy!

  9. I have been saying that there needs to be an opera centric mystery series, so I’m trilled to have found you. My undergraduate degree is theatre and I studied opera, with some Mozart in my repertoire. That was a good many years ago-now I run an opera group with forensic patients at a psychiatric center.

    I love historical mysteries too and I think they make great reading, even if one doesn’t know a lot about it. I’m a history nerd, and I especially love reading about periods of history that I’m interested and know something about-I always want to learn more! I also enjoy reading about subjects I’m unfamiliar with as well.

    1. Thank you so much. Mozart was my spirit guide. I sang all of his works that I could physically sing (some of them are too much for me, like Konstanze or Vitellia or Elektra) and learned heaps. Reading his letters when I was in high school, I discovered he was a kindred spirit. He was goofy, naughty, scatalogical and deeply serious by times.

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