Going Baroque

by Philip K. Jason

BEVERLE GRAVES MYERS' new Whispers of Vivaldi is the sixth and final installment in her Tito Amato Mystery series from Poisoned Pen Press. Tito, whose voice has been ruined in an accident, is no longer the star castrato but the assistant and likely successor to Maestro Torani, the aging director of the principal opera house in mid-18th century Venice — the Teatro San Marco. This prestigious institution benefits from Senate sponsorship, but that benefit is being challenged by a rival company headed by the unscrupulous Lorenzo Caprioli.

What can be done to fill the seats and ensure the supremacy of Teatro San Marco, whose audiences have been diminishing? A dazzling production premiering a new operatic composition and featuring a fast-rising star castrato in the lead role might do the trick.

When a brilliant manuscript by a relatively obscure composer comes Tito’s way, it becomes his assignment to convince the Savio, overlord of artistic matters, to approve a production of ‘The False Duke.’ The new opera will replace ‘Prometheus,’ composed by the Teatro San Marco’s lead violinist, already in rehearsal. And a deal can be struck with the Milanese castrato Angeletto to sing the title role. The pieces are coming together, including the construction of spectacular stage effects, to guarantee a grand success. However, the ugly murder of Maestro Torani threatens the production, the Teatro San Marco, and Tito himself, who becomes the primary suspect. An experienced if unofficial sleuth, Tito Amato needs to get to the bottom of this.

Author Myers handles the process of Tito’s inquiry with great skill, including the inevitable false trails and sudden epiphanies. As Tito collects and interprets clues, peeling away possible motives to reveal operative ones, he continues to live with a clouded reputation and with worries about his own future and his family responsibilities.

Myers populates her carefully researched version of Venice with a wide cast of intriguing characters. Some have secrets that if exposed would bring shame or ruin. They have motives to block Tito’s inquiries. Others have secrets that might affect their careers. The discovery that Torani was severely in debt raises new questions about motives as to who might have him murdered. The nagging suspicion that Angeletto is really a woman adds an additional mystery.

While she has her readers follow the twists and turns of Tito’s dangerous pursuit of the truth, Myers elaborates her vision of Venice, making that vision fully half of the novel’s pleasure. Elaboration is the essence of Baroque art, whether in painting, architecture, or music.

The sensory detail in Myers’ style is at once realistic and ornamental in communicating the era. We enjoy the descriptions of buildings, rooms, furnishings and decoration. The attention to garments, fabrics and fashions is part of the complex weave, as is the interest in spectacle and in the intricacy of Venice’s watery byways.

Elegance and corruption color the social texture of Venice. Indeed, ‘The False Duke,’ which reminds Tito of Vivaldi, a master of baroque music, raises issues of class and blood lines that are issues in the novel’s present time and place.

Whispers of Vivaldi, is at once a suspenseful murder mystery and gorgeously detailed historical novel in which style and substance are mutually supportive and finally inseparable.

Philip: What led you to make Fort Myers your home?

BEVERLE GRAVES MYERS: My husband and I moved to Fort Myers from Louisville, Kentucky in August 2013. Both of our children and their families settled in Southwest Florida and we’re singing its praises. The combination of gorgeous weather and being near grandchildren was irresistible

Architecture, furnishings and decorations, food, demography, clothing, the technology of watery Venice, etc. all get considerable attention in your new book. Describe your research goals and methods a bit.

Like any great novel, a mystery has to be anchored in time and space, so my goal has always been to immerse the reader in Tito's world without interfering with the plot action. Sometimes I feel like I'm walking a tightrope in that regard. Just enough detail or too much? It helps to have a very clear picture of the 18th-century mindset — an understanding of the prevailing philosophies, religion, folklore; the people's common fears and desires; their expectations for livelihood and marriage; and so much more. Knowing these things takes a great deal of research — mainly in the everyday history presented in memoirs and diaries — but it keeps my characters from sounding like 21st century people wearing baroque costumes.

The sensory details are easier. I've visited contemporary Venice and soaked in the atmosphere. I also own several art books devoted to exterior and interior scenes of the baroque era. I often pick out a painting and set my written scene within it. Tito's music, of course, is still performed and recorded.

What interested you about the castrato vogue?

The idea of a castrato protagonist first occurred to me when I read Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven. This is a novel from Rice’s pre-vampire days that's become a bit of a cult classic. Being an opera lover from way back and having a persistent fascination with Italy — Venice in particular — Cry to Heaven made quite an impact. I knew such a character would make a truly unique sleuth that I would not become bored with over a multi-volume series.

Though each Tito Amato book is a complete mystery that can be read alone, the entire series can be enjoyed for the character's development over a span of about 15 years. I started with Tito as a young man returning to Venice from a music conservatory in Naples. He is part of a dysfunctional family long before the term existed. Not surprisingly, qualms about his status as a castrato singer also bedevil him. Gradually, Tito grows to accept and even embrace his vocal talents and the opportunities they provide. He also learns to handle fame and jealous rivals, and overcomes a bout of ego excess.

On a deeper level, the brutal surgery that was forced on Tito results in sensitivity toward other marginalized people and a compulsion to seek justice on their behalf. The Jews of the Venetian ghetto, friendless strangers, carnival acrobats and dwarves, and many more seek his help. Along the way, Tito makes a peace, of sorts, with his father and other family members.

With this series now completed, what can readers expect from Beverle Graves Myers next?

First, I'm giving myself some time to wind down from the long distance move and the wrap-up of a series I've been writing for the past fifteen years. When I feel recharged, I may start a new series. I've become fascinated with the idea of bringing the gothic suspense novel — think Rebecca — into line with modern sensibilities. I love the setting of the isolated mansion wreathed in fog, but the naive heroine of yesteryear definitely needs an update.

May-June 2014

“The idea of a castrato
protagonist first occurred
to me when I read
Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven,
a novel from Rice’s
pre-vampire days
that's become a bit
of a cult classic.“

“It takes a great deal of
research, but it keeps my
characters from sounding
like 21st Century
people wearing
baroque costumes.
Myers populates her
carefully researched version
of Venice with a wide
cast of intriguing characters.