Book Review and Author Interview: The Red Priest’s Annina by Sarah Bruce Kelly

Not long ago I had opportunity to read the young adult novel Vivaldi’s Muse, Sarah Bruce Kelly’s expanded version of The Red Priest’s Annina. Not only was I utterly enchanted by the author’s rich, descriptive phrases and seamless narrative, I was also delighted to learn of the first book. Expanding upon a previous novel is a wonderful way to introduce youth to fascinating and important figures in history and society, and with their reading comes growth and greater understanding–not to mention simply a fabulous story. I am honored and pleased to have been able to review not only Vivaldi’s Muse but now also The Red Priest’s Annina. I caught up with Sarah Bruce Kelly, who so graciously gave the time for an interview, which appears below the fold. To top it all off I’ve added a treat, cosied in between the two. Divertiti!

Red Priest's Annina
The Red Priest’s Annina tells the story of Anna Girò, who at age 14 in 1722 arrives in Venice hoping to study with Antonio Vivaldi, opera impresario and ordained priest. Referred to as Il Prete Rosso, for the color of his hair, Vivaldi had fingers that “flew like lightning over his violin strings, and his music sparkled with fire, as did his golden red hair and deep blue eyes.” Anna in fact had met him before in Mantua, her hometown, where her dreams of singing in the opera had developed, and now she longs to study with Don Antonio.

This young adult novel follows Anna not only through her studies but also her triumphs and despairs, wrestle as she must against forces holding her back, including her own uncertainty. From the very opening page, the girl falls mute to duty: “I bit back the song I ached to sing.” Though filled with the flight and excitement of song, Annina confides to us that arguing with her father is pointless, and retreats.

Shortly thereafter she learns of the circumstances that will take her to Venice, and despite her initial exhilarating introduction to the city and all its feasts for the senses, Annina begins to encounter the shadows that seem to accompany even the most ecstatic dreams. Kelly’s descriptive phrases flow like silk scarves sailing through Carnevale, as she leads us from the “salty sea air and the shrill of gulls flood[ing the] senses” through the obscure veneziano dialect and even slumping spirits following admonishing words designed to dampen Annina’s passion.

As language defines a people, it also characterizes the world Kelly has created, one filled with sights and sounds, scents and sensations that reach out with words utilized so skillfully one cannot help but be drawn in to the scenes themselves. When Annina first arrives at the house at which her patron had arranged her stay:

An old lady stood in the foyer, dressed entirely in black. Her withering stare made my throat clench. I felt gagged.
“I am Signora Malvolia, proprietress of this boardinghouse,” she said. “I understand you are here in Venice to study music, under the patronage of the Duke of Massa Carrara.”
The air, thick with the stench and taste of mildew, was dizzying.
“Si,” I said, as I sank into a curtsy with legs as wobbly as a newborn colt’s.
She pursed her lips and looked me over. “They call you Annina?”
I nodded warily.
“You may call me Signora,” she said, her lips tightening.

True to her name, Signora supports Chiara Orlandi, whose every move is designed to isolate Annina: rifling through her belongings, withholding mail, initiating rumors, engaging deceit, and at long last, offering a hand in friendship. How far is Chiara prepared to go before her plans backfire? Can a friendship between the two rivals succeed?

Given Annina’s age and inexperience, it is unsurprising that Chiara manages to fool and lead her into compromising situations. Annina’s determination not to be seen as needy or impractical leads her to internalize, which aids Chiara’s schemes. At one point it seems the threatened singer will manage to push Annina away from her dreams after all. After Annina botches a score transcription that makes her late for a music lesson, Chiara delivers the younger girl’s punishment:

“I’ve asked Signora to reassign your status in this household to that of a servant. Tomorrow morning you’ll begin to learn the art of dressmaking and assist our resident seamstress in sewing operatic costumes. That will be your fulltime job.”

Here Annina recalls her mother, who had abandoned the family, perhaps in an unhappy search for her own musical past, sacrificed for her female role in society, recognition only having come much later when she remarries in order to secure herself a protected place in society. Annina, a child of this second marriage, feels abandoned by everyone in her life and turns to la moretta, the mask purchased at the start of Carnivale from a woman who had told Annina she would suffer much, but that the mask would shield her. It seems to promise her protection, but by its very nature, her silence is the price for such safety. In our journey with Annina we witness her ongoing struggle with this duality: the need to have and develop her voice paired with the exposure that renders her vulnerable to those who would crush it. In turn we observe her impact on those in the same circle, and influenced by what her voice might offer.

Kelly has a delectable way with words, which enables her to convey a variety of lessons—music, history, political, social—while simultaneously presenting young adult readers with the story of a girl who endures personal struggles in many of the same ways they do. This particular span of years tends to be acutely rife with the politics of interpersonal relationships, harboring jealousy and rivalry as it does, along with the distinctly poor choices adolescents and teens often make in order to benefit with a positive spin. The opportunity to grow with Annina, to recognize Chiara’s schemes for what they are, is so rewarding because readers can relate to her, no matter their own talent or perceived lack of it.

While Signora is a fictionalized character, Chiara Orlandi is historical, of whom little is known. The Duke of Massa Carrara was one of Vivaldi’s early patrons, and although Kelly’s treatment of his character is ficticious, it is based on knowledge of the era’s common practices. These and other aspects of the story bring to life the realization that Kelly has done her research well. Based on documentation the author translated herself, she has woven a story that stands up to examination and critical exploration. The Red Priest’s Annina presents historical fiction at its finest.

Your first novel, The Red Priest’s Annina, tells the story of a teenaged Anna Girò under the tutelage of impresario Antonio Vivaldi. Were you surprised at its success, or had you always been confident it would do well?

When I first came across the little known story of Annina’s and Vivaldi’s relationship in my research on Vivaldi’s operas, I knew I had the makings of a fascinating historical novel. At first I had envisioned the topic to be of interest to a fairly small audience, and I continue to be amazed at the novel’s widespread acclaim and ongoing success!

In addition to being an author, you also are a musician and scholar, as well as teacher of languages and fine arts. So in a general sense it seems natural that you would write about significant figures in music history. How did you choose Vivaldi in particular, and what aspect of his operas were you researching?

I’ve always loved Vivaldi’s music, which I was first introduced to at the age of four when my father surprised my family one evening with our first record player and a stack of brand new records, including one of the first recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Since then I’ve collected recordings of Vivaldi’s instrumental and sacred music while developing a love for opera in general.

After many years of musical studies, I decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Music History, with the intention of researching the vast repertoire of Vivaldi’s operas. At that time, almost no scholarly work had been done on Vivaldi’s opera career, so I had to rely on original documents. As I translated these documents from Italian, the name of Anna Girò (often referred to as “Annina”) came up often and I began to see how closely she was connected to Vivaldi’s operatic pursuits. This fascinated me and became the focus of my research.

When conducting this research, what in particular about Annina reached out to you, making you want to tell her story? You dedicate the book to her, writing that Annina “speaks to me through her music, and who has inspired me to sing her song.” Can you elaborate on that?

My research revealed that Annina’s distinctively dramatic and emotional style of singing and acting, unusual for the time, had a significant impact on Vivaldi’s operatic output during the last 20 years of his life. I really wanted to get to know this girl who had such a strong influence on the composer I’d loved all my life. In studying the scores of operatic roles he wrote for her, I got to know Annina through her music and felt a strong connection to her.

Annina’s story, and her personal and professional relationship with Vivaldi, is recounted in greater detail in Vivaldi’s Muse. I simply love this dual presentation and opportunity for young readers to learn and grow. Did you set out to do this or was it sort of “accidental”? Would you aim to do it again?

I set out to write a fact-based YA novel that I thought would be inspirational for young girls. Surprisingly, the book was equally well received by boys and adults of all ages. The most common remark from adult readers was that they didn’t want the story to end! So I was inspired to revisit the vast amount of material I’d collected on Vivaldi and Annina and expand the story well into Annina’s adulthood. The result was Vivaldi’s Muse, which was honored last year with a first-place award for best historical fiction. Would I aim to do it again? Absolutely, if I can find the energy!

I’m intrigued by book covers and tend to seek out information about them. How did you choose the Gainsborough for The Red Priest’s Annina?

I wanted an authentic 18th-century piece of art for the cover, and I decided Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of his daughters, with its subtle symbolism, perfectly captured the spirit of the story. The girls in the portrait, who seem to be holding portfolios of music manuscripts, reminded me of Annina and Chiara. I won’t say anymore since I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone!

When I read Vivaldi’s Muse I learned a great deal about Venetian opera, including the brutal politics, sheer energy and time-consuming drive it took to maintain a production. Vivaldi somehow managed to stay aloof from the politics, at least emotionally, and at least on the outside. But it must have been exhausting to balance financial obligations and artistic control.
After I finished the book, and having read a bit about how many of his works had been located, I marveled at how such a significant body of work could be lost—and for so long. Why do you suppose that happened? Following his death, could his absence of direction have played a role in its loss?

Vivaldi biographers have marveled at his dual roles of creative genius and savvy businessman. This unusual combination of talents allowed Vivaldi to operate both as composer and business manager of his operas. In other words, he was able to maintain complete managerial and financial control over his creative projects.

As for the loss of his music, in the 18th century the idea of preserving music for posterity did not yet exist. People were only interested in “new” music, and composers and their music were typically forgotten after their death. The music from that time that has come down to us is due to someone taking the time and trouble to gather and archive that composer’s music. This was the case not only with Vivaldi, but with Mozart and other composers of the time whose music we are blessed to still have with us.

Vivaldi’s music, although essentially “lost” for almost 200 years, was discovered in an obscure northern Italian monastery in the 1920s, sealed in a vault. The scores had miraculously survived fire, flood, and other disasters, and it’s obvious someone had made efforts soon after his death to preserve his music.

Why do you suppose it is that so many people know Vivaldi’s music, but don’t know they know it? I myself was astounded when I sought it out and listened. I remember thinking, “This is everywhere! How could I not know this!?”

Vivaldi’s music has now, as it did during his lifetime, a lot of popular appeal because it’s so personal and speaks directly to people’s emotions. When his music started to be recorded in the 1950s it sounded just as fresh and modern as it had over two centuries before, and it still does. As I often tell my students, “Even if you’ve never heard of Vivaldi, you’ve heard his music!”

What legacy has Annina left for female opera singers beyond the generation or two immediately succeeding her actual stage presence? Or for anyone with creative goals, for that matter?

I think Annina’s unusually dramatic mode of performance, at a time when most opera singers relied on stiff poses and stylized gestures, was a forerunner to the more expressive styles of singing and acting in the 19th century and beyond. Her unwavering belief in her own artistic goals, along with her determination to overcome the many obstacles she met with, should be an inspiration to anyone who aspires to achieve a seemingly “impossible dream.”

Which is your favorite of Vivaldi’s pieces?

There are so many, but I would have to say my favorite is his opera Orlando furioso, especially the role of Alcina, which he created for Annina. That opera holds a prominent place in Annina’s story, and Alcina’s fiery character and music is a perfect example of the dramatic nature of the music Vivaldi was inspired to write for her.

Do you think there is more to write about Vivaldi and Annina? Who else would you like to write about? Do you have any projects going at the moment?

I honestly feel I’ve exhausted all the material that’s to be found on Vivaldi and Annina! I’ve thought a lot about writing a novel about Vivaldi’s own childhood and early life and perhaps ending it when he first meets Annina—kind of a “prequel” to The Red Priest’s Annina. In fact, I find myself thinking about this a lot!

Are you an e-reader enthusiast, or do you like the feel of a real book in your hands? What are a couple of your earliest favorite books? What genres do you like to read nowadays?

Although I’ve recently become somewhat of an e-reader enthusiast because of its convenience, part of me still prefers the look, feel, and smell of a real book. The first books I remember really loving, when I was about seven or eight, were the Nancy Drew series. I also remember enjoying adventure novels, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. Nowadays I read many different genres, but my favorites are historical fiction and the classics. Right now I’m reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

What advice would you give to others conducting research and writing their first book?

Find a subject that fascinates you and read everything you can find on that topic. As you gather material and ideas you will want to narrow your scope. Decide on your main character and his or her main goal. What obstacles does your character face in achieving that goal? The problems your character faces, and how he or she responds to and deals with those problems, is what will drive your plot. And don’t be in too much of a hurry. Creativity can’t be rushed!

Thank you so much, Sarah Bruce Kelly, and we hope to see much more of you in the future!

Thank you, Lisl! This has been fun!


The Red Priest’s Annina: A Novel of Vivaldi and Anna Girò

June 2009

ISBN-10: 0578025655

ISBN-13: 978-0578025650

Image courtesy Sarah Bruce Kelly.

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