Painters, poets, sculptors and even composers from the past live on through their work. Musicians who lived before the dawn of recording studios are simply out of luck.
With Vienna Nocturne, Canadian author Vivien Shotwell imagines the voice of a famous opera singer from the 1700s. Anna Storace dazzled Mozart-era audiences with her magical voice. At the tender age of 11, she debuted on the English stage, and soon after moved with her family to Italy to sing.
Shotwell creates a story from the few facts known about Anna Storace’s personal life. Still a teenager, she was reported to be just as fine an actor as singer, and quickly moved from minor to major operatic roles. Soon Emperor Joseph II (Marie Antoinette’s brother) invited Storace to move to Vienna to become a part of his new opera company.
In the city of music, Storace met Mozart. The role of Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was written for her. Even though many musicologists have dismissed rumours that Storace and Mozart had an affair, Shotwell decides to revive the idea. Whether or not it’s true, the romance makes for engaging storytelling.
Storace’s fame continues to build until one evening, during the debut of an opera written by her brother, she loses her voice. Storace soars up a scale, and then chokes, unable to gasp her way through the rest of the song. The sudden vocal collapse is historical fact. In real life, Storace languished, not speaking for months, and never truly regained her vocal power. She eventually left Vienna to return to her native England.
Vienna Nocturne has many ambitious undertakings – inhabiting a bygone era, imagining dialogue for historical greats, and attempting to describe such famous music and alluring voices. Shotwell does well with the challenge. Ironically, the easier part of storytelling – reordering the plot for the most dramatic effect – could have made this linear tale even stronger. With Storace’s departure from Vienna and the death of Mozart (no spoiler alert necessary), the book doesn’t finish as well as it started. That’s not to say Vienna Nocturne isn’t worth reading. It’s a wonderful glimpse into life on the stage in the 1700s.
Shotwell is perhaps the perfect person to write about music, as she has studied both disciplines. A mezzo-soprano, classically trained at the Yale School of Music, the world can undoubtedly expect more musical and literary performances from her.
Heather Allen is an avid book reader and reviewer living in Penticton.