Thursday, June 28, 2018

Angelo Villani: I've got a little Liszt...

There could be worse inspirations for a pianist than Vladimir Horowitz. As the pianist Angelo Villani prepares for his first London recital in five years, he's written us a guest post about how the legendary Russian has lit the way to an approach that respects the score and composer while also finding a spontaneity that recreates the music anew in every performance. Do come and hear him play Chopin, Mozart, Bach and, of course, a little Liszt - actually, quite a lot - at the Royal Overseas League next week, 5 July. JD

Angelo in action
Photo: Bronac McNeill

Angelo Villani writes:

This July will be my first public recital in London for five years, so it’s an understatement to say I am excited. In the past, my repertoire has been principally centred around Liszt, as well as my own transcriptions, but for this next concert, alongside Chopin, I will be playing a smattering of Bach and Mozart for the very first time. My supporters are curious as to how I plan to approach these composers. 

Since my teens, I have listened to great pianists, like Horowitz, who came to Mozart late in his life. He didn’t play a huge amount of Mozart, but he played him magnificently. Horowitz came from an operatic perspective that was not wholly conventional, and it ties in with how I feel about finding nuances and a sense of colour, which forms its own boundaries and its own cohesion and wholeness. His playing is very inspired. And inspiring. It’s emotive and personal, and changes with every performance. That’s what I am looking for, too. 

Like period dramas, music shows us something of that time, but they also hold a mirror up to ourselves, showing us the human condition. We will always be drawn to Shakespeare, for example, and this year is the 200thanniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. They speak to us as we are essentially the same humans. The customs and manners have changed, which is what we see in these dramas. We see the way they behave is different, but what they feel inside, that humanity, really hasn’t changed a lot. People still search for love and truth. 

For me, in whatever I play, it’s a question of expression. With Mozart I am not looking for any of that classical form of correctness. I believe that can be achieved, that sense of style, when one taps into what Wagner referred to as melos. Being in the moment. It’s very telling, and it’s derived from his ideas on conducting. Approaching all music, one has to find that sense of being in the moment and finding the right mood, and let that carry through. It creates its own structure and sense of scale and for me it’s very important to do that in an organic way, although it’s difficult to achieve.

When we talk about classical music, we’re using an umbrella term for a lot of music that blossomed from the Renaissance up until present day. We have Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and then Moderns, Avant-garde and beyond, to what we have now. It’s good for people to understand that music can greatly reflect its epoch, but at the same time for the artist to be able to exploit the humane characteristics of the music, and to bring out its soulfulness and inherent humanity, they need to transcend barriers of classification. A lot of music can express these very personal human emotions that don’t necessarily come from the Romantic era. For me, when I played my transcription of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, it opened a door for me to hear the Mozart D minor Fantasy and the Bach Siciliano in a completely different way because it reminded me, all of a sudden, that this music is heart-breaking and has its own pain, even though the way it is structured, its simplicity, is very much a Baroque style. It’s like a small etching or a pencil drawing, but with incredible and very poignant detail. So it drew me to these pieces in a way I wasn’t necessarily aware of when I was younger. 

I’m sometimes asked what my motivation is for altering the score. I don’t do it that often, but it largely happens with Liszt, who was unique in this respect as his works were not always a finished product in the same sense as Chopin or Mozart, where everything was crystallized. He comes from a very Beethovenian line of thinking. Liszt tended to improvise and he kept re-writing the same pieces, not really knowing what would be the final result. His music relied a lot on the performer, who infused a good deal of their own personal take on it, especially the endings. So, I am always at ease with the idea: "Well, what would the composer do to take it beyond what they have arrived at?" Because music is a transitory experience, when a composer writes a piece down on paper, it’s still in transition until the performer brings it to life. I don’t think it’s a finite work, and we do have to respect that these great composers improvised. Chopin used to improvise a lot of the ornaments in his music, and his students said he never played his music in the same way twice. So even he changed things. They were ornaments, but it was essential for him to be able to change them. With Liszt, it was a malleability in his sense of texture and sound, which was more orchestral. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Zukerman: "We need peace. Stop this occupation."

Pinchas Zukerman
Photo from

Pinchas Zukerman, who's at the RPO this week for his own summer festival (lots of Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn), is, as ever, an inspiration. I had his recording of the Mendelssohn concerto when I was a kid and loved it so much I nearly wore out the LP. I talked to him the other week for a 70th Birthday interview for the JC, and frankly, it's not every day that a top Israeli musician will speak out in this way. Sometimes it takes a figure like Pinchas Zukerman to say this, and to say it somewhere it will be heard. Born in Israel in 1948, he's only a couple of months younger than the state itself and his voice demands to be heard.

Here's a taster and you can read the whole thing here.

“After 70 years,” declares Zukerman, “we need peace.
“I come from there, I was born there, I have a passport, I have an identity, I’m an Israeli of Jewish faith. We have Israelis of non-Jewish faith, many, many denominations. We need to experiment with all denominations a little bit better on the human side and give them a little more respect.   
“The government of Israel should really look itself in the mirror every day and say: ‘Show respect, for God’s sake!’ Stop doing what you’re doing and just talk to them. 
“After 70 years now, we need a piece of paper that calls for peace. I don’t care if you call it two states, three states, four states — we need peace. We need something that says: ‘I respect you as my neighbour. Let’s sit down, then, and start talking about it on equal grounds.’ 
“You’ve got to stop this occupation: it is wrong. It is wrong for the people who live there. That doesn’t mean that one will have this and the other will have that. Just let’s have one document that calls for peace signing or a peace treaty of some sort: the place could just blossom no end. These are extraordinary peoples that live there. 
“I hope I could still see and experience this in my lifetime: that I could be in Arab countries, not just Jordan and Egypt, but many others, where I could play. There are some fantastic talents from the Arab world whom I have met over the years in Canada, in America, in London and so on — I would like to see that in Tel Aviv. And we in turn could go to places in the Arab world and play and enjoy our art form that we are so blessed to have. It’s time. Seventy years is enough!” 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Glyndebourne calling

Ever heard an opera at Glyndebourne written by a woman? I haven't. OK, maybe I missed one, but still. Hopefully that's about to change. Glyndebourne recently built and cultivated a gorgeous, fragrant rose garden. Now it can cultivate a special musical sphere too. Please form an orderly queue for this terrific opportunity. (We ladies are accustomed to queuing, as most opera houses will attest.)

They built a rose garden. They can build a new repertoire too.


Glyndebourne’s commitment to nurturing musical talent and thus securing the future of opera for coming generations has long been at the heart of the organisation. Today we are announcing two new schemes to further support young artists.

Balancing the Score: supporting female composers is a new development scheme exclusively for female composers. It will offer up to four women the chance to spend two years immersed in life at Glyndebourne, attending rehearsals and meeting professional opera makers and performers. Participants will be introduced to commissioning opportunities at Glyndebourne and development opportunities with high profile partners such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The announcement comes at a time of growing awareness of the under-representation of female composers in classical music. In February the BBC Proms announced that it would give half of its new commissions to women by 2022, and a new BBC series starts tonight in which presenter Danielle de Niese will shine a light on forgotten female composers from history.

Lucy Perry, Head of Education at Glyndebourne, said: ‘Glyndebourne is a proud and committed commissioner of new opera and, like many of our peers, we are concerned about the under-representation of female composers in classical music. With this new programme we can do our bit towards tackling that issue by offering practical support to female composers who aspire to write opera.’

Along with the chance to immerse themselves in the work of a world-class opera house, the successful candidates will receive an annual bursary of £2,000 to cover expenses and time spent at Glyndebourne during the part-time residency.

Applications for Balancing the Score open today at to female composers of any age. The closing date is Friday 17 August 2018 and interviews will be held on Wednesday 24 October.

Also announced today, and to mark this 50th anniversary year of the Glyndebourne Tour, is a new development scheme for young orchestral players called On the Road. Young professional instrumentalists will be invited to join the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra as it travels the country, to gain their first professional operatic experience. The players will participate on an equal footing with other members of the orchestra and will be paid for their participation.

The new scheme extends the Tour’s cornerstone commitment to nurturing young talent. Among the internationally acclaimed artists whose performances with Glyndebourne Tour helped establish their careers are Robin Ticciati, Jakub Hrůša, Ivor Bolton, Louis Langrée, John Tomlinson, Sarah Connolly, Gerald Finley, Emma Bell, Alfie Boe, Roberto Alagna, Edward Gardner and Kate Royal.

Steven Naylor, Director of Artistic Administration, said: ‘This scheme is designed to offer newly graduated players real-world professional work experience over a concentrated three-month period by putting them straight in at the deep end – the fastest way to learn!’

In its first year, the scheme will offer places to 9 players. In future years applications will be invited online for players of a selected number of instruments.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Secrets, lies and Star Wars

Curious to see whether Na'ama Zisser's Mamzer Bastard actually deserved the vicious drubbing to which other critics have subjected it, I trekked off to the Hackney Empire yesterday for the final performance. The short answer is that it was pretty impressive. This is largely because it has two important qualities that no amount of editing could add and that many other, better-reviewed contemporary operas are lacking: emotional authenticity and a heart.

Edward Hyde and Collin Shay as Yoel, boy and man.
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey/ROH

Mamzer Bastard is an original story by librettists Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton. The theme of inheritance and continuity - of names, of traditions and ultimately of traumas - is central. Set in the Hasidic Jewish community of New York, it takes places on the night of the citywide blackout in July 1977. A young man, Yoel, meets a stranger in the darkness, a familiar-looking older individual who describes himself as nothing but a ghost, and shares the name of Yoel.

It turns out that he is Yoel's mother's first husband. Esther married him in Poland. Then came the war, she escaped to America and he was thought to have died in a concentration camp. He survived, came to the US to seek her and finally discovered that, believing him dead, she had married someone else. Her new husband, Menashe, is Yoel's father - but Esther at the last moment named Yoel after her original husband (and implicitly true love) instead. Young Yoel knew nothing of this. Nobody knows, yet the trauma is there and tangible: Menashe bullies his son continually, worried that he might not be his own child; Esther is tetchy and het-up; the relationships are all under constant strain. The effect on Yoel is deep-seated insecurity and a stammer.

Now Yoel realises that the other Yoel's existence means that he, the young man, is a 'mamzer' - inadvertently illegitimate, because under Jewish law Esther's former marriage is still valid, invalidating the later one, which would convey illegitimacy on his own marriage, his children, his grandchildren. Don't tell, the other Yoel advises. No one will know. "I will know," Yoel says. But he goes home and goes through with getting married. The last thing we hear is the wedding, off stage. If this conclusion might risk looking like a cop-out to some, it is actually anything but. It is an implied devastation of the future. It means that Yoel must carry it all on himself. That the next generation will be left to uncover his secrets. The trauma will continue.

These things happened - many, many times - and the Zisser family team has conveyed them with an inner conviction that has genuine power. In so doing, Na'ama has created some fine roles: Yoel is a counter-tenor, an excellent Collin Shay, and the flashbacks to his childhood memories are portrayed wonderfully by a boy soprano, Edward Hyde. Esther is that rare creation, a big role for an older mezzo-soprano, Gundula Hintz in full Susan Bickley mode; and the bullying Menashe (Robert Burt) has his own moments of anguish as he desperately hunts for his son in the chaotic streets of the blacked-out city. The first Yoel is sung by Steven Page, heart-rending as far as the character goes - on the one hand, he is a shadowy figure whom we don't get to know well enough, but on the other hand, neither does our Yoel. And there's another character: the synagogue cantor, David, sung by the real cantor Netanel Hershtik from the Hampton Synagogue in the US, punctuating the action with existing cantorial music.

In the pit, conductor Jessica Cottis commands a tight ship with 12 players from the Aurora Orchestra. The whole is slightly amplified, which I doubt added much to the effect for me in the sixth row - I don't much like amplification in opera unless absolutely necessary - but perhaps it would have made words more immediate for those further back or higher up. The direction by Jay Scheib involves live camera: a cinematographer, Paulina Jurzec, shadows the performers close to and her filming is projected onto a huge wall so that we see the emotions up close. A technical issue, though, means that there's a small time delay between the sound of the singing and the projection, just enough to upset the mouths/words coordination and prove bothersome (though it's no worse than you often find on Youtube). No interval: good for the audience, but it sounded, by the end, as if some of the singers could have used a midway break to recuperate.

Yes, some tightening up wouldn't hurt; the staging would have been better if the filmed coordination of image and voices had been precise and if the cinematographer had worn black sleeves to make her less conspicuous. Some of the repetitions of text are overused; and a little more variety of pace in the music would be a good thing, as - like every other new opera I hear - the whole thing walks along without much changing (when writing Silver Birch Roxanna and I tried to build in lots of variety in tempo because this is a major bug-bear for us both). But Zisser's sound world is far from standard-issue modernism: it is distinctive for its keening strings in quarter-tones, off-centre effects that destabilise the scene as if from within the characters themselves; electronics are seamlessly integrated, uncompromising chunky chords measure out emotions to match, and resonant percussive effects create chilling auras of sound. Above all, there's urgent human warmth at the core of it.

Na'ama Zisser, incidentally, is 29 and has an impressive track-record of commissions in a big range of genres. Her 'doctoral composer in residence' post at the Guildhall was previously held by Philip Venables, who produced 4.48 Psychosis while there. Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton normally work together in film scripts - and Na'ama has previously written a 'horror opera' with Newton.

It's possible, of course, that Mamzer Bastard is simply too niche, too bizarre a world for some Londoners. The alienation from modern life of the Hasidic community is shown when Yoel relates his experience of attempting to go to the cinema. "Star Wars or Annie Hall?" asks the ticket girl, a recorded voice. "One's scary, the other's funny." He has never heard of Star Wars. He goes in, expecting guidance, and doesn't find any (he'd have found Annie Hall much more helpful, but there we go...). But alienation can work two ways. The ongoing impact of Holocaust traumas is by no means exclusive to the Hasidic community; it creates fault-lines in almost every Jewish family in one way or another. If you are familiar with this environment to any degree, you'll recognise elements of it all too clearly. If you're not, though, it could be a steep learning curve.

Let's say I am predisposed in some ways to be sympathetic to this opera because my ancestors shared that world. There but for the grace of God go I. And some Yiddish words I haven't heard in years jumped out and made me smile. I realise this may mean I struggled less with the setting and felt more at ease with the work than perhaps others might. The audience was mostly Jewish - that doesn't make the work 'outreach', as one commentator sniped, but it does mean that it reached an audience that other operas might not. At the same time, it would be nice if that world could also be shown to those who are not part of it, and might emerge understanding it a little bit better.

We have to face up to the fact that the music world of the UK is rooted heavily in the Anglican church. Choir, organ and early music therefore have a natural home here and the most eminent people in the business tend to have had a grounding in that sphere. I remember well that as a Jewish music student in Cambridge, I felt very much a minority; if you don't want to go into a chorus and sing about Jesus, you're on your own. The English choral tradition has produced some glorious music and musicians, but it is also, inevitably, quite limiting; and if that is your world from the start, you may not be encouraged to start looking beyond it until it is, let's say, a bit late. On the other hand, none of that has ever stopped me from loving the Fauré Requiem, the Missa Solemnis, the St Matthew Passion or hundreds of Bach cantatas. Open-mindedness could work two ways, too, given half a chance.

By the way, I have not yet seen any other reviews of Mamzer Bastard by critics who happen to be female.

Yes, Mamzer Bastard has some weaknesses and needs a few tweaks, but it's far from the unmitigated disaster that some would have us believe. You could make cuts, direct it differently and not use amplification. No amount of tweaking, though, can add a heart to a work if it doesn't have one from the start, and this opera does. Unlike many.

Friday, June 15, 2018

My holiday job...

Hello, Townsville! from Jessica Duchen on Vimeo.

I'm off to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, Far North Queensland, in late July, where I'll be presenting my new narrated concert Being Mrs Bach, specially commissioned for the event by artistic director Kathryn Stott. My colleagues on stage will include Siobhan Stagg, Roderick Williams, Guy Johnston, the Goldner String Quartet and many more, and it's kind of thrilling. I'll also be giving a talk about women composers for the Winterschool and writing copious quantities of words about the experience of attending the festival.

The other day I spent a happy few hours in the National Theatre's costume hire warehouse, trying on 18th-century garb. I did find something in which I could actually breathe, which was a good start. I hope it'll work. No, it will not be anything like Lucy Worsley. Yes, I really hope we can do some version of it in the UK too.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Who is the Mamzer Bastard?

Had a fantastic interview with the composer Na'ama Zisser and librettists Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton about their new opera, Mamzer Bastard, which is opening at the Hackney Empire tonight under the auspices of the Royal Opera House and Guildhall School of Music and Drama (where Na'ama is doctoral composer in residence). Rachel and Sam are a writing team who normally do horror movies; Na'ama set out to incorporate cantorial music of the Hasidic tradition into her score. It should prove a pretty extraordinary mix. You can read the whole thing in the JC here.

Taster (from the middle....)
Mamzer Bastard is no horror story, but its filmic qualities are evident as Rachel describes it. The action takes place in New York on 13 July 1977, the night of one of the biggest blackouts in the city’s history. A young man from the Orthodox Jewish community is to get married the next day. Unsure that he is ready, he decides to escape and finds himself lost in the darkened streets of the city, where he is nearly murdered. A stranger saves his life, asking in recompense only that he returns to his family and the wedding. “The more the young man learns about the stranger,” says Rachel, “the more he realises how little he knows about himself.” 
“Mamzer” translates almost as “bastard”, but more precisely as a person born from a relationship forbidden within Jewish religious law. According to Rachel, the story relates, tangentially, to deep roots within the Zisser family. “My aunt had a story that she told me when I was a child, and I’ve been trying to write it in one form or another ever since,” she says. 
“At five or six years old, she was with her father when he ran into an old friend from before the Holocaust, who said ‘How nice to see you  and this is your little daughter?’ He replied, in Yiddish, thinking my aunt couldn’t understand: ‘Yes, but she’s not the original one, she’s not the first…’. My aunt was haunted afterwards: ‘Who is the original me?’ 
“When she was 17-18, her father went to testify at one of the Nuremburg trials. He came back with a document of his testimony against one of the Nazis. My grandmother didn’t want her children to know that our grandfather had had another family before the war, so she hid the document  and my aunt found it. It was the first time she learned that he had a daughter and a son before her, so she understood finally why she was not the first. I think the presence of a life that has not been lived is very much part of this opera.”
Mamzer Bastard is at the Hackney Empire tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, conducted by Jessica Cottis. Booking here. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Fauré Requiem, up close and personal

Portrait of Gabriel Fauré by John Singer Sargent

I had an extraordinary day a few weeks ago, heading for Paris and the Bibliothèque National with the composer and conductor Bob Chilcott, the presenter Frances Fyfield and the producer Tom Alban to meet the manuscript of the Fauré Requiem. BBC Radio 4's 'Tales from the Stave' is a fascinating series which explores the hidden stories within the composer's handwritten scores, and ours will be on today at 11.30am, and repeated on Sunday.

We found, among other things:
...some coffee stains;
some intriguing corrections;
some elaborate crossings-out;
some later changes and slightly wobbly phrase marks;
a few bits where he'd started writing on the wrong line, probably because he was scribbling too fast or was completely knackered;
in general, a very practical, down-to-earth working score for this other-worldly work of genius.

I was mildly disappointed that he hadn't doodled caricatures of Saint-Saëns in the margins, but needs must.

Hope you enjoy the programme. You can hear it here.

Friday, June 08, 2018

The Invisible Opera

Composer Emily Howard's first full-length chamber opera, premiering today on the opening night of the Aldeburgh Festival this week, is based on a science fiction short story in which the crime of coldness is punished by invisibility. I could say a few things about the symbolism of this theme and how very much one wishes it could be true for certain people in public life, but you can work that out for yourselves. Instead, let's go over to Emily for her insights into the creative process. Toitoitoi for the performances! JD

The Invisible Opera
A guest post by Emily Howard

My first full-length chamber opera To See The Invisible[trailer] premieres this week on the opening night of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, and we’re nearing the end of the production period. In the next few days we’ll have stage and orchestra rehearsals followed by the dress rehearsal and I can honestly say that these last few weeks have been a real eye-opener for me. Before now, I actually had no idea that there would be so many people involved in making an opera work. I’ve enjoyed working closely with librettist Selma Dimitrijevic, director Dan Ayling and music director Richard Baker for some time now, and in addition to this, collaborating with a wonderful cast of singers, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, a full opera production team as well the Aldeburgh staff over the last few weeks has been an amazing experience. That’s a lot of people and I’m delighted to have learnt a whole lot of new information.

I wonder how many other composers have had a similar experience during the production of their first opera? The feeling that in fact you are part of a giant machine and that there are many more cogs in the system than you had possibly imagined? Set Design, lighting, costume and the most amazing number of very practical considerations that in some cases can end up re-shaping your music in places. I love it. I love the collaborative nature of working as part of an opera team, and the fact that the problem solving involved has to factor in so many dimensions, with music being one of them. 

My first outing in opera was a mini-opera Zátopekcommissioned by Second Movement for New Music 20x12, part of the London Cultural Olympiad. I created this with writer Selma Dimitrijevic and we were keen to work together again. We began to discuss the idea of shunning as a central theme for an opera at least five years ago in 2013, and this was the starting point for To See The Invisible.

In 2014 Selma and I linked up with director Dan Ayling, and we all decided that it would be beneficial to approach opera development in a tripartite fashion: composer, librettist and director in discussion from the outset. In particular, we spent significant time together on artistic residencies at Snape Maltings developing materials and ideas, a period that I believe was hugely valuable for the opera. We are all very strong-minded and the three-way conversation enabled us to discuss the many layers of the opera from very different perspectives. 

To See The Invisibleis loosely based on a short sci-fi story To See The Invisible Manby American writer Robert Silverberg. The way we came to discover this wonderful short story is worth telling. Selma was working on the libretto in 2016 and staying with her brother in Croatia. One day she described the story that she was working on to him, and he said “that reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s short sci-fi story” and directed Selma to his bookshelf. Selma then realised that this was a story she had read in her childhood and that it was now resurfacing in our opera! We had been searching for the ‘crux’ of the theme of shunning, and what the crime would be – and finding the Silverberg story clarified this complete for us, as we encountered the concept of the crime of coldness around which his story hinges. 

In the opera, like in the Silverberg, our protagonist, The Invisible, is sentenced to a year of invisibility for committing a crime of coldness. The Invisible’s physical journey through the world of warmth, and emotional journey from hope to despair are also rooted in the Silverberg short story. But there are significant differences as well: the opera begins a lot earlier than the story: we see the arrest, and there is a court scene where The Invisible receives the sentence. In the opera, we also experience the toll this takes on The Invisible’s family.

In my concert music as well as my music for stage, I am always excited by the collision and union of disparate ideas from diverse sources: the subsequent translation of these hybrid ideas into sound is the crux of my creative process, and never more so than in the musical score for To See The Invisible. In the opera, it has therefore been my aim to create hugely contrasting types of music that interact with each other in unexpected ways. 

Writing concert music is deeply rewarding in a completely different way from writing music for the stage and over the last decade I’ve written a number of works using ideas from science and mathematics as creative catalysts. These include my string quartet Afference(2014-15), receiving a performance given by the Piatti Quartet in Aldeburgh, and orchestral works sphere(2017) and Magnetite(2007), both being performed in Aldeburgh by BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Mark Wigglesworth as part of my residency this year. 

Emily Howard, June 2018

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

JDCMB star interview: Fabio Luisi

Yesterday it was announced that the Italian conductor Fabio Luisi has been appointed music director of the Dallas Symphony. Many congratulations to both maestro and orchestra - it's splendid news. He takes up his post in 2020. Currently he is music director of the Zurich Opera House, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. 

About two and a half years ago I was dispatched to Zurich to interview Fabio Luisi for The Independent. It was the start of the 2015-16 season and the opera house was opening with a stunning new production of Berg's Wozzeck by Andreas Homoki, with the baritone Christian Gerhaher in the title role. I enjoyed a fascinating, wide-ranging and deep-thinking discussion with Maestro Luisi which could have filled a small book. When I got home I found that I was required to write all of 600 words...about my interviewee's side enthusiasm - his perfume brand. Meanwhile the auto-"correct" on my phone, on which I record interviews, had saved the track as "Fabio Lucidity". Which was not inappropriate.

I've therefore been waiting for a suitable moment to run selected highlights from the rest of the interview.  The chance is upon us. Please bear in mind, reading the below, that this took place several years ago - but I've tried to choose only the parts of the interview that are still relevant today (and in particular I have not included some passages about the Met in New York, as recent events over there have rendered them quite seriously outdated).

Fabio Luisi
Photo: Barbara Luisi Photography

JD: I’m fascinated by the contrast between Zurich and New York – I can’t think of two more different places and opera houses. 

FL: The first thing is we think about the size of the houses, but the way to make music is, for me at least, very similar, with the same principles. This house is a little bit more tricky because you have to care about dynamics, especially with a huge orchestra like Wagner or Strauss, and even Wozzeck can be dangerous. On the other hand it’s very good for the musicians and even for the correlation we have with each other because we try – and this is one of the best skills of this orchestra – to try to make chamber music out of every work. And this is always a good thing, so we can see the structures of the composition, we can hear every voice, every line, which means a lot to me. But basically it’s the same way I’m working in New York.

Wozzeck still feels like a contemporary work today…

I think every master work is contemporary. Even the oldest ones, if you see Monteverdi’s Orfeo,it is contemporary because it speaks about things which are actual to us as well – loss, love, search for identity, search for meaning of life. And this piece: of course soldiers have been soldiers for 10,000 years, it’s always the same issue with war and soldiers. It doesn’t change and it won’t change ever. I think a real masterwork, whether in music, literature or painting, is a work which shows you like a microcosm of life, which is actual no matter in which time it has been written and in which time is going to be heard, seen or read. Wozzeck is one of those masterworks.

Do you have ideas about what directions the operatic world could take to rejuvenate itself?

 This is hard to say. I think the priority is always the quality of what you present to the audience. If you’re just presenting something without any artistic or dramatic goal before your eyes, this is what happened in many houses in the last 20 years, no matter what they did, the public hand was paying. Now it’s not paying any more, so they have to develop new ideas, that’s clear, and at the same time attract a new segment of audience. 

Here in Zurich we are working very hard at this. Yesterday we had a day of open doors with a huge party on the square in front of the house where we presented our opera studio with the young singers, and we had a quiz. In the evening I had an open rehearsal of Falstaff for four hours; the house was packed – everyone could come inside and watch the rehearsal. I spoke to the audience before and told them ‘You are experiencing what we are doing every day and in order to improve our offer to you’ – so I interrupted, I talked to the singers and the orchestra, we did some parts again and again until they were good with the audience in the hall. These are small steps, but with time you attract people. It is important to talk to people about what you are doing, because they don’t know what’s happening. They come to us in the evening, but they don’t know we are working all day for this. Sometimes we hear the question “You play in the evening, but what are you doing during the day?”…

Zurich has a big reputation for building singers’ careers… 

Yes, many great singers, Jonas Kaufmann, Vittorio Grigolo, Javier Camarena, a lot have been here. And we have a lot of new young singers who are starting a huge career. That’s a good thing and it means our director, casting director, music director, general director, they have good ears to understand how young singers could develop in the future & this is v important. 

I’d understand if you didn’t want to name anyone – but any you specially like now? 

Many of them – it would be unfair to the others to talk names, but maybe Julie Fuchs, who is in our ensemble. There are so many good young singers. They do not develop at exactly the same pace. Some need more time, others develop like an explosion from one day to another, they change the voice, they have the personality, or they have the courage to show the personanity. In our opera studio we offer two years where they can learn and also start to participate to the productions with small roles at first and then more. The good ones we take over to the ensemble. This is a very good path.

What’s it like working with Christian Gerhaher? [He was singing Wozzeck]

It is challenging and refreshing at the same time! It is challenging because he has – he’s a perfectionist. And he reminds us that we should be all perfectionists in our musical jobs, never be happy with what we could achieve because there is always a step forwards. This is like him: he is always looking for better. At the same time this is the challenging part, because he inspires everybody to be like him, and also the refreshing part because he reminds us we are doing this for music: it is not a normal job, it’s something special, we’re doing something that elevates us in order to elevate the people who come to our performances. It’s great to work with him on the human basis.

How do you manage your multi-tasking and dividing your time?

 I try to make the best of everything. I always think I am so fortunate to be able to do this – opera, concert performances and even my perfume business, which is just a small thing like a hobby. They give me a lot of energy. 

Illustration of Don d'Amour by Nafia Guljar for FL Parfums
How did the perfumery begin? 

I was always interested in perfumes and one day I thought why don’t I try it for myself? So a few years ago I started to read, to get informed, to try by myself to make mixtures. I had a teacher and continued to learn. It’s a continuous learning process; it never ends. 

What about Italy? We always think of it as the home of opera and we like to think you’d have been steeped in Italian opera from the start… 

…Which for me is not the case! I started with music very early, but opera has always been something I did not consider earnestly until my teacher in Genoa brought me to a rehearsal. She was my piano teacher, but she played violin in the orchestra, When I was 11-12 she brought me to a rehearsal. I remember very clearly, it was Otello in the 1960s or beginning of the 1970s. It was something astonishing to me - so many people on stage and I thought they are actors and singers and the orchestra and the maestro coordinating everything, and that was probably the first input for opera. 

Later I worked with singers on the piano and that was very important to me because I learned to breathe, to shape phrases. I learned also the physiology of the singers because that’s very important for a conductor. I began to think piano is too small for me, I want to develop a conducting style, so I started studying conducting. After that I had a job at Graz opera house as a coach at first and then conducting first small things. So I started that way. This is very normal: the old-fashioned path to opera conducting. I have to say I could not conduct opera if I had not had this kind of experience. It was important to me to accompany a singer on the piano and know when he needs to breathe and why and how the voice works, how his anatomy and physiology work – it’s something you have to know in order to do this job. It’s not just beating the tempo! 

Were there musicians who inspired you, mentors, etc? 

I studied in Genoa until my piano diploma and we did not have a lot of great artists coming to our town – it wasn’t like London, NY, Paris, Milano, where everybody should be. It is more provincial, so I tried to get out of Genoa and went to Austria and tehre I started to try to go deeper into the music. My only conducting teacher was Milan Horvath – he was a very experienced musician, not very famous, but a good solid conductor with perfect preparation and a wonderful technique. I learned a lot from him. Then I learned by doing: by coaching and by assisting other conductors actually. Of course I had my musical role models, like Leonard Bernstein, Sergiu Celibidache or Herbert von Karajan, but I never met them! 

There’s a huge contrast between the still-prevalent Regietheater in Germany and central Europe and the Met’s conservative approach in the US. Do you have a preference for experimental productions or classic ones? 

I have my preferences in an aesthetical world, of course, but I try not to judge aesthetics because they can be so different – and good, even if they are not my aesthetics, I have to admit it is well done and it works. For staging, I don’t like to make a difference between conservative and progressive or experimental. The first issue, the first task they have to achieve, is the respect of the score, the respect of what is the score, what is behind the score, what is the meaning of the piece, What I do not like is – there was a vogue in Germany 10-15 years ago, it was called Deconstructivism, to completely destroy the structure and meaning of a piece. I’ve never understood why! Why would we do that?! 

And so of course you can have a very progressive staging which is terribly boring, and you can have a conservative staging which is full of wit and ideas and which describes, even explains the piece. That’s what I want to see: please explain to me this piece. What I always say – which is maybe easy to say, but for me crucial – if I went to an opera performance with my kids, when they were younger, and they didn’t understand what’s happening, then it was a bad staging. No matter if it’s conservative or progressive. They have seen progressive things and were enthusiastic; and conservative ones, well done, but they thought it was boring, because they did not understand exactly what was happening. As a father I think it’s a good way to understand whether the staging is adequate or not. This is my point of view. 

Any directors you’d refuse to work with? 

It happened several times already to refuse an offer because I knew which director was doing that and I told the intendant of the opera house that I’m sorry but I’m not the right man to work with him, so before we have then problems in the moment of working together, take another conductor so you won’t have problems at that point. It has always been a wise decision on my part to do this, even refusing an important opera house. I work here [Zurich] and I can choose my directors – I know with whom I want to work. 

Which directors do you like to work with? 

Robert Carsen, for instance. I also like to work with Andreas Homoki, we did many, many works together. I had a good experience many years ago with Tony Palmer – we did Simon Boccanegra in Hamburg. He’s a wonderful man with a deep understanding of theatre and music and he has made a lot of movies, which are very interesting. He was not doing much opera, but at that time what he did do was beautiful and deep and simple. The simplest things are often the best. I have also worked with Günter Krämer a couple of times: it’s always very beautiful to work with him.

Anything you haven’t conducted yet that you still want to do? 

Yes, there are a couple of Wagner operas I’d like to conduct, but also operas that I’m waiting for, because I don’t feel ready yet. There are many conductors who say ‘everything as soon as possible’. I don’t agree. Maybe I would have agreed 20 years ago, but I don’t any more because 20 years ago I thought La Traviata is an easy piece! But today if someone proposes me La Traviata I think Oh God, it is one of the most difficult pieces there is! To do it well is very difficult. It’s a question of personality, and of ageing. I think differently now from how I thought when I was 30. 

Which pieces would you wait for?

Tristan: I’d wait. I think in a couple of years I could try. Parsifal: I could do it now. I’ve never done Otello, but I don’t know if I want to do Otello. Otherwise I’d like to do Moses und Aron and I think I could be ready for this now. 

You’re doing so many different things at such a high level – would it be fair to say you’re someone who likes to do things properly or not at all?


So you’re a perfectionist? 

To be perfectionist is a challenge. This is important to me: if I do something I try to do it properly, yes. 

Because I think some people who might take up perfumery as a hobby might not turn it into a business! 

Possibly! But I cannot stand people who do not care about quality. This is important. Why are we doing this: just for the money? It’s not for the money. For the audience? Yes, for the audience; but also for the respect of what we are doing. I think how much energy, thoughts, passion and time, but especially thoughts and passion Alban Berg put into this work [Wozzeck]; I feel forced to do it well for him, for the work, and to show the audience how great this work is. Sometimes I can do it; sometimes not as well as I want. But my father always used to say to me you have to try not harder, harder is not enough, but hardEST, because if you don’t achieve that goal, even if you are a little bit behind it, it will still be good. But if you don’t aim for the best, you will never achieve any goal – and this is right. 

Was he a musician? 

No – he was a train conductor! And of course I loved him and I loved his job & he took me sometimes on the cockpit of the train. 

Every small boy’s dream… 

It was my dream too, actually. J

Was he surprised you became a musician? 

No, because it was their decision to make me learn piano. I was three and a half years old, I could not make such decisions, and my parents wanted to do something with me. I have to say that I never heard him play,but I know that he was 12 years in Belgium working and he played saxophone in a jazz band there. And my mother was a tailor. 

Was there much support for you while you were studying music? 

They had to make a lot of sacrifices. I know that now. I didn’t see it then, and that was good, because it means that they tried not to show me. But now I know that it was difficult and now I understand why we never had vacation, why we never went out to dinner or lunch, why we did not have a car. At the time I was surprised because all my friends went on vacation or had a car and we did not, so now I understand: they had other priorities. It was good. And they did the same for me and for my brother – he is teaching baroque violin in Austria and is an outstanding musician. They did it for us. I have a lot of respect for this. They are no longer alive, but they saw me conducting many times and they were very proud of us.