The hallmark of any self-respecting opera orchestra is flexibility: one must change musical styles at the drop of a hat and adapt to varying styles on the podium as well, all the while being mindful of the stage and maintaining basic skills of good ensemble playing. Sound daunting? It can be, but that’s what we are trained to do.
This season ends with three very different operas, each with a very different conductor. Two are old friends of ours and one is brand new to the podium at Lyric. We thought it would be fun to talk with all three maestros about their respective operas and their Lyric experiences. It is fair to say that each of them brought very individual perspectives and personalities, and each of them had a surprise or two.
First, Maestro Enrique Mazzola, who conducted I Puritani. Maestro Mazzola, as you may remember, had emergency surgery between rehearsals with us.
On I Puritani:
Of all the bel canto operas, this is my favorite…and this is the best.
If you want to make a musical representation of what bel canto is, probably Puritani is complete. What I was thinking was, Bellini wanted to send us a message. Could be, ‘I love you,’ for example. He says it with a beautiful phrase. The fact is that also in the duets in which there is a competition or a struggle, so to say, ‘I want to get vengeance’ or a singer wants to say, ‘I hate you,’ also in this phrase, Bellini finds a beautiful way to say it. It’s really that bel canto is the maximum expression. Everything goes to the, ‘bel canto — beautiful singing.’ And I think this technique was never used in so peculiar and clear a way as in Puritani.
If in Sonnambula, if in Norma, for instance, there are some moments, some recitative in which the tension goes down…sometimes Bellini is a little bit “dreamy.” So, some of his recitative in Sonnambula, for example, may sound, I underline may, sound boring to the audience. In Puritani, he finds a line that starts at the beginning and bridges to the last note, which is, for his time, very modern. It’s like… he never lets the tension go down, and it’s really the prelude to the resurgence of Verdi. As you can imagine, we have a very young composer (Bellini died at age 34 - ed.), building such a masterpiece. What would Bellini have written after this Puritani? Can you imagine twenty years more after Puritani? I mean, he would go completely into Verdi period with his own style. Probably he would have built his own music style, his own vision of Romantic opera, which already influenced all Italians and most of the Germans, because Wagner was so admiring of how good Bellini was to keep going with the phrase.
About his role:
I think that my job is not just to keep together everything, but also to share with musicians of the orchestra I am working with the feelings and responsibilities of having to work with the singers. Of course I’m leading this responsibility, but the musicianship of all of the people in the orchestra is so high that they also have this continual listening of what happens in, on the stage. So, I prefer to coordinate this idea, which sometimes helps to play together with the singers. We have singers, so in the first night the singer was a little bit faster, a little bit slower in a moment: of course I can react, but we can also react all together, and this is what I love working with your orchestra. I don’t have to impose a change of tempo because there was a mini emergency on stage, but I see that you already understood. And so, we are everybody going into the same flow, the same stream…and this is a big, big quality of the Lyric Opera Orchestra.
About working with singers:
The perception of a singer, is, it’s a very individual perception. I would say singers have already a very difficult job being on stage, facing the audience in this way…of course we cannot ask the singer to have the big picture I assure you, being there. I was in the children’s chorus of La Scala when I was a kid, so I was on stage from (ages) 7 to 12. And I assure – singing also solo parts, like the child in Wozzeck and the small child in Boheme, Turandot, Tosca, there the small child, children in Werther, and many more. So – I assure you when you are there you only think to make good. Of course, when you see a coordinated gesture - when you feel that your singing is harmonically and rhythmically in perfection with orchestra - you feel supported, but this moment is like you are alone. So – you know the feeling of singer is just to feel the support. But what we can do is really to make feel them that we are there. That we are there. That we are following, each breathing and each syllable.
Surprise revelation: he lied to his doctor about coming back so soon after his emergency gallbladder surgery. What did he tell them?
I didn’t say to them!
“How are you doing, Enrique?”
“I am fine”…
“You didn’t do anything?”
“Of course! Yes, I was in bed all the time”
“Seems good…are you sure you are going to conduct the premiere?”
“Okay, but you have to be very careful.”
“Yes, doctor.” Of course, I invited my doctor to our Puritani!
Maestro James Gaffigan is new to us. He is on the podium for Cosi fan Tutte, and he spoke extensively about the challenges of Mozart.
Cosi has a lot of pitfalls and a lot of very strange moments that you have to work out somehow. So, yeah, I think it’s a very delicate piece and I think it’s strange to come in as a guest to do Mozart. But in a way I like the challenge. In a way I should have picked Hansel and Gretel, or let’s say Simon Boccanegra, to come in and just relax and make music and feel it with the singers, but instead I chose something that needs a lot of work: and I’m happy with it, but also there’s never a moment where you can just relax. But that was my decision.
It’s the most elegant ensemble writing he’s ever done besides the quartet in Idomeneo. And I think Figaro is a perfect opera, Don Giovanni is flawed but it has these incredible moments that you really remember, but Cosi, the average audience member always says, “that’s the prettiest one, “ whereas Marriage of Figaro is “hilarious,” Don Giovanni is really intense and brooding, …and Cosi is kind of looking back in time to a more elegant and lighter thing... so I think it’s interesting to catch the audience off guard, that it’s not what they’re expecting. What he does with the ending is interesting … you know it’s just like Shakespeare, these characters are developing within the production: what seems like such a silly plan of these lovers switching and seeing if they’ll be faithful, in the end it’s very sad. Because there’s nothing funny about infidelity, actually, and jealousy is a horrible emotion that spreads like cancer, and it’s not fair that this man Don Alfonzo is playing God in these people’s lives. So, the music of Mozart is so tragic and so beautiful and accompanying this very serious story – people say it’s so silly but it’s not actually, and I think this production proves that, this production is better than most I’ve ever seen done.
On the difference between European and American opera orchestras:
I think, for example, European opera houses do more Mozart in general. I think there’s Mozart in every season, at least a production, and there’s a tradition that is kind of set in motion already - not by the music director necessarily but by schooling. By the way they learn to play this music. I think American orchestras are quicker with how they absorb information, they will come more prepared to a first rehearsal, especially the bigger repertoire. But I find that the European orchestras, especially Munich, Vienna - Austrian, German, they have a kind of understanding as far as note lengths, bow speed, and things like that. I think in American schooling and conservatories a lot of focus is on playing the violin, or playing the cello, playing the clarinet, and very little on the stylistic issues of Mozart and Bach. And of course, that’s opposite of Wagner, or Gounod. So, I think the biggest challenge in the opera orchestra is switching: you guys need to be schizophrenic in a way, you’re going from production to production, you’re changing the channel every night. And you’re learning a new piece or doing other chamber music in your lives.
About working with us:
I heard you guys play Rheingold and it was extraordinary. I’m not exaggerating in any way, from the opening horn, from the eight horns in e flat major, I thought “this is a damn good orchestra,” and not only are they so great, but it’s flexible with realistic dynamics, it’s not ever overpowering. The opera house itself has a great sound, so I was really moved by that. I always come here for entertainment. If I’m working with the Chicago Symphony I always come here because I think there’s a really beautiful thing happening here. I think it’s a great house, and the orchestra’s great, and I think there’s a desire to play well.
Surprise revelation: He was a bassoonist, and longs to have an opera house of his own someday.
Maestro Emmanuel Villaume has been with us many times over the years. He currently conducts Gounod’s Faust with us.
I think you cannot understand, for instance, Berlioz or Bizet unless you understand Gounod. And just for that he is an amazing composer. There is a voice in Gounod that is absolutely unique, so he contributes big pictures, big paintings, big frescoes that are quite remarkable. There is a sense of drama that I find very unique, there is a poetry that is extremely authentic and the way it translates these dramatic connections, these poetical feelings, these spiritual tensions, is very, very, very, very, very specific, efficient, and stylized in a way that is proper to only Gounod. That makes for a composer that, if he has the craft to translate all of this, is really very, very powerful. And the craftmanship of Gounod is quite unique too. His orchestration is very simple, but it’s always very, very effective.
So, what makes this specific opera remarkable is the kind of tension between the metaphysical universe of Goethe, this quest for an answer to the meaning of life. Nothing less than that, through a plot that is rather simple: what would you do with your life if you could do it again? Then there are all those moral and ethical questions connected to the church, but that go way beyond the question of the church, and even the question of whether love (is) something that is going to be good for you or bad for you. What do you do with your passion, what do you do with desires? And that tension between the incredible density of Goethe and the lightness of Gounod, is a very interesting one. That contrast is the challenge of the piece for me, and what makes it beautiful. And that’s why we are talking about the weaknesses of the piece, so even if there is a recit that is a little dull, you can still feel the incredible tension and metaphysical quest of Goethe seen by this French guy - and all of a sudden the death of a character has a weight, has an impact that goes well, way beyond the simple harmonic path he’s taking. Because he’s using tools that are very simple to our ears, (which are) trained to Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, and beyond. He uses that with an honesty and an authenticity that is striking. So, there is an authenticity, a vulnerability, sensuality, sensitivity that I connect with very, very intensely.
On conducting opera:
I really think the greatest conductors are versatile, and they can do a Mahler symphony, a Haydn symphony, a Stravinsky ballet, and a Strauss opera or Mozart opera. And by working on a Mozart symphony you will understand something about Mozart operas that you would not understand if you don’t do a Mozart symphony. But, even by working on a Strauss opera you will understand something about Berlioz that you would not understand.
And so, what the symphonic world has brought to me is an attention to detail that you sometimes consider secondary when you do opera, because you have so many other problems to solve. That kind of habit you take necessarily when you do a lot of symphonic repertoire, it becomes a second nature and you’re going to address this when you rehearse, or when you perform with an orchestra that is in the pit. And actually, most of the time you don’t talk about this, you just hear it and by the way you conduct, you correct it. That’s a thing that young conductors have a hard time to understand that you conduct with your ears. So, we could speak for hours about this, but this is at the center of good conducting, is really the center of good conducting. Doing opera, on the other hand, gives you a sense of drama, answering to curve balls, crazy things happening, that can be very useful in the symphonic field. And, a lot of music is also about storytelling. Being able to take something from point A to point B in a fashion that is going to be interesting. You can spot right away a conductor that is doing only symphonic. So, look, Mahler conducted both opera and symphony, Walter conducted both lyric (opera) and symphony, Furtwängler was in the pit as well as on stage. Abbado, von Karajan, Solti, all the great ones. Even someone like Boulez, who was first and foremost a symphony conductor, a very special case obviously, and a genius in many ways, said himself that he became a far better conductor when he conducted more operas.
On working with us:
I love Chicago, it’s a no-nonsense city, I have great memories in Chicago, I love the Lyric, we have had so many shows, great performances, it’s a very generous orchestra, with no attitude, and so it becomes very quickly, okay let’s make this work. And we have had here shows with casts that were absolutely stellar, and we’ve also had shows, which is normal, that were more difficult; but I was very happy to be with a group of colleagues that was always supportive even in the moments that were not as easy as other moments. Now, if you really push me, I prefer the summers in Chicago to the winters.
Surprise revelation: he played the tuba, which he only told us because we gave him chocolate (he also played the cello for a while, and sang). His sweet tooth is no surprise to any of us!