Press Room

Fabio Luisi chats about career before double debut at La Scala

Fabio Luisi passed a busy spring in New York, leading six different Metropolitan Opera productions in April – more than any conductor has accomplished in a single month since James Levine in 1979. Now Maestro Luisi returns to Europe for orchestral and operatic performances that include a double debut in Milan. First, he leads the Filarmonica della Scala in concert on May 21; then, in June, he makes his opera debut at Milan’s storied Teatro alla Scala, conducting the Laurent Pelly production of Massenet’s Manon, in which he has already won high praise this season at the Met. Luisi will also tour with the Filarmonica della Scala in St. Petersburg and Baden-Baden this summer, and is scheduled to return to La Scala in fall 2013 to lead Verdi’s Don Carlo. In May meanwhile, as Chief Conductor of the Vienna Symphony, the conductor leads two programs: the first comprising Franz Schmidt’s oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (“The Book with Seven Seals”), while the second pairs Mahler’s First Symphony with Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, featuring star violinist Joshua Bell. The coming summer also sees Luisi return to Sapporo, Japan, to lead concerts and a conducting master class as Artistic Director of the Pacific Music Festival.
In the conversation below, Maestro Luisi discusses his recent work as Principal Conductor of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, talks about his upcoming performances this spring, and looks ahead to his new appointment as Music Director of the Zurich Opera, which he takes up at the start of the 2012-13 season.
Q: Twice in the month of April you conducted two operas in the same day at the Metropolitan Opera. What was that like? Was it the first time you had done this?
Fabio Luisi: No, I have done it when I was in Dresden, and at the beginning of my career in Düsseldorf. I conducted Tosca twice on the same day, and I did it also in Berlin with Hansel and Gretel. Now at the Metropolitan it has been Manon in the afternoon and Rheingold in the evening, and the following week Traviata in the afternoon and Manon in the evening. Both of the afternoon performances were for the HD broadcasting in movie theaters worldwide. It’s not that bad, and it was interesting because they were two very different kinds of operas, different languages, different composers, different times. It could have been a little bit of a challenge in changing the style, of course, but at the same time it was a relief for me to come out of French music and to conduct German music, and to come out of Italian music and conduct French music! All of these are pieces of our understanding of music – different pieces, which all have big importance and make the life of a musician complete.
Q: How much do you feel your performances of the Ring operas differ when you do them in a cycle versus on their own? Is it a different experience?
FL: Yes, it is a different experience, because, with a cycle, when I’m done with Rheingold, I think of the next one, and so forth. I think, there is a follow up…it’s not the end: it’s just the beginning, a prologue. The next one will be Walküre, and after Walküre it will be Siegfried, then the next one will be Götterdämmerung. So it’s not completed, there’s just a break in between of a couple of days, and then we go on. It’s not only a musical experience, but also a spiritual experience. It’s a long story, with meaning behind everything: it’s about power, love, money – all the things we have in life. The Ring is a microcosm of life, with everything that happens: moments of fun like in Siegfried, with moments of romance like in Walküre, with moments of thinking about family like Walküre – especially the relationship between father and daughter, and also the moment of necessity of revolution, of change, of transition to new times, which is actually the end of Götterdämmerung. I think it is quite an experience. Musically it is one of the biggest experiences anyone can have.
Q: Had you conducted the Ring before this current Met production? And now that so many critics have responded to it, do you have anything further to say about it?
FL: I did indeed perform the Ring before: I did five cycles in Dresden a few years ago. As for the current production, I think it has perhaps been a mistake to focus so much on “the machine.” “The machine” is just a machine. It helps to make visible what the story tells. It doesn’t matter which kind of machine. At the Met we have the new machine, which has been built for this production, but on the other hand it is just a staging. It is just the help to make the stage visible and to make the story understandable. I think the work Robert Lepage did is a real great work, because he tried and he achieved, for the most part, his goals. He tried to put on an opera story, to visualize an opera story, in a new way, and I think he did a great job. For many it might be too technical, for many it might be too complicated. It is a little bit noisy, which doesn’t disturb me because theater is noisy. There are people stepping on the floor, and there are people making noise. That’s normal. But it’s not only “the machine” that’s responsible. We always have noises in opera performances. We have spoken too much about this machine and too little about how Robert Lepage told the story. It was beautiful working with him. He’s a genius, a real genius.
Q: In Vienna you’ll be conducting Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals. How did you discover his music, and do you think more orchestras should be performing his music?
FL: I discovered Franz Schmidt when I was a student in Graz. In Graz there is a big tradition of Franz Schmidt, especially his work The Book with Seven Seals, because the Domkapellmeister – the conductor of church music in Graz – was a scholar of Schmidt, and every year he presented this big oratorio. So everyone in Graz knows this work, and I attended a performance in the ’80s. And so I gained knowledge of Schmidt the composer, whose music I had not heard before. After that, when I was chief conductor of the Tonkünstler-Orchester in Vienna, my orchestra manager proposed that we do a performance of Schmidt’s Third Symphony, which I didn’t know. It is written in the spirit of Franz Schubert. I did it, and I fell in love with this music. I started to explore Schmidt as a composer, and little by little I did all the symphonies. I recorded them all with the Radio Orchestra of Leipzig, which is a very good recording, and I recorded The Book with Seven Seals with Leipzig. I did the first performance ever of the Fourth Symphony with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and also performed it with the San Francisco Symphony. It wasn’t lost, just not performed. Some of Schmidt’s neglect has had something to do with his involvement with the Nazi regime. He wrote an unfinished oratorio called Deutsche Auferstehung (“German Resurrection”), which is nationalistic and we prefer not to mention or perform. Schmidt died in 1939.
Q: For the curious record collector, which Schmidt recording makes a good place to start?
FL: The Fourth Symphony is the most popular. In addition to performing it with the Concertgebouw and San Francisco Symphony, I also did it with the Vienna Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s beautiful, and audiences really loved hearing this music. The Fourth Symphony is a very intimate work, because he wrote it as a requiem for his daughter. His daughter died giving birth to his granddaughter, and it’s a journey through the life of his daughter.
Q: Your actual first performance at La Scala will be an orchestral performance. The program is fun: in addition to a Beethoven Piano Concerto, you are doing Gabrieli canzonas, as well as music by Casella and Respighi. Clearly you’re bringing the Italians home to La Scala!
FL: Yes, I think this is important. We in Italy don’t have much symphonic music, but we do have something. Casella was one of the most popular composers of the 1920s and ’30s, and was a direct contemporary of Béla Bartók. They were friends, and while they were the most successful composers of the time, Casella nowadays is almost completely forgotten. His music is very exciting, with lots of colors. It’s like Respighi but with more action. It’s very difficult to play, very virtuosic.
Q: Do you count Busoni among the Italians?
FL: Busoni is the most German of Italian composers. We don’t consider him to be a real Italian composer because he was so linked to the German way of thinking. Dallapiccola is a wonderful composer, especially his one-act opera Volo di notte.
Q: Your first opera performance at La Scala is Manon in June. How can it be that you’ve never conducted at La Scala before?
FL: I think it’s okay, because La Scala is not a point where you start your career, but you arrive later. Now I’m 53, and I think it is the right time!
Q: Have you heard any memorable performances at La Scala?
FL: Yes, I remember as a student I heard some wonderful performances there by Abbado. I can remember a terrific Simon Boccanegra. I remember a wonderful Don Carlos. There were some historic performances with Freni, Capuccilli. And since I’m a ballet lover, I have seen many performances of ballet there in the summer.
Q: Looking further towards your summer engagements, tell us a bit about the Pacific Music Festival.
FL: The Pacific Music Festival is a very unique festival in Japan, because it is an orchestra of young people coming from all over the world. They meet in Sapporo and we do a couple of concerts. It’s an educational program, and we do concerts with the orchestra, chamber music, and I’m doing for the second time a conducting workshop, which is focused this year to Italian Opera. We have two singers with us, Roberto Servile and Marlis Petersen, who are teaching some young singers, and together with the orchestra and the conducting students of my workshop we are going to do a concert at the end of the festival. We are doing a concert in Tokyo, too, an extraordinary city – in fact, it’s one of my favorites.
Q: Tell us about Zurich Opera, where you take over in the new season as Music Director.
FL: Zurich Opera is an interesting project. We are starting a new era, a new age, a new time, together with Andreas Homoki, who is one of my favorite directors. He is coming from the Komische Oper in Berlin, and taking over the Zurich Opera for the next five years – and then we’ll see! It’s important because he wanted to put an accent on getting new directors, on new ways to present opera, like what Peter Gelb is doing here at the Met. Zurich has been a very conservative opera house in the last 20 years, with a focus on the big stars, the big singers, but not always so high profile concerning musical performances and staging of the operas, and we want to change this. Andreas is inviting many new, interesting, younger directors. I am inviting many interesting young conductors, and we want to establish a relationship and invite someone not just once, but to continue that relationship in the future.
Q: What projects have you done with the Zurich Opera?
FL: I had conducted Zurich Opera once in the ’90s in concert. But I have a long connection with Homoki, whom I have worked with in Munich, Dresden, and done many productions together. We’re pretty good friends.
Q: Some say we’re in the age of the director, with directors making all the big decisions in the opera house these days. What are your thoughts?
FL: I think that age is already over. We had, especially in Europe over the last 20 years, a period where the directors were very important, and they could dictate anything, even the conductors. Now, the age of the impresarios is coming back. For example, Peter Gelb. There is a new way to be an impresario, a new idea to be impresario. Of course Gelb is more focused on new directors, but the big priority is the house and the main question is, how do I want to make a profile for my house? Yes, with interesting directors, with interesting conductors, and big stars because it’s the Met. Compare that to the age of the directors, when impresarios didn’t have much say about the productions. The director came and told him, “You have to hire this singer because it fits in my concept, and you have to hire this conductor.” Now I observe people like Peter Gelb, and they hire the director because they are convinced he or she is the right person for the production, but they dictate to him which singers they hire. They hire him because they like his work, but there is not as much freedom. It is not the director who decides anymore.
Fabio Luisi: engagements, spring and summer 2012
May 13 & 14
Vienna, Austria
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde
Vienna Symphony
Schmidt: Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (“The Book with Seven Seals”)
(Soloists include René Pape, bass)
May 21
Milan, Italy
Teatro alla Scala
Filarmonica della Scala (debut)
Gabrieli: Three Canzonas (transcribed for large orchestra by Claudio Ambrosini)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 (with Rafal Blechacz, piano)
Casella: Paganiniana
Respighi: Feste romane
May 25, 26, & 27
Vienna, Austria
Vienna Symphony
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 (with Joshua Bell, violin)
Mahler: Symphony No. 1
June 19, 22, 25, & 29; July 2, 5, & 7
Milan, Italy
Teatro alla Scala (opera debut)
Massenet: Manon
June 27
St. Petersburg, Russia
Filarmonica della Scala
White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg
July 1
Baden-Baden, Germany
Filarmonica della Scala (with Hélène Grimaud, piano)
July 16 – Aug 6
Sapporo, Japan
Pacific Music Festival
Concerts and master class
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© 21C Media Group, May 2012



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