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Writer focused on U. of I. musicologists as he developed play

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

Playwright Moisés Kaufman, left
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Playwright Moisés Kaufman, left, consulted with musicologists Katherine Syer and William Kinderman on his new play, “33 Variations.” Ultimately, Kaufman developed a composite character based on the husband-and-wife consultants.

Released 3/14/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — She studies Wagner and opera. He studies mostly Mozart and Beethoven. Together, husband-and-wife musicologists Katherine Syer and William Kinderman have themselves been the subject of much prodding and research – by internationally acclaimed playwright and director Moisés Kaufman.

Although they weren’t aware of the extent of their involvement at first, Syer and Kinderman – both professors of musicology in the School of Music at the University of Illinois – ultimately served as character studies for Kaufman as he developed and wrote his new play, “33 Variations.”

Kaufman, whose credits include one of this country’s most frequently performed plays, “The Laramie Project,” first contacted Kinderman about four years ago when he began researching the theme for his play on Beethoven and the creative process.

“The play chronicles the efforts of a modern-day musicologist as she tries to understand the creation of a late Beethoven piece titled ‘The Diabelli Variations,’ ” Kaufman said. “This piece has baffled musicologists for decades as it was inspired by a less than stellar waltz composed by the less than stellar music publisher Antonio Diabelli.

“The fact that Beethoven gets smitten by Diabelli’s trivial and insignificant waltz piqued my curiosity. Why would a man at the height of his creative powers choose to start a new work based on such an unimpressive tune?”

In seeking an answer, he did what he always does while developing a new work: He quickly zeroed in on the subject’s most knowledgeable source. That happened to be Kinderman.

The U. of I. musicologist had, in fact, written the book on “The Diabelli Variations.” An accomplished pianist as well, he also recorded a CD featuring the music.

Of the book, Kaufman said: “It’s such an exquisite and insightful text on the variations, but also on Beethoven’s compositional process. Then I read his (book) ‘Beethoven,’ which is also superb. And that led me to him.”

When the anonymous letter seeking information arrived at the Kinderman-Syer residence in Champaign – along with a package including copies of “The Laramie Project” and Kaufman’s play “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” – Syer said the couple already was familiar with the playwright.

“I owned a copy of the film (‘The Laramie Project’),” Syer said.

Without hesitation, Kinderman obliged when Kaufman asked if he could come to Illinois to learn more about Beethoven and “The Diabelli Variations.”

But what Kaufman didn’t know at the time was that he was about to get more than he bargained for. He didn’t realize Kinderman also was married to a musicologist, who has more than passing knowledge of Beethoven. Among her professional pursuits, Syer’s scholarship includes a recently published article about Beethoven’s “Eroica” sketchbook.

During the playwright’s first visit – one of many to follow – to Champaign-Urbana, “he worked around the clock with Bill for a few days,” Syer said. “We soon became connected on an intimate sphere. He fell in love with Anna, our daughter, then just a little over a year old.”

The work continued and the relationship between Kaufman and the U. of I. musicologists continued to evolve over time as well. In between visits, the experts fielded all manner of e-mail questions from Kaufman – ranging from technical to more personal inquiries about who they are, as people and musicologists.

“I’ve shared a lot with Moisés,” Syer said. “He knows a few things about me that Bill doesn’t fully know. And he’s asked me questions about Bill, hoping for fuller answers than Bill would typically reveal himself.”

“He’s also asked me a lot of questions to try to get the take on Beethoven,” Kinderman said. “It’s notoriously difficult to put a character like Beethoven on the stage effectively and convincingly.

“He (Kaufman) is fascinated by a dimension of Beethoven I’ve tended to
emphasize … he constantly made puns and jokes in a very wry way. And he’s very interested in picking up on that.”

But, as it turns out, that’s not all Kaufman picked up on. Over time, Kinderman and Syer had so inspired the writer that he based one of the play’s integral characters on a composite of both of them. He even named the character Katherine.

However, Kaufman exercised typical creative license with his character development.

“For instance,” Syer said, “the character Katherine graduated from Berkeley with a doctoral degree in musicology, and that’s actually Bill.”

Going into the project, Kaufman said he didn’t approach it with a stereotypical musicologist in mind because he didn’t know any.

As a result, Syer and Kinderman “have been so important to the development of this piece. They’ve really guided me – a playwright – through the complicated paths of the music and the composer.”

Though he did consult a few other Beethoven experts, Kaufman said “Bill’s books and recordings of the variations have been the major source of inspiration and research for me.”

“Katherine’s keen intellect and theatrical savvy have been the other half of the equation. She understands music and theatricality. She lectures around the world on staging ideas and procedures. So that, too, has been invaluable to me as I keep thinking about this play.”

Kaufman and the New York City-based Tectonic Theater, for which he serves as artistic director, are scheduled to premiere the play at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., next season. It’s likely that it also will be staged in New York and Chicago.

In the meantime, Kaufman, and several members of the play’s cast and
crew – including dramaturg Mark Bly – are in residence at the U. of I. until the end of March to fine-tune the play through a “workshopping” process. While on campus, they’ll present two workshop performances open to interested students and faculty members.

“This should be a great opportunity for some of our students who are part of the production team,” Syer said.

The residency also will coincide with the international conference “Genetic Criticism in an Interdisciplinary Context: Literature, Visual Arts, Theater, Music,” which takes place at the U. of I. March 30-31.

“In this context,” Kinderman said, “ ‘genetic criticism’ concerns the study of not just the end product, but the creative evolution of cultural works as revealed through sketches, drafts and other sources.”

Kaufman and Kinderman will be featured during a session on performance, and Syer will chair another on musical sketches and editions. Also participating in the conference – sponsored by the U. of I.-Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique collaborative research project and the colleges of Fine and Applied Arts and Liberal Arts and Sciences – will be other scholars from the United States, Australia, Belgium and France.