Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Interview with: Sarah Bruce Kelly

Vivaldi's Muse is a book filled with history, music, and passion. Anybody who reads it will definitely want to know more about Sarah, her inspiration for the book, and deeper look into the characters. Sarah was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book, so read on to find out more about Sarah and Vivaldi's Muse

1. What inspired you to write about Vivaldi and his protégée Annina? 

I’ve always felt a special attraction to Vivaldi’s music, and in graduate school I decided to write my thesis on Vivaldi’s opera career, which no other music scholars were working on at that time. My research revealed the little-known story of his twenty-plus year association with a young singer, Anna Girò, whose name kept popping up in the documents. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became with this mysterious and intriguing relationship.

2. Can you tell us about your own music background and how that contributed to your book? 

I grew up with classical music as well as piano and voice lessons. I was first introduced to Vivaldi's music at the age of four, and from then on was inspired by how "personal" his music sounded, how it spoke so directly to my feelings, both phyisical and emotional. I continued my musical studies through college, my only regret being that Vivaldi did not write music for keyboard! I was fortunate to learn and perform many of his opera arias and choral works. I went on to pursue a Masters degree in music history, specializing in Vivaldi's opera career. Besides studying and performing, I've also been a music teacher, both privately and in a classroom setting, for many years.

To answer your question, my own music background contributed to Vivaldi's Muse in several significant ways. First, my years of voice study and performance gave me an intimate aquaintance with methods of vocal instruction and technique. I worked with both good and bad teachers over the years, so I could well relate to what Annina went through in that regard. Also, my experiences with several student opera productions showed me first-hand the degrees of jealousy and treachery that are still very much a part of the theater world. Last but not least, my own years of music teaching helped me to understand, from Vivaldi's perspective, how a particular student can stand out and become a joy and inspiration.   

3. You mentioned that you followed the historical information on the relationship between Vivaldi and Annina as closely as you could. How much fictional license did you have to take to fill in the gaps? 

My research for Vivaldi’s Muse took over ten years and involved trips to Northern Italy and parts of Austria. During that time I translated dozens of documents, anything I could find that would shed light on Annina’s life and the nature of her relationship with Vivaldi. In my “digging” for the truth, a wealth of evidence emerged that I realized provided almost all I would need to write a great story. So all the major events in the novel are historically documented, with a little poetic license taken here and there to spice up the story.

4. Vivaldi and Annina have very different personalities. Can you tell us how you balanced the two characters? 

Vivaldi was almost unique among classical composers in that he was brilliantly creative and at the same time had a keen head for business. So while Annina was spirited and impulsive, he tended to be more practical. Part of this can be attributed to their differences in age and gender, but in many ways their contrasting personality traits complemented each other. Which is to say, his more level-headed disposition had a "reining in" effect on her tendency toward over-exuberance, while her vivaciousness and candor served to inspire him and lift him out of his occasional moments of despondency. What they shared was a passion for the type of dramatically expressive music that became Vivaldi's hallmark, and was quite new for its time.    

5. In the beginning of the book Annina is a young girl, about age nine. Can you tell us about how her character changes throughout the book? 

The story of Vivaldi's Muse takes Annina from the age of nine to thirty-two, so obviously her character grows and matures as she learns more and more about life and relationships over that twenty-three year period. At the beginning she is very much ruled by her girlish fantasies, centered around her blissful fascination with Vivaldi and his music. Yet she struggles with underlying fears and insecurities, stemming largely from her mother's abandonment and her dysfunctional home life. Over the next couple of decades, as she travels the rough road of rising to operatic stardom, she gradually "wises up," yet her evolving identity remains very much dependent on Vivaldi's friendship and support. When she finally comes to the realization that there is something much bigger at stake than her own fears and desires, or her relationship with Vivaldi, that is an enlightening moment for her. That's when she finds her ultimate purpose.       

6. Annina's father is very opposed to her having anything to do with the opera. Was it common in that time for members of the opera to be regarded in a poor light?

Annina's father is very protective of her, and his own dealings with the opera, in his role of wig-maker for the Mantuan prince's opera theater, have shown him the more unseemly side of the business. He also doesn't want her to end up like her mother, whose frustrated operatic aspirations led her to melancholia and madness. And it was well known that women in the theater were often expected to prostitute themselves to patrons and impresarios to win the most coveted roles. So yes, it was common for female opera singers to be seen in a questionable light.      

 7. I hear Vivaldi's name now and regard him as a master of his art, yet in the book there is constant struggle to maintain his fame and finances. Was the opera business pretty unstable during that time?

At a time when most composers were sponsored by wealthy patrons, Vivaldi considered himself to be, in his words, a "freelance entrepreneur." Venice was the birthplace of public opera houses and by Vivaldi's time had become the operatic center of the world. So even though opera was a thriving business, the competition was fierce. Theater owners engaged an impresario to hire, manage, and coordinate the singers, instrumentalists, and everyone else associated with the production of opera. Everyone's pay, including the impresario's, came from ticket sales, and an opera that didn't sell tickets was quickly discontinued. Vivaldi was the only opera producer of his time to serve as both composer and impresario. He liked to have managerial control over his own projects, which meant he also bore the financial risk. With all these responsibilities it was indeed a constant struggle to maintain his position in the operatic world.          

8. Who are your favorite authors? 

There are many, but I will limit my comments to three female authors whose books have especially inspired me:

Jane Austen--For her sensitive, perceptive, and realistic depictions of human relationships.

Maeve Binchy--For her genius at probing the hidden dramas in each of her characters' lives.

Anne Tyler--For her impeccable ability to blend the sad and the comic in her exploration of the fragility of familial relationships.

9. Do you have any interesting habits or rituals when you right? 

I tend to mentally create scenes before writing them down. I'll choose a scene to work on and let it play though my head, like watching a movie, over and over. Whatever characters are in that particular scene, I'll envision a setting and situation for them, then listen to what they have to say and watch what they do. I live near the ocean, so I often do this while taking long beach walks. When the scene becomes so real to me that I can't stop thinking about it, I'll write a draft, which I'll continue to tweak and flesh out until it seems as real on paper as it does in my head.  

10. Can you tell us about your other books, The Red Priest's Annina and Jazz Girl, and any future projects?

The Red Priest's Annina (2009) is a young adult version of Vivaldi's Muse. It's told in first person from Annina's perspective and covers the early stage of her association with Vivaldi, beginning when she first arrives in Venice. The plot focuses on the trials Annina must endure in her quest for theatrical stardom.  

Jazz Girl (2010) is based on the early life of jazz pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams. Set in 1920s Pittsburgh, the story is told from the perspective of 13-year-old Mary, who was marked from birth by the "sign of the caul," a powerful signifier in African-American culture. The caul indicates rare powers, especially a tendency toward "second sight." Mary's special gift of seeing manifests itself in visions of ghosts and spirits and culminates in an uncanny musical ability.  

The working title of my current project is The Musical Marchesa of Mantua. Set in Northern Italy, the story begins in 1490, when sixteen-year-old Isabella d'Este of Ferrara becomes the bride of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Isabella became a central figure in the development of Italian secular music due to her exceptional musical talent and patronage, and the novel will focus on her shadowy and enigmatic relationship with one of her resident composers.  


Thank you so much to Sarah Kelly for taking the time to share more about herself and her writing. Get your copy of Vivaldi's Muse today from Amazon in Paperback or Kindle.