For Felder’s reimagined ‘Tchaikovsky’ play in Italy, Florence itself will be the star

Hershey Felder films a scene in Florence, Italy, for "Hershey Felder: Tchaikovsky."
Hershey Felder, in costume as Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, films a scene in Florence, Italy, for San Diego Repertory Theatre’s upcoming “Hershey Felder: Tchaikovsky.”
(Courtesy photo)

San Diego Repertory Theatre is one of several theaters co-presenting the livestreamed play on Sunday


Four years ago next month, San Diego Repertory Theatre hosted the world premiere of Hershey Felder’s composer-inspired solo play with music, “Our Great Tchaikovsky.” But when the play returns to the Rep on Sunday, Dec. 20, it will be a very different show.

Since the pandemic began, the Rep has been streaming all of its shows for home audiences, and Felder has been one of its top contributors. Last spring, Felder launched a livestreaming company from the home he shares in Florence, Italy, with his wife, former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell. This weekend’s Tchaikovsky production is the fifth composer play the Rep has presented since May.

But it’s more than the delivery method that has changed in Felder’s play about Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. This one-night-only production will include many pre-filmed scenes that were recently shot in the streets, piazzas and buildings throughout Florence, where Tchaikovsky found sanctuary in 1878 after fleeing an unhappy marriage. Just six weeks after marrying Antonina Miliukova in 1877, the secretly gay Tchaikovsky moved out and soon left the country.

Hershey Felder films a scene in Florence, Italy, for "Hershey Felder: Tchaikovsky."
(Courtesy photo)

Felder’s 2017 Tchaikovsky play was framed by an actual letter he received from Russian fans who asked him to write a play about Tchaikovsky and bring it to Russia. But Felder found it impossible to honor their request, because in 2013 Russia’s parliament passed a family values law that banned gay “propaganda.” Felder said Tchaikovsky’s repressed homosexuality was so important to who he was, the short life he lived and the music he wrote, that it would be dishonest to pretend it didn’t exist.

“Tchaikovsky’s music, upon every hearing, for me, feels like the man himself is speaking to me in his particular language, and I believe I understand,” Felder said in an email about the revised show last week. “I think many feel this way about his music, and that, it might be said, is my favorite part.”

In the years since, Felder has performed the play more than 400 times in theaters around the country. But now, having the opportunity to retrace Tchaikovsky’s steps in Florence — based on the letters the composer wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck — Felder had the opportunity to revisit the script.

Homophobia isn’t limited to Russia, Felder said, so the letter from the Russian fan isn’t as central to the new version of the play. Instead it’s about how Tchaikovsky found peace and inspiration in Florence. Besides filming in the streets, parks and viewpoints that Tchaikovsky loved, Felder received permission to film in the apartment where Tchaikovsky lived.

“Florence, Italy, was somewhat of a refuge for Tchaikovsky,” Felder said. “He loved the city very much, and especially after one very difficult period in his life in Russia, the soft city of Florence offered him solace. To be able to tell much of the story from the actual location, in the very spot — the very room — where some of it happened, is goose bump-giving, and worthy of the effort of telling this particular story in this new way.”

Because this production is taking place during Christmas week, Felder said he will play additional pieces from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” holiday ballet score. The play also features the “1812 Overture” and excerpts from the Symphony No. 6 Pathétique and ballet scores for “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

The Tchaikovsky play is the final production of 2020 for Felder’s “Live from Florence” company, which should finish the year with some 50,000 streamed views from co-presenting theaters worldwide. In 2021, he plans to premiere three new solo plays on author Sholem Aleichem, Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini and Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

“Hershey Felder: Tchaikovsky”

When: 5 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $55

Phone: (619) 544-1000