Hershey Felder’s latest musical film to examine little-known librettist’s relationship with Mozart

Hershey Felder, center, directs a scene for "Mozart and Figaro in Vienna"
Hershey Felder, center, directs a scene for “Mozart and Figaro in Vienna,” which was filmed in Florence, Italy, due to COVID lockdowns.
(Hershey Felder)

‘Mozart and Figaro in Vienna’ will air Jan. 9, with proceeds benefiting San Diego Repertory Theatre


Most opera lovers and classical music fans are familiar with the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his operas. But few know the colorful life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, who served as the librettist on three of the composer’s best-known operas, “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and Cosi fan tutte.”

Da Ponte’s unusual life — and his perspective of working side by side with the Austrian composer — is the subject of “Mozart and Figaro in Vienna.” It’s the latest musical film written and directed by and starring playwright-pianist Hershey Felder. Streaming at 5 p.m. Jan. 9, the film is being co-presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre and nearly two dozen other U.S. theaters. Felder lives and works in Florence, Italy, and all of the scenes in the movie were filmed in the Tuscan city as part of his “Live from Florence” film series.

Hershey Felder shooting a scene for the new musical film "Mozart and Figaro in Vienna."
Hershey Felder, seen here as librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte in his final years, shooting a scene for the new musical film “Mozart and Figaro in Vienna.”
(Hershey Felder)

Da Ponte was born a Jew but his family secretly changed their name and converted to Catholicism. During his long career, he served as a priest, was convicted of running a brothel in Venice and banished, went bankrupt and fled to the U.S., where he founded the first American opera house in New York.

The film will feature an international cast of opera singers, including American baritones Nathan Gunn and Timothy Renner and Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina as well as members of the Italian orchestra Maggio Musicale Orchestra. Felder plays Da Ponte, both as a young musician in the Viennese court, and in his final years in New York, where he became a U.S. citizen and died in 1838. Felder answered a few questions about his latest project via email last week.

Q: Where did you get the idea for this piece and its focus on Da Ponte?

A: “I have always been fascinated by Da Ponte. He did work with Mozart, arguably giving Mozart the material to become eternal in the world of opera. I loved how Da Ponte spoke about Mozart, and I am quite moved about how we refer to ‘Mozart’s operas’ but not Mozart and Da Ponte’s operas. Da Ponte was also a true character, and one could do many episodes on his life. The story is about being in the presence of genius, and contributing to that genius, and perhaps not being acknowledged for having done so.”

Q: Where did you film “Mozart and Figaro in Vienna”?

A: “Sadly, Vienna was in complete lockdown, so we were able to film in the wonderful Palazzo Gianfigliazzi Bonaparte in the center of Florence, which has exactly the interior that a late 18th century Viennese palace, the Emperor’s palace, would have. The palace itself is historic and the décor dates from exactly the period that Mozart would have visited and played. It is a beautiful palace that still has the décor, now fully restored to its original glory.”

Q: What would most theatergoers be surprised to learn about Mozart that only composers and pianists like yourself would know?

A: “While he was definitely scatological in his letter writing, he was much more serious and quiet in his work and relationships. The other thing is that audiences might be interested in what it is like to be around genius, as the music allows us to be, but unlike Antonio Salieri who was portrayed in the film “Amadeus” as a jealous enemy capable (possibly) of murder … very dramatic and engaging, but not historically founded. I love the film, and enjoy the drama, but I also think there is a place to tell a human story that might be a little closer to what we think happened.”

Q: What’s new with your “Live From Florence” film series and when are you planning to return to live performances in the U.S. again?

A: “We are expanding with audiences, and interested in seeing the word of mouth. Slowly the series is garnering a life of its own and theaters do continue to share with their audiences. Theaters have a great challenge this year as this strange virus morphs and challenges theater makers. I hope to also be back in a theater live at some point, when things are safe, but right now it is hard to know, and of course live performance requires stability for both audiences and artists, so we must hope for that and ensure its possibility.”

“Mozart and Figaro in Vienna”

Streaming: 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 9

Tickets: $55

Online: hersheyfelder.net

Kragen writes about theater for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email her at pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com.