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not included some passages about the Met in New York, as recent events over there have rendered them quite seriously outdated).
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.