Interview with Maestro Nicola Luisotti: Opera in the Skin

Interview with Maestro Nicola Luisotti: Opera in the Skin
Nicola Luisotti

Opera World has had the opportunity to attend Maestro Nicola Luisotti´s rehearsals at the Palau de les Arts Opera House in Valence some weeks ago with Nabucco, the great third opera composed by Giuseppe Verdi. The opera lovers know for sure very well Luisotti’s overwhelming live recording filmed by the label Sony at the Royal Opera House in London, featuring Placido Domingo in the main role.

The greatest conductors are often said to show a good proof of their talent during their rehearsals, and so is the case of Nicola Luisotti. Everything in Maestro Luisotti seems to be the consequence of an organic understanding of music: his body language, his tempi, his psychological comprehension of the libretto and the opera’s dramatic expression, perfectly evoked in every single moment.

Something inexplicable happens when one attends a Nicola Luisotti’s performance: the piece fluids in his hands in such a natural way that one might think that he was born with opera in the skin.

Through this interview, we will understand some of the keys of the musical conception of one of the biggest conductors in the opera world.

-Maestro Luisotti, in March, you conducted the opera Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House in London. Some weeks ago, we have had the opportunity to attend your performance of Nabucco in Valencia, and in some days, you will be conducting La Ciociara in San Francisco. We all know that working in an opera production is an extremely demanding job, both intellectually and physically. How do you manage to live with such an impressive schedule?

I think that making music is one of the most beautiful things to do in life. I just get so much energy from doing it.

– We have had the honor of attending your performances in Valencia for the first time. How did you find the work with the musicians and the cast of singers at the Palau de les Arts Opera House in this last production?

I found a fantastic orchestra and chorus able to do everything that this demanding score needs. I think that Maazel, Metha and Mrs. Smith did a great job with this young but already important opera house.

– Nabucco is undoubtedly a marvelous opera, which has marked the last years of your career. You performed it at the memorable performance at La Scala in January 2013, staged by Daniele Abbado. What are your memories from this production?

I have worked with Daniele Abbado many times and his Nabucco was really excellent. Conducting this Opera at La Scala is always very emotional, but it is also a big responsibility, considering that Nabucco was performed for the very first time right there! Anyway, I remember that period with nostalgia.

– One month later, you performed Nabucco again at the Royal Opera House in London, featuring Placido Domingo in the title role. We currently have the chance to witness this overwhelming production by watching the video recording distributed by Sony. I must confess that I was utterly awed when I first saw your electrifying and heart-breaking performance. What could you tell us about the work with Placido Domingo?

Well, Placido Domingo is a living legend and to work with him was a huge privilege. I grew up with his voice in my head, and to have him on stage singing under my baton, was like a dream come true.

– What are your feelings after performing the same opera in some of the most important theatres in the world? Are you inspired in a different way every time according to the cast and the musicians of the orchestras?

Everywhere I go, I try to respect the personality of the people I meet. Every orchestra, every singer is different and this is the richness of our life: the diversity!

– Nabucco is a milestone of the romantic repertoire. I think that “Va’ Pensiero” could be considered the most famous choir passage of the entire opera. We all feel a huge emotional power in this hymn, which has great political and historical connotations. Do you find that the Italian audience reacts in a different way after listening to “Va’ pensiero”? What happened at La Scala specifically?

As an Italian, I consider this piece as the one that allowed all my compatriots to feel as though they are Italian as well. Without Verdi, we probably wouldn’t have Italy as we all know it today. At La Scala, people still scream «Viva Verdi!». That’s great!

– In Nabucco, a great evolution of the singing style can be seen in the role of Abigail, the real prima donna. It is said to be one of the most difficult roles written for soprano. Which is, in your opinion, the ideal kind of voice for this role? I would love to know your opinion about Maria Callas’s performance.

Maria Callas was for sure one of the greatest sopranos in this role. We are all grateful for the opportunity to hear her interpretation throughout the recording. But in our recent history, Ghena Dimitrova, Maria Gouleghina, and more recently, Lyudmila Monastirska and Anna Pirozzi are fantastic singers for this role.

– You have worked in Spain various times. If I remember well, your first engagement was Simon Boccanegra at Maestranza Theatre in Seville, and Il Trovatore was your first performance at Teatro Real in Madrid, which had a great reception in the Spanish media. You have worked with the Spanish National Orchestra as well (ONE). You will come back to Teatro Real very soon, in December, 2015 with Rigoletto. What could you tell us about your work in this theatre, and what are your feelings about the coming engagement there?

Years ago when Antonio Moral invited me to the Teatro Real for Il Trovatore, I discovered a fantastic opera house with a high level of organization and a beautiful orchestra and Chorus. Then some time passed, and now Joan Matabosh has invited me to do some productions there. I am really looking forward to going back to that Theatre that I love so much.

– Nicola Luisotti is a golden name that the music world automatically connects to the Italian repertoire, even though you have conducted many other operas like Carmen, Lohengrin or Die Zauberflöte. When did you realize that you felt a natural attraction for the Italian repertoire and decide to focus on this field? In which ways do you think that doing Italian opera is different from the other styles?

You know, when you are Italian, people call you for the Italian repertoire. If you take a look, for example, at Toscanini’s career, it was the same. He had also conducted Tristan, but he became famous for the Italian operas. This is how the world goes. But I am completely happy with that!

– The symphonic repertoire is also very important in your career. How do you manage to find the balance between both fields?

To better understand opera you need to conduct the symphonic repertoire an
d to better understand symphonic repertoire you need to conduct opera!

– Amongst all of the Italian composers, two of them have a considerable weight in your career: Verdi and Puccini. Do you feel a predilection for their operas rather than the Belcanto Style of Donizetti, Puccini and Bellini?

Every one of us has a personal journey in life. I, of course love the Belcanto and I have conducted this repertoire many times; Norma, Puritani, and Lucia are just some of them. But I think that Verdi and Puccini are just like my second skin and I feel absolutely comfortable with their music.

Interview with Maestro Nicola Luisotti: Opera in the Skin
Nicola Luisotti

– The musical critics always recall the extreme passion, spontaneity and the energetic temperament of your performances. Do you think that your natural personality motivated you to focus on the romantic Italian period?

I believe that my personality is good for the romantic period. I really like also Baroque music. But I don’t think it is for me, unfortunately.

– You were born in the Italian city of Lucca, which is clearly linked to the name of Giacomo Puccini and his family. Were you involved in this tradition since childhood?

I was born at the hospital of Viareggio, which is in the Lucca province, but actually, I spent my childhood and my life in two small villages named Bargecchia and Corsanico, that were often visited by Puccini. So, I grew up with Puccini’s music throughout my childhood.

– You were awarded the Puccini Award in 2010 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a great highlight of your career. In your opinion, how is dealing with an opera by Puccini different compared to Verdi?

Without Verdi, I think it is impossible to have Puccini. Both are absolutely connected to each other and their styles are different because their times had different needs. Verdi had to build a nation, Puccini had to enjoy it!

– How did you discover your passion for opera? I know that the beginning of your international career is linked to the most symbolic theatre in the world (La Scala), and one of the biggest names of conducting history: Riccardo Muti. Would you tell us something about your experiences?

It was 1989 when I won an audition at La Scala to work as pianist beside Muti there. The production was Don Giovanni and I still carry with me all the wonderful memories of that magical and important encounter.

– When one looks at the way you accompany singers, it seems that there is a natural gift that cannot be learnt. What do you think is fundamental to accompanying singers? Do you think that learning piano accompaniment is an important first step?

This is a very important question and I think, as you say, singers need to be accompanied, not followed. There is a substantial difference between one who accompanies and one who follows; he who understands this, is close to being able to conduct.

– Your San Francisco Opera debut was in 2005 conducting La Forza del Destino, and after this you have worked there in more than twenty different productions. You will return to San Francisco soon with four different operas: La Ciociara, Luisa Miller, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Carlo. Did you have the opportunity to forge a link with the city and its historical tradition?

San Francisco is one of my big loves. The city, the people and my theatre are things that have made me better than I was. I love those people and I have spent unforgettable moments there; I just feel as though I belong there.

– You were also formerly the director of Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. What do you remember from this experience in such an emblematic theatre?

Teatro di San Carlo it is not a Theatre, is a legendary opera house where Paisiello, Rossini, Donizetti and many, many other composers and great artists have written the history of the opera world. Being there was like touching them for a bit.

– Is there any opera and/or symphonic work that you particularly love? If so, why?

I am in love with so many! A secret and a personal piece of advice: never do something that you don’t love! So, I just conduct music that I am crazy for!!

– We know how difficult it is for a young conductor to start a professional career. What would you recommend to these conductors who have finished their studies and wish to begin conducting? Which are the keys to success in such a complicated world?

I think that the first thing to do would be get some experience in theatre watching other conductors and working with singers. Contextually make serious studies of «contrappunto e fuga» and consider that though you may become an excellent musician, this doesn’t mean you will be a good conductor. Allow destiny to work for you!

– Wagner said that the opera was the total masterpiece (Gesamkunstwerk in German). Conducting an opera is something that only a few people in the world can experience. How could you describe what you feel while you conduct? Which have been some of the most memorable moments in your professional career?

Wagner was right and conducting an opera is very, very demanding and everything you think when you see somebody else doing that, is completely different when you are in the pit! I feel particularly lucky regarding what I have done in my musical life and I hope that I have many memorable moments still to come!

Thank you very much for your kindness, Maestro Luisotti.

Félix Ardanaz