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.
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?
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.