Mozart! Music! Murder? La Jolla husband-wife team bring Mozart mystery to Timken Museum

Dori Salois and Robert Salerno.

By Lonnie Burnstein Hewitt

On May 25, for one night only, there will be a special performance at the Timken Museum in Balboa Park — a staged reading of “Cadenza: Mozart’s Last Year,” in honor of the 25th anniversary of Mainly Mozart, the distinguished organization that has been offering fine music to San Diegans since 1988.

“Cadenza” will be presented by Vantage Theatre, a small non-profit company known for collaborative, site-specific projects. Its mainstays are longtime La Jollans —executive director Dori Salois and her husband, playwright/director Robert Salerno.

Dori Salois and Robert Salerno.

Salerno, a retired physician and lifelong lover of Mozart’s music, wrote the original version of the play in 2006, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Thinking about the composer’s untimely death at age 35, he asked himself: What if Mozart could have used his creative genius to transform even his death into something beautiful? And he added a touch of modern physics to his musings.

“I happened to read about a ‘Theory of Everything’ (M-Theory), new theories of time and causality, and the discovery of the 11th dimension,” Salerno said. “And I was astounded to find that the most advanced minds in modern science were sounding more and more like the ancient mystics. I decided to work some of these concepts into my play, along with the boundless beauty of Mozart’s late music.”

So Einstein finds his way into “Cadenza,” alongside characters from Mozart’s real life, and the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, from “The Magic Flute.” It’s an imaginative mix, combining historical details with deathbed fantasies and lots of Mozart’s music — a sort of “Amadeus” meets Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”

The play was originally produced in 2007 as part of a “Days of the Dead” event at Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. The newly revised version is shorter and sharper, and the partnership with Mainly Mozart and the Timken is a special delight.

“We’ve always been big fans of Mainly Mozart,” said Salois. “When we first moved here from New York 28 years ago, we were asking ourselves: Is there anything here for us, a cultural life? When Mainly Mozart got started, we went: Yes!”

Last year, a chance encounter with someone who had seen the original production sparked a productive meeting with Mainly Mozart’s co-founder Nancy Laturno Bojanic and associate director Tyler Hewes. Both were enthusiastic about presenting the play for their 25th anniversary, and suggested several possible venues, including the Timken. Salois went there first, and loved it.

Rhys Green as Mozart and Leigh Scarritt as the Queen of the Night star in ‘Cadenza: Mozart’s Last Year,’ coming to the Timken Museum May 25.

“The room — their French Gallery — is just perfect for us, and the Timken is wonderful to work with,” she said. “They’ve had concerts there before but never a theatrical event. Though we call this a reading, we’re coming in with almost a full set, lights, sound and eight actors, in costume.”

They’re bringing in some of the cast from the original production — Rhys Green, as Mozart, Steve Oliver as Sarastro, and Skyler Dennon as Mozart’s fellow-Mason and “Magic Flute” producer, Emanuele Schikenader. One of the new additions is Leigh Scarritt, playing both Josepha, an imperious soprano, and the Queen of the Night.

“Staging the play at the Timken, it’s like Mozart meets Mozart. They were made for each other,” the playwright said.

If you go

■ What: ‘Cadenza: Mozart’s Last Year,’ from Vantage Theatre, Champagne reception follows the show

■ When: 7 p.m. May 25

■ Where: Timken Museum of Art, 1500 El Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego

■ Tickets: $10-15

■ Contact: (619) 466-8742

■ Web:

Notes from ‘Cadenza’: Was Mozart poisoned?

■ In the 200-plus years since Mozart died, there has been endless speculation on what killed the 35-year-old genius. Some, including Beethoven for a short time, believed that he was poisoned either by a jealous Salieri or by enraged Masons who opposed the public sharing of their secret rituals and traditions.

■ While Mozart’s terminal symptoms of extreme swelling, vomiting, fever, rashes, convulsions, delirium and severe pain can be explained by trichinosis, poisoning, and other causes, the most compelling theory is that the composer succumbed to Schonlein-Henoch purpura, a late complication of Rheumatic fever, a condition from which Mozart is well-known to have suffered since childhood. Thus, the greatest tragedy in music history could have been prevented by a simple shot of penicillin.