When Vivien Shotwell was an undergraduate studying at Williams College, her voice teacher assigned her the haunting aria “Non temer, amato bene,” written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for English soprano Anna Storace on her departure from Vienna. It immediately struck Shotwell as something special—and not simply because Mozart wrote a distinctive obbligato part for piano, which makes the piece seem as much a concerto as an aria and which he himself played at Storace’s farewell recital.
“The voice and piano line entwine in a way that is loving and sensual and seems to encompass a lot of admiration and respect,” says Shotwell feelingly of the aria, whose text means “Fear nothing, my beloved, my heart will always be yours.” “It makes you think that they might have had something deeper, because Mozart was so smart he wouldn’t have written that part if he hadn’t felt something for the singer.” Thus was Shotwell inspired to write her mellifluous debut novel, Vienna Nocturne (LJ 11/15/13), coming this February from Ballantine after a ten-year journey.
A musical affair
In Vienna Nocturne, Shotwell follows Storace from lessons as a child prodigy in London to triumph and tragedy on the Continent to a warmly, delicately imagined affair with Mozart unknown to any historian but abundantly suggested by the music. Having completed both an MA in voice performance at the University of Iowa and an Artist Diploma in opera performance at Yale, where she won the 2012 David L. Kasdon Memorial Prize, Shotwell ably conveys Storace’s artistry; her master’s degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop proves that she has the tools to tell the larger story. Like the voice and piano parts in “Non temer, amato bene,” music and writing are for Shotwell utterly entwined.
Encouraged by her parents, who own a used bookstore, Shotwell grew up a voracious reader, and through high school she was as intensely involved in acting as she was in her voice and viola studies. She fell in love with classical music and particularly opera at age seven or eight, when her father took her to (prophetically) Mozart’s The Magic Flute. But she didn’t consider a career in opera until she began studying with Williams voice professor Keith Kibler, a “huge reader who knew I was a writer,” says Shotwell.
Even as Kibler was highlighting the intriguing textual aspects of “Non temer, amato bene” for Shotwell, her creative writing teacher, distinguished novelist Jim Shepard, was helping her to understand musicality of line and the careful work of putting sentences together like the notes of a melody. (“He went through every line and cut out the florid, extraneous stuff,” explains an inspired Shotwell.) Little wonder, then, that Shotwell is puzzled when people regard singing and writing as two disparate parts of her life: “To me, they seem like one thing; each inspires the other.”
That’s not entirely surprising, as literature and music have common roots; our great, defining epics were often sung. But unlike some opera stars, Shotwell plunges into the meaning behind the music: “I have been told that I am a thoughtful kind of singer, and I do get into the text.” Shotwell can’t readily compare her writing and singing styles, but both are propulsive without rush and richly, liquidly done without excess, which nicely matches the roles she prefers. “Flashiness and fireworks don’t appeal to me as much as something quieter,” says the mezzo-soprano, who doesn’t go after ingénue roles. She reveled in a recent performance of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (she was Romeo), and she’d sing anything by Handel.
The primacy of art
Mozart didn’t go in for flash either, emphasizing the primacy of the art over the singers’ traditional demands for showcase arias; in Vienna Nocturne, when Mozart is rehearsing Storace in the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, he gives her a big, splashy rondo in an inappropriate key, then offers a daring alternative to which she readily accedes. “There’s been so much opera written since Mozart that we forget how forward thinking he was,” observes Shotwell, whose novel neatly gives us a lesson in how opera was evolving in the late 1700s.
For singers (and the rest of us), Vienna Nocturne offers life lessons, too. Storace moves from living to sing, to proclaiming after terrible loss that “it did not matter if she sang; the important thing was to live,” to learning how to live and sing—all by age 21. As a painfully shy child, Shotwell found that singing gave her “the permission to be bold and take on other characters”; now there’s “hardly a better feeling than giving people pleasure, an emotional experience.” Still, she concedes, a career in voice demands hard work and toughness, and in the last two years she’s learned to relax—to live and sing. Obviously, the writing helps.
Much writing about music either betrays linguistic excess or tumbles to mere technicality, but Shotwell “wanted to be careful about making it real,” an approach that makes her work easily appreciated by those knowledgeable yet accessible to all. By letting us experience singing as Storace experienced it, by bringing us a heartbeat closer to Mozart’s music through her voice, the author succeeds. As a singer, Shotwell knows that moment of terror as the audience assembles, then the “best feeling [when] you’re singing with a good orchestra offering a great cushion of warm sound and your voice soars over it.” Now her voice is soaring in fiction as well.