On Friday night, San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellows will be presenting a premiere of a new singspiel entitled Setting the Record Straight: Mozart and Salieri Redux, exploring the relationship between these two musicians made most famous by the movie Amadeus. The singspiel is an attempt to rehabilitate the poisonous reputation of Mozart's notorious rival, Antonio Salieri.
In the San Francisco audience will be Toronto's Ian Kyer, recently retired as a partner from Fasken Martineau, one of Canada's most prestigious law firms, where he was routinely named one of Canada's top 500 lawyers, head of Fasken Martineau's Technology and Intellectual Property Group. Kyer will be watching Setting the Record Straight for a special reason.
He wrote it.
And that's because for the past 14 years, Kyer has been on a lonely, one-man crusade to tell the world the truth about Salieri, or the truth as he sees it. The rest of us who saw 1984's Amadeus were prepared to accept at face value playwright Peter Shaffer and director Milos Forman's portrait of Salieri as a mediocrity who despised Mozart's God-given talent, and who thus wreaked revenge on the innocent genius. Not Kyer.
Soon after seeing the director's cut of the movie, Kyer, intrigued, came across an obscure book of essays written about Salieri by Alexander Thayer, the 19th-century American who wrote the definitive biography of Beethoven. The essays told a completely different Salieri story than the one portrayed in the movie. Thayer had written about Salieri because Salieri had been a teacher of Beethoven's, as he had been of Schubert, Liszt, Hummel, Czerny, Moscheles and many others. Far from being a mediocrity, Salieri was one of the most respected composers of his time – respected by even Mozart himself. And if he couldn't bear complete comparison with Mozart's eternal perfection, that's been true of just about every other composer who's ever lived. None of them, however, was consequently as despised as poor Antonio.
Ian Kyer was on a mission. With his unbounded curiosity and perseverance, his research skills (he earned a PhD in medieval history before he became a lawyer) and his sense of an injustice needing correction, Kyer started a decades-long project to find out everything he could about Salieri, and to convince anyone who would listen to him that Salieri had been wronged by history.
"I thought the way Salieri had been treated by history was grossly unfair," says the charming and passionate Kyer, ready at the drop of a hat to spin one of hundreds of stories he has amassed about the late-18th-century Italian composer. "And his music is so much better than people had been led to believe. Salieri wrote over 40 operas, of which we've heard just a few. But just as I was starting to research him, people like Cecilia Bartoli were releasing CDs devoted to his music. I realized we had been listening to the wrong Salieri."
At first, Kyer's proselytizing efforts were confined to his friends, legal colleagues and just about anyone else who would listen to him talk about who influenced who and who taught who in the world of 18th- and 19th-century classical music. Then he decided to write a biography about Salieri, which morphed into a novel, Damaging Winds, currently available for free download on the National Arts Centre website. But lately his efforts have extended far beyond his immediate circle.
Kyer convinced music director Peter Oundjian to program a Salieri overture at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He and Marshall Pynkowski have had discussions about Toronto's Opera Atelier mounting a Salieri production. And Kyer has been in contact with the Canadian Opera Company's general director, Alexander Neef, as well. They first met in Banff, where Neef told Kyer he had missed his calling as an agent with his persuasive Salieri pitch. And Neef programmed some Salieri arias along with those by Mozart for a concert in the Four Seasons Centre's Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre last season. However, the COC couldn't even consider a full-blown Salieri production unless it was first done by a major European house. Kyer routinely scans the programs of European companies waiting for such a production.
His journey to the San Francisco Opera is full of the kind of twists of coincidence that would make an ideal opera plot. While working on a history of his law firm, Fasken Martineau, he discovered that early partner David Fasken had been persuaded to make an investment in a worthless piece of Texas ranching property in 1912. Worthless, that is, until oil was discovered on the land in the 1930s.
Today, Fasken Oil and Ranch is one of the richest independent resource companies in the United States, but the current U.S. Fasken family had little idea of their company's origin. When Kyer brought the current billionaire owners of Fasken Oil up to Elora, Ont., to see David Fasken's grave, he discovered that one of the members of the family was a great opera enthusiast. One thing led to another, the upshot being this week's performance in San Francisco.
Kyer is delighted and excited to see a work of his actually be performed. And the opera buffa coincidences continue to mount in Kyer's life. One of the people who downloaded his novel from the NAC site was a classical music DJ turned newsreader in Honolulu named Joe Moore (Moore is Honolulu's Peter Mansbridge). Moore wants the Hawaii Opera Theatre to produce Setting the Record Straight. And he wants to involve two of his friends – Pat Sajak, the host of TV's Wheel of Fortune, and F. Murray Abraham, the actor who played Salieri in Amadeus, who Moore thinks would love Kyer's script. No firm plans have been made yet, but Kyer is hopeful.
And what a plot turn that would be – Ian Kyer, Toronto lawyer and Salieri enthusiast – watching Abraham, the man who started him on his quest to rehabilitate Salieri by playing him "wrong" in Amadeus now playing him "right," under Kyer's loving guidance, in Setting the Record Straight. It would take a Mozart, or maybe a Salieri, to set that story properly to music.