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The Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón, as artistic director of Salzburg’s Mozart Week until 2023, is well placed to write about the characters and themes in his third novel, written in his native Spanish and then translated into German for publication.

In June, Villazón told the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung that he started to write a letter to Mozart while performing in Salzburg in 2015, after relishing the composer’s letters and recording his music (Deutsche Grammophon). Reading Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March, about paternal-filial conflict, convinced Villazón to transform his letter into a fictional account of a young Mexican, Vian Maurer, whose father rejects his dream to become an operatic tenor. The discouraging elder claims: ‘An opera singer is not something you decide to become. Either you have the talent for it or you don’t.’

Maurer receives varying advice from vocal coaches about this topic but persists in his hopes: ‘I wanted to sing the deaths of Werther, Edgardo, Lenski and Cavaradossi; I wanted my voice to rise with the triumphs of the Nemorinos and Almavivas.’ He travels to Salzburg, where he is engaged as a supernumerary in a production of Don Giovanni. In the street he leaps to avoid some horse manure and overturns a bicycle ridden by the mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Unruffled, she amenably uses the informal form of address to inquire in Italian if he is uninjured, ‘E tu, stai bene?

Similarly sunny-tempered is Daniel Barenboim, who also pops up unexpectedly. Maurer confesses that as a boy, he fell asleep during a Salzburg Tristan und Isolde led by Barenboim, after having been gripped by the legendary Tristan recording by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Barenboim counters with his own boyhood tale of sleeping at the opera, during a Salzburg Magic Flute performance conducted by Karl Böhm. When Böhm was informed about this decades later, Barenboim adds, ‘He was not amused’.

The author himself makes an Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo appearance in the guise of an autographed caricature displayed in a shop window of ‘Rolando Villazón above his elfin signature’. If self- indulgent in name-dropping of singers and sometimes pretentious literary allusions, this wistfully elfin novel about a frustrated career should please opera lovers and deserves an English translation.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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