“Amadeus” examines the darker side of artistic ambition. Peter Shaffer’s Tony-winning 1979 play — which was adapted into the 1984 Oscar-winning film — traces the envy that Antonio Salieri has for fellow 18th-century Viennese composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a jealousy that grows out of Mozart’s creative superiority. Both artists are ultimately destroyed by Salieri’s resentfulness: Salieri loses his relationship with God; Mozart (in a theatrical flourish that, like most of the story, parts ways with the true story) loses his life.
Colorado Mountain College Theatre has artistic desires of its own. The Glenwood Springs-based department has grown rapidly in the past few years, establishing an associate’s degree and a schedule of four shows each year. Twenty-nine students currently are majoring in the program. And tonight the company makes its Aspen debut at the Wheeler Opera House, with a two-night stand of “Amadeus.” The production, directed by Brad Moore and starring program coordinator Gary Ketzenbarger as Salieri, had a seven-show stand in October at CMC’s Spring Valley campus. Playing Mozart is Nick Garay, who a few years ago earned the program’s first diploma. The rest of the 14-member cast comprises students and faculty from the department.
“All markers are upward,” Ketzenbarger said of the department he took leadership of six years ago.
“The program is looking like it has a chance to grow,” said Moore, CMC’s technical director and production manager. “We hope it can grow into the strongest community-college program in the state. Or the region.”
Big ambitions — but probably not as grand, and hopefully not as ruinous, as those of the plays Salieri. The character came from modest means, and he was merely adequate as a composer, but he methodically scraped his way into a favored position in the court of Emperor Joseph II. His jealousy begins to emerge when he hears of the younger Mozart and hears the magnificent music he has been creating. When he meets Mozart, his fury grows. The Mozart character is socially inept — Moore speculates that he had some degree of autism — and Salieri cannot reconcile this boorish personality with his brilliant music. Salieri sets out to squash Mozart’s career.
“He sees the genius of Mozart — he himself says he’s the sole man alive to recognize Mozart for what he is — and that’s his undoing,” Ketzenbarger said, adding that Salieri might be the greatest role of his life. “He’s infuriated at himself for being recognized as this great composer while he knows he doesn’t compare to Mozart. He’s fond of Mozart but deeply envious. And that envy destroys both of them.”
The third party to this rivalry is God. Moore says that “‘Amadeus’ isn’t a battle between Salieri and Mozart. It’s a battle between Salieri and God.’” Salieri is a devout Roman Catholic and vows that he will use his talent to be productive and virtuous. But the emergence of Mozart shakes his faith.
“Along comes this boy prodigy who has an absolute inability to be socially acceptable. He has no social skills at all but an absolute genius,” Moore said. “The battle begins when Salieri realizes he’s mediocre.” Salieri believes that suppressing Mozart will help fulfill his own promise to God to become a great and famous composer.
Moore has a history with “Amadeus,” having appeared as a court member and Mozart ally in a 1985 production, during the first season of the defunct Snowmass Repertory Theatre. Back then he believed the issue of genius versus mediocrity was at the heart of the play. But now he frames it in different terms.
“There’s a real interesting theme questioning genius versus insanity,” he said. “At what point does genius find its home? At what point do we bargain with God to find it, and at what point do we squelch it to fit into societal norms? Mozart is so incapable of understanding human relations. That’s not his gift. His gift is to share his soul through music.”
“Amadeus” might be an argument that the universe favors genius over sanity.
“God’s punishment was that Salieri was forgotten,” Ketzenbarger said. “He’s a nobody. And everybody listens to Mozart.”
CMC Theatre, meanwhile, while aiming high, isn’t looking at immortality. For the moment it is appreciating the smaller pleasures.
“Everyone’s having fun walking into the Wheeler the first time, looking around and saying, ‘Ohmygosh,’” Moore said.