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'Shepherd King' has a long operatic pedigree

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2009 - The tugs between love and a job and between a romantic ideal of a simple country life and work-a-day drudgery form the core of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Il Re Pastore" (The Shepherd King), which opens Sunday night at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

"Il Re Pastore," Mozart's ninth musical theater piece, roughly his 210th musical composition, was written when he was more than a dozen years into his professional career. Or, in real people's age, when he was 19. Of course, real people's age is no gauge for Mozart's musical genius.

The text's original theme was written by Pietro Metastasio to please a mother who at the time had 14 children and a high-powered, 24/7 international job. She was an empress: Maria Theresa of Austria.

A quarter century later a younger son of Maria Theresa, Archduke Maximillian Franz, was coming to Salzburg as the guest of Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo. To entertain the young archduke, the archbishop commissioned Mozart to write new music for a shepherd king story. The archbishop knew the tale was familiar to Max. Indeed, his older brothers and sisters had performed the original.

First, Colloredo got Father Gianbattista Varesco to trim Metastasio's long text. Mozart was handed the libretti -- the script -- and given six weeks to write all new music. The result is a two-act work that runs less than two and a half hours.

The savvy Metastasio knew not to set his story in contemporary time for fear of offending royals. So, he placed his king in the mists of history, when the Western world was ruled by Alexander the Great of Macedonia, and told a story of the burdens of office.

The young archduke knew the pains of royal duty, too. He had bid farewell to seven tearful sisters who had been married off "for the good of the Empire" to reign as consorts in as many countries. Only his oldest sister was allowed to marry for love. As Max came to Salzburg, he himself may have been struggling with similar stress. The next year, he'd move to Germany and become Elector of Cologne. And one of his pleasures there would be to finance the work of the young Ludwig von Beethoven.

Music was part of the Habsburg family life. Opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck was the imperial children's music teacher. They were serious students who played a variety of musical instruments. All sang and acted in musicals including operas. When Max's sister, older by one year, Maria Antonia -- the French renamed her Marie Antoinette -- moved to Versailles, her musical sight reading for the harp was admired as professional.

The romantic ideal of country life in "Il Re Pastore" was a core part of the imperial family's summer-long retreats in the Austrian countryside. The Austrian court, whether in Vienna or in summer retreat, distained the pomp of the French and English courts. They wore Austrian peasant styles in finer fabrics.

Hints of Masterpieces

The Shepherd King's music provides insights into the young musical genius as he sponged up musical ideas of his time and spun them in his extraordinary brain. And as the conductor of this production, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, said, you can hear hints of the inventiveness of his prime-time masterpieces (including "The Magic Flute," The Marriage of Figaro," "Don Giovanni" and "Cosi Fan Tutti") in this early work.

Mozart gave piano concerts from the age of 5 and traveled to 200 cities in nine countries in an era when most people traveled no farther than 20 miles from where they were born, said Michael Budds, a music professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Mozart heard music by all major composers of his day and met most of them.

"He took the musical short change of his time and turned it into gold," Budds told opera goers at a panel discussion in the company's Spotlight on Opera series Monday night at the Ethical Society of St Louis in Ladue. With all the choices of tempo, rhythms, pitch, Mozart always seemed to find perfect lyric beauty, even at 19, the professor said.

After its Salzburg premiere, Mozart's "Il Re Pastore" was rarely heard for two centuries. In 1989 the Mozarteum Foundation hired two Brits -- conductor Sir Neville Mariner and director Brian Large -- to revive the opera in Salzburg. Their show-within-a-show production features an on-stage audience dressed as 18th-century aristocrats. On cue the elegant nobles move onto the ballroom's central platform to sing. The only sheep were two silver statues.

St. Louis Staging

The lack of interest in sheep is reflected in the St. Louis production. The Alexander the Great era "wasn't that interesting" said OTSL production's stage director Chas Rader-Shieber.

He dropped togas and, working with set designer David Zinn, pulled a time machine's fast forward switch until it stopped 2,300 years later in the early 20th-century England. The opera now opens at a weekend house party in a country manor house.

Imagine heated intellectual discussions and trysts among roses and topiary in country gardens of the Lady Astor "set" and various Mitford sisters. Or the stealth country weekends of Baltimore divorcee Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII as he struggled between royal duty and "the woman I love."

Under Rader-Shieber's direction, telling the Shepherd King's story is "parlor entertainment" for guests. The English bride-to-be sings the King's role. Her ladies' maid sings Elisa. In their Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney put on a show kind of way, a woman singing the king becomes plausible.

Rader-Shieber, a Webster Groves native who directs nationally, expects that forwarding the story's setting will kick up the idea that it is a universal wish to "become other than who we are, and who society says we should be."

"We are all tempted to romanticize about an easier simpler life," Rader-Shieber said.

She's the King

Heidi Stober makes her St. Louis debut singing the role of the king. Mozart wrote the role for Tommaso Consoli, a famous adult male soprano, a castrato. Now that the gruesome operation on pre-teen boy singers is criminal child abuse, female sopranos are cast in castrato roles, called "pants roles."

Soprano Maureen McKay who sang Lilla last season at OTSL "Cosa Rara" returns to sing the shepherd king's sweetheart Elisa. The opera's second pair of lovers is sung by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and tenor Paul Appleby. In February Appleby was one of four singers, out of a field of 1,800, to win the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Tenor Alek Shrader sings Alexander the Great. Both Appleby and Shrader participated in OTSL's Gerdine Young Artists apprentice program and sang in the chorus and small roles in previous seasons.

"Il Re Pastore" set designer David Zinn was inspired by the beauty of William Morris and the British Arts and Crafts movement as he created the manor house interior.

The music and message of the opera, not the era when the writer set it, is what is important, Zinn said.

Patricia Rice, a freelance journalist, has written about opera for three decades. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.