Black Salieri

This post is written by network participant Dr. Adrian Curtin.

At the upcoming network symposium on representations of classical music in the arts and media in the twenty-first century, I will give a presentation on what is probably the most well-known play about classical music – namely, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979). Shaffer’s play, adapted into a hit movie in 1984, tells the sensational, fictional tale of how the Italian composer Antonio Salieri plotted against Mozart out of jealousy and spite. Amadeus has helped to sustain and popularise the legend about Salieri’s involvement in Mozart’s death. The play also contributes to the mythology surrounding Mozart’s exceptionality, confirms the cultural cachet of classical music, and buttresses the authority of its musical canon. Re-mounting Amadeus in the twenty-first century is therefore not inherently challenging to the cultural status quo.

In 2016, the Royal National Theatre staged a new production of this play, directed by Michael Longhurst. One of the distinguishing features of this production was the casting of the British-Tanzanian actor Lucian Msamati as Salieri. To my knowledge, this was the first time a black actor has played Salieri. The production was a critical and commercial success. It was part of the National Theatre Live cinema screenings in 2017 and was revived at the Olivier the following year. Msamati, whose casting Shaffer approved shortly before he died, received critical acclaim for his performance.

The cultural significance of Msamati’s casting was not widely discussed in the media, although it is arguably noteworthy. It prompts a series of challenging questions. For example:

  • What ideological values did this casting convey?
  • Did it support or subvert popularly held conceptions and misconceptions about classical music?
  • Could it have perpetuated rather than refuted racist stereotypes?
  • How does the casting relate to contemporary efforts to increase the visibility and presence of classical musicians of colour as well as acts of historical recovery that seek to diversify the canon?

I will endeavour to answer these questions by examining production reviews, online commentary, and interviews with the production team, and by referring to relevant scholarship. I’ll use the embodied provocation of Msamati’s casting to outline cultural and historical resonance – associations that the casting brings to mind.

Shaffer’s play does not register recent efforts to dismantle the stranglehold that select white, male composers have had over the canon of classical music and, consequently, over who ‘represents’ the art form in the popular imaginary. However, the casting of Msamati as Salieri in this recent production symbolically acknowledged the involvement of musicians of colour (historically overlooked and disenfranchised) in Western art music past and present. I hope to show that this casting prompts some intriguing lines of thought about how a historical composer is represented in a theatrical context and how this connects to larger debates about cultural memory, myth-making, canonicity, diversity, and inclusivity.

Adrian Curtin is Senior Lecturer in the Drama Department of the University of Exeter. He is the author of Avant-Garde Theatre Sound: Staging Sonic Modernity (Palgrave 2014) and Death in Modern Theatre: Stages of Mortality (Manchester University Press, 2019). He is one of the organisers of this research network.