Director Petr Václav on Redeeming Disgraced Opera Composer ‘Il Boemo’ in the Czech Oscar Entry

Making its world premiere in the main competition at the San Sebastián Festival on Sept. 19, “Il Boemo,” the story of a forgotten Czech composer who rose to fame in the second half of the 18th century, has taken the award-winning filmmaker Petr Václav more than a decade to complete. 

Known as Il Boemo, Josef Mysliveček’s fame was short-lived.  He died before reaching the age of 44, after a whirlwind career composing music for Italian courts and theaters. 

But Václav, together with his DPs, Diego Romero and Suarez Llanos, costume designer Andrea Cavalletto, and a slew of top operatic singers, has created an action-packed period piece, celebrating his tumultuous life, operatic drama, and the aesthetic beauty of the era. 

Variety spoke with Václav ahead of the film’s outing. 

Why isn’t Josef Mysliveček as well known today as some of his contemporaries?

He is certainly not the only composer who has been forgotten. Composers were little more than domestic servants, though some became quite famous in their time. They were under great pressure to write the newest, most fashionable music for old and familiar librettos. The cult of artists only came later, with the arrival of romanticism. Mysliveček was an early example of this freer, more romantic style of life. 

Part of the reason he was forgotten is that he died of syphilis, and so he was seen as an immoral person. His friend Leopold Mozart wrote to his son Wolfgang: “I am very sorry for him. You know my heart. But he is the author of his own misfortune, and his miserable and contemptible life. So now he has to be ashamed in front of the entire world.”

How did the project come about?

I was drawn to it because it’s an Icarian drama, a story of an audacious rise and precipitous fall. I was also drawn to the era’s costumes, furniture, and candles. And of course by the music of the 18th century.

Why were you fascinated by Mysliveček’s music and where did you discover it?

 I wasn’t fascinated by Myslivecek’s music when I began to research the project. His music was hardly recorded at all, or when it was, it was recorded badly. I was amazed by his life story. When I started thinking about Mysliveček, only three of his operas had been recorded, but they weren’t good recordings. They were so bad I feared that Mysliveček might have been a bad composer. I only discovered his music step by step, going to the archives together with the director of orchestra, Vaclav Luks, who played and explained to me his music at the piano. Mysliveček wrote arias for the greatest castrati, tenors, and sopranos of his time. This means that his music cannot be performed without the best voices of our time. Castrato and coloratura parts remain extremely difficult even for today’s female singers and countertenors. So we had to work with the best musicians to show that his music really is truly exceptional.

How did you raise such a big budget, by Czech standards, of Euro 5.5 million ($5.5 million)?

It was very difficult. I don’t think that it is the biggest budget Czech film ever, but it certainly looks big for a film from the Czech Republic. However, the film is set in Italy and in the 18th century, and a setting like that requires a large budget. Considering the cost of period dramas, and of the music we recorded live, my budget is actually very small.

How long did you work on this film? 

I received a scholarship from the French Academy in Rome in 2010. I took a year-and-a-half to study and research in the archives. Writing the script took another year. While trying to raise money for the film, I wrote and shot three feature-length fiction films and one documentary. Filming was supposed to start in 2019, but money and COVID delayed us again and again.

Tell us about filming real life opera stars? Do they possess a different kind of acting skill than big or small screen actors? 

I like to work with all kinds of actors, with non-professionals as well as with experienced big actors. The opera singers in “Il Boemo” played only opera singers on the stage, so they were in roles they knew very well. The only exception was the tenor who played one dialogue scene after his performance. He really enjoyed it. He is very good on screen.

Why is this film relevant for today’s audience?

I think Josef’s story of becoming an artist, of his desire to give a real purpose to his own life, to achieve a kind of artistic freedom, is a story that’s timeless. And then there is the beauty of the costumes and of the sets. Also, it’s always exciting to discover great music of a forgotten composer, someone who deserves to be known.

How much, in your opinion, do the costumes contribute to the film?

The costumes are extremely important, as is the entire visual aspect of the film. I wanted to make a beautiful film, but I also wanted it to be a film free of the conventions of so many period dramas. 

What are you most happy about in the finished project?

It’s really exciting to have the chance to premiere the film in  Competition in San Sebastián. And to represent the Czech Republic in the Oscar race.

What are you doing next? 

I have several projects: I have another period piece in the works. It’s a woman’s story. I have a science fiction film in French or English. I have bigger and smaller budget projects in Italian, French, and English. I’ve got a lot of plans, but for now I want to concentrate on “Il Boemo,” and helping it find an audience worldwide.

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