• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Maestro Riccardo Muti

    Dear readers, prepare to get more closely acquainted with perhaps the most important artist ever interviewed by Opera Lively, the great Riccardo Muti, arguably the best opera conductor in the world. It is fitting that Maestro Muti is our 250th interviewee, given that such a round number seems to beg for a very special one. While we had some epic interviews with many of the leading singers, composers, conductors, administrators, and stage directors in the business (consult the widget on the top left corner of our Home page and click on Exclusive Interviews for the full list), it is hard to top Maestro Muti's passion, erudition, depth of knowledge, and wealth of information that he is willing to share with us, from his memories of his prestigious career that spans more than half a century. His words are really fascinating and informative. If there is an interview that truly deserves the "must read" label, this is the one.

    This gem of an interview contains what we could jokingly call a mini-world premiere of a piece of operatic history, given that the Maestro said that one of his stories he shared with us, he had never mentioned to anybody else - an episode in the life of Maria Callas, when she interacted with the great Arturo Toscanini.

    Opera Lively met the Maestro in person for what was supposed to be a 30-minute interview, given his busy schedule. The conversation however extended for 63 minutes, and if we could, we'd spend all day chatting with him and drawing from his many experiences and insights. We had many more questions that we ran out of time to ask, but we will have another opportunity in the relatively near feature, since the Maestro invited us to go to Naples in November 2018 to see his Così fan tutte in a production stage-directed by his daughter (the beautiful and talented actress Chiara Muti), and we are going (airplane tickets and hotel all booked).

    A companion piece for this interview is the review of the Maestro's performance that same day, a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Read this review by clicking [here].

    Artistic Biography

    Maestro Muti dispenses introduction, but a few elements of his biography are given here anyway, in bullet-point format:


    - Born in Naples, Italy, on 28 July 1941; his father was a medical doctor in Molfetta (a suburb of Bari, on the Adriatic coast); married to Maria Cristina Mazzavillani, the founder of the Ravenna Festival. They have three children: Chiara, a famous Italian movie actress and stage director (married to French pianist David Fray); Domenico, the manager of Muti's businesses, and Francesco, an architect.


    - Currently Maestro Muti holds the position of Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and of the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini.
    - Formerly, he held similar positions at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, the Philarmonia Orchestra in London, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and the Salzburg Whitsun Festival.
    - Muti has a long-standing relationship with the Wiener Philharmoniker, which he has conducted year after year at the Salzburg Festival for decades, since 1971.
    - He is a frequent guest conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker and the New York Philharmonic.
    - He led La Scala for 19 years, and his operatic conducting has included the most prestigious houses in the world, such as the Vienna State Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera.

    Philanthropy and Legacy

    - Founder of the Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy for young conductors, répétiteurs, and singers.
    - Creator of the Paths of Friendship Project, with a series of concerts in troubled cities around the world.


    - He holds degrees in Piano from the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella in Naples, and in Composition and Conducting from the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Milan.
    - Some of his prestigious teachers were Vincenzo Vitale, Bruno Bettinelli, Antonino Votto, and Nino Rota.


    - His numerous CDs include the complete cycle of Beethoven's symphonies, and several other major works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Bruckner, Scriabin, Prokofiev, etc., as well as numerous operas on CD and DVD with an emphasis on Mozart and especially Verdi.
    - He has recorded extensively with labels such as RCA, Sony Classics, DECCA, Emi Classics, DG, and Warner, with dozens of CDs.
    - He now has his own label, RMMusic, which includes numerous DVDs and documentaries showing him rehearsing orchestras, plus some opera CDs. He also records with the CSO-Resound label.


    - Unanimous first prize in the Guido Cantelli Competition for Conductors in Milan, 1967
    - Honorary Doctorates in Music by prestigious universities such as the University of Pavia, the Universitat de Barcelona, and the Northwestern University in Chicago
    - Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic
    - Commander of the French Legion of Honor
    - Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
    - Member of the Russian Order of Friendship
    - Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music
    - Recipient of the Birgit Nilsson Prize
    - Recipient of Spain's Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts
    - Recipient of the Wolf Prize for the Arts from the State of Israel
    - Numerous other prizes and accolades from Germany, Austria, and other countries


    - Muti has published two books, "Verdi, the Italian," and "First the Music, then the Words," an autobiography, available on paperback and Kindle e-book worldwide on Amazon, in both Italian and English versions.

    Riccardo Muti in the New Year's Eve Concert in Vienna - photo from his autobiography

    Learn more about Maestro Muti by visiting his website at www.riccardomuti.com

    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Maestro Riccardo Muti

    This is Opera Lively's interview #250, done on February 17, 2018. Copyright Opera Lively and Opera Lively Press, all rights reserved. Reproduction especially in full without our authorization is strictly prohibited. Brief excerpts can be reproduced as long as the source is quoted and a link to this article is provided. Photos included here are credited when credit is known; they are for fair promotional use. Questions by Opera Lively journalists James Weber, Mary Auer, and Luiz Gazzola (Chief Editor), with input also from Maestro James Meena of Opera Carolina. Interview conducted in person by Luiz Gazzola.

    [Editor’s note – for color, we preserved the parts where the interviewer and the interviewee said phrases or words in Italian, with the added translation when needed (some of Maestro’s Italian expressions dispense translation). This includes at times the names of Italian cities being said as they are in the Italian language rather than in the common English translation. Due to some extensive Editor's Notes, see that the Maestro's words are always in black font while questions and notes are in red.]

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Maestro, I found your last words in your book “Verdi, l’italianno” quite moving. You talk about your life dedicated to Verdi, and you add “pero no mi dire se ho fatto bene o male, perché se mi dici che ho fatto male dopo non avrei più scampo e sarebbe una terribile condanna in eterno” [but don’t tell me if I did well or badly, because if you tell me that I did badly, afterwards I would have no escape and it would be a terrible condemnation for eternity]. I found it a bit surprising that you might in a sense doubt yourself, because for me you are the greatest of conductors. It is beautiful that you approach this music with humility – you said “non mi considero un artista, bensì un artigiano della musica.” [I don’t consider myself an artist, but rather a craftsman of music]. But you must also have a sense of your legacy. When it’s all said and done, how would you like to be remembered? What will be your legacy?

    Riccardo Muti – Thank you for asking this question. I would like to start a little earlier, if you allow me. When I went to Milano [Milan] after my degree in piano at the conservatory of Napoli [Naples], I went to study composition and conducting in Milano with Antonino…

    OL - Votto.

    RC – , Votto. You know him; you are an expert in opera so you know that he was the assistant of…

    OL – Toscanini.

    RC – Exactly, Toscanini in the golden years of La Scala, from 1920 to 29; the third period of Toscanini, because he resigned three times from La Scala [laughs].

    OL – You did it only once!

    RM – [laughs] Yes, I did it only once. So, Votto brought to the pupils all the experience he had with Toscanini. Practically the first law was to be, as much as possible, faithful to the composer. Toscanini made a revolution in the world of opera. At that time the singers had the full power in the entire situation. Today everything is in the hands of the stage directors, but at that time it was the singers. Toscanini was very strong, and tried to be very faithful to Verdi, mainly.

    Why do I say Verdi? Because nobody touches Mozart, Wagner, Strauss or Weber, but with the Italian repertoire and especially the bel canto, so, the first part of Verdi with Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, everybody is entitled to arranging the melodic lines for special effects, to have success with the public.

    So that’s why we had a period… or rather, we still have it, because unfortunately opera is going back to the bad habits, we had transpositions, interpolations, high notes not for musical reasons but just for effect. So Toscanini tried to put some order in this bad habit. From Votto I received this sort of message, and I pushed even further than Votto himself.

    Why? Because the first opera of Verdi I did was when I became the Music Director in Florence in 1968. This year in July I will conduct Macbeth in Florence, because the city of Florence and the theater want to celebrate my half-century of music. Mamma mia!

    The first opera of Verdi I did was I masnadieri. When I received the score from the theater I saw that there were many pages that I couldn’t turn because they were stuck together with clips. You know, that meant cuts! I realized that those pages had not been opened for decades and decades. So, even the curiosity to see what was in there, didn’t exist. Conductors took the score the way it was passed from one hand to another hand to another hand.

    Little by little came to my mind the interrogation – why? Verdi himself said very clearly about conductors and singers, that there is only one creator, and it is the composer. Verdi rose many times against bad habits, like for example against Angelo Mariani [1821-1873], who conducted many Verdi operas and was the one who conducted for the first time Wagner’s Lohengrin in Italy, in Bologna. Verdi said that when Mariani was conducting La forza del destino, when there is the corale [he hums it] it is a religious moment and is written pianissimo, but Mariani played it fortissimo.

    So Verdi was very clear in this, and that’s the reason why I started to work very deeply in this sense. For example, Aida in Salzburg last summer: I didn’t want to conduct it after my famous recording with Caballé, Cossotto, Domingo, Cappuccilli, and Ghiaurov, [EMI 1974], how can you do it any better? [laughs]

    OL – That’s pretty hard to top.

    RC – Yes, and it was in the best time of their voices. But I did it in Salzburg again last summer even if I had decided to only do operas in concert form instead of staged, because I was tired of fighting against the stage directors, all the time. Not because I’m conservative, but I hate it when stage directors create another story on top of the music.

    Aida is one of the most sophisticated operas of Verdi, if you forget the second part of the second act, the Triumphal March. The rest of the opera is very intimate. The orchestration is extremely delicate and refined. But because of the various arenas of the world – the Arena di Verona, the Arena Sferisterio, and others – Aida is becoming the opera of the elephants, of the show business with two hundred palm trees. You know, it’s exactly the contrary of what is in the score.

    So I worked with the Wiener Philharmoniker in Salzburg to read again the opera starting from the beginning [hums it]. That’s the key of the entire opera because it is an opera of love, of intimate relationships between one, two, maximum three persons on stage.

    So the world of Verdi is being massacred. Like I said in the beginning of our interview, opera is going backward. You are an expert in opera, so you know what I mean. I don’t mean to be conservative. I just mean that Verdi should be respected and performed with the same care and respect that we give to Mozart and Wagner. If I can make that happen, that will be my legacy.

    OL - You haven’t been afraid to speak out on political issues impacting the arts. At the beginning of a performance of Nabucco at the Opera di Roma in 2011, you publicly criticized the government of Silvio Berlusconi for cutting arts funding in Italy – O mia patria sì bella e perduta! [O my homeland, so beautiful and lost] - and even led the audience in an encore of “Và pensiero” as part of your protest. This week, the Trump administration presented a proposed Fiscal Year 2019 federal budget that drastically cuts funding to a number of arts programs, in particular the National Endowment for the Arts which is supposed to close down. As Music Director of one of America’s most prominent orchestras, will you use that position to speak out against these proposals?

    RM – Sì. In Roma [Rome], the story of this “Và pensiero” is very touching, because it was a very difficult period for the theaters in Italy. Italians go on anyway, in any case. [laughs] With the government being right, center, left, the Italians go forward. Sometimes without government we go even better. But in that moment it was a very dangerous situation for Italian theaters. When I did the Nabucco in Roma, it hadn’t been performed in Roma for many, many years. Every time “Và pensiero” is performed, the Italians find themselves, suddenly. They forget all the problems, all the fights… “Và pensiero” is Italy, to the point that many people wanted to have it as the national anthem.

    I was against it. Fortunately, our anthem is officially the “Fratelli d’Italia.” You can’t have “Và pensiero” as the national anthem. First, it is very long. Second, it is the chorus of Jews who are slaves in another country so it’s not about Italians. In fact on occasion I made people laugh, because I said “Can you imagine a football team in a championship match singing ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate…”? [The Maestro sings it, and laughs]. After that, all players would be without energy to play the game!

    Anyway, the chorus was singing with special emotion because they knew that the economic situation for the theaters was very problematic. That evening, the chorus was full of passion, and the public started again to say “encore, encore.” I thought, how can we do an encore while singing, like you said before, “sì bella e perduta” – lost! Should we sing it again without injecting any meaning into it? So I made my speech and asked the entire theater to sing along. That was very emotional because they stood up, from the parterre to the galley, everybody. They sang, and the chorus was starting to cry; it was a special emozione [emotion].

    [Editor's note - Let's see and hear this incredible moment. Here is the translation of what the Maestro says. The public: “Encore!” “Long live Italy!” The maestro: “Yes, I agree, ‘long live Italy.’ I’m not 30 years old; then, I have lived my life. As an Italian who travels the world, I am very saddened by what is happening. Then, if I do at your request an encore of ‘Và pensiero’, I do it not as much, or not only for patriotic reasons, but this evening, when the choir sang ‘Oh my country, so beautiful and lost" I thought that if we kill the culture on which is founded the history of Italy then truly our country will be 'beautiful and lost.' [applause] Meanwhile since we are in a very Italian mood and very often Muti spoke to the deaf for many years, I’d like… since we are in our own house, in the theater of the capital, the chorus sang magnificently, the orchestra played very well… if you want to punish them, then we will do it all together… but keeping the tempo! [laughs].”

    I’ve been fighting against cuts to culture. As I said the other day, commemorating the seventeen people killed in Florida, I spoke to the people and said that we musicians bring flowers; we don’t bring weapons.

    As you know, for more than twenty years, every year I do these concerts called Road to Friendship. We started with the La Scala orchestra more than twenty years ago in Sarajevo when the city was bombed. Every year we go to a different city. This year we are going to Kiev in Ukraine. We ask the musicians of the place we are going to visit, to join our orchestra and our chorus. It is incredible to see that people sit one next to the other, they don’t speak the same language, they belong to different religions, they have different ideals in life, etcetera, but through music they become one entity.

    This happened especially last year when we went to Teheran. It is always very, very difficult to go there. Fortunately Rouhani, the new president, gave his permission to re-create the orchestra that had been banned before. The orchestra existed again in Teheran with men and women. We went there, and their instrumentalists and members of the chorus joined our musical forces, and we played together, with the same feelings.

    That is the reason why I insist that music is one of the strongest vehicles to get people together, because music speaks to the heart rather than to the brain. Many times, symphonic music doesn’t have words, and the words are the problem, like diplomatic people will tell you many times.

    OL – Very nice. I’m skipping around so that of my set of questions and in our limited time I can insert the ones I care most about, so, out of sequence, let me ask you this: I greatly admire Salvatore Sciarrino. Two years ago I traveled to Berlin to see in person his Luci mie traditrice, and this July I’m going back there to see his Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo. I also love George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (I actually wrote a book about it).

    Are you a fan of contemporary opera? If yes, who do you believe is composing good opera, these days?

    RM – Only opera?

    OL – I’d like to focus on opera, if you don’t mind.

    RM – I don’t necessarily know more about Italian composers of contemporary opera, than about opera composers around the world. Mason Bates, for example, has been our composer-in-residency in Chicago, and I have conducted and recorded some of his music. He wrote an opera for Santa Fe that had quite an important success. [Editor’s note: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, premiered in July of 2017].

    In Italy Sciarrino is one of the most important composers. He is an international composer. I remember when I was the Music Director at La Scala, the first or second year, I conducted a wonderful piece by Sciarrino, called Morte de Borromini for a recitante [narrator] and symphonic orchestra. [Editor’s note – Sciarrino dedicated this work to Riccardo Mucci, who premiered it at La Scala in 1988.]

    Of course there are many composers who are trying to do operas, but the point is, today, in which way will you write an opera? Today we cannot write an opera like Puccini, like Mascagni, or like Britten, because it would be immediately too old-fashioned. The masterpiece of the 20th century remains Wozzeck. No? Wozzeck is a masterpiece, but is it a popular opera, today?

    OL – No.

    RM – No. So what is the problem? Of course the text in an opera helps the music and the drama to be accepted by the audience, but I don’t think that today, operas can remain in the heart of the people like in the 19th century or before, starting with Monteverdi, Cavalli, Peri, Caccini, all these composers from the beginning when they created the art form. Opera was the food, the bread on their table. The relationship between the opera and the public’s soul was something that the public understood and brought home.

    Now, there is a big problem, a sort of big distance between the public and the musicians who write opera. Today, operas are written everywhere but I don’t see any that remains as something that the public wants to hear again, and again, and again. The solution for this problem, we should ask people like philosophers, or people like you. I mean, you are the doctor, the expert in Psychology.

    This is one of those occasions when, I believe, we have to go home and insist in promoting new music, not in the sense of a sort of inferiority complex like I see sometimes – we are in America so we have to promote American contemporary music, or in Japan, Japanese contemporary music, or in The Netherlands, etcetera. That’s not the point. We just have to promote new music, period, and wait for the new prophets. If we stop, the prophets will not come.

    I have a feeling. Of course, feelings are not scientifically accepted, but I think that the world is becoming more multi-cultural. Many cultures are getting together. They encounter each other. It is possible that languages that come from different countries will mix one with the other, and this will create a new way to make musical language in the future. The music that will come from South America, Africa, the East, all together will create a mixture of something new that can be more accepted and will become part of the spiritual needs of the people. But that will be after my lifetime so I won’t see it. [laughs]

    [Editor’s note: Actually, it has started already. the Maestro’s idea is supported by recent operas that were given for example in the Spoleto Festival USA by Huang Ruo, a composer who mixed Chinese and Western musical concepts in Paradise Lost – we reviewed it (here) and interviewed the composer (here), and by another recent one in Aix-en-Provence sung in Arabic and French and mixing Palestine elements with Western culture – Kalîla wa Dimna by Palestinian composer Moneim Adwan - unfortunately we were there at the time but missed that one; Bernard Foccroulle in his press conference with us, mentioned it; read about it (here). Santa Fe has also endorsed the concept, with another world premiere of a Chinese-language opera composed in Western musical style, also by Huang Ruo, Dr. Sun Yat-sen.]

    OL – On this topic, what is the future of opera, for you? What changes in the art form you believe will happen, say, in another half-century? Should opera embrace new technologies, in this society that, like you said, “è diventata abile a guardare, ma meno ad ascoltare” [became clever at watching, but less at listening]?

    RM – , I think that every new technology, every new experiment that brings new sounds and new possibilities of expression, should be encouraged. The orchestra, the way it was created, was an instrument for Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Stravinsky, etcetera, so in a way the orchestra has been used almost in all possibilities of timbre, of counterpoint, of harmonies in the century. I won’t say that the symphonic orchestra in the way it was conceived, is becoming an obsolete instrument. The pianoforte is an obsolete instrument. The cembalo [cymbal] is almost right for the museum.

    The modern composers are adding to the orchestra new technology, computers, new sounds, all kinds of things that don’t naturally belong to the symphonic orchestra. So it is possible that in the future – and I hope so – new ways of sound production will be created.

    You are a doctor, you know it better than me. Biologically, we as a species are still tuned to harmonic system of the melody. If you go to Amazonia or to certain parts of the world where you still find uncivilized tribes, when they sing, they sing melodic intervals. The melody is still part of our system. I don’t know if you agree or not, but we need to sing. We need to express our feelings.

    So the distortion of the melodic system is interesting, but I don’t think it is natural for the way we are conceived, anatomically and biologically, no? I’m speaking as a lay person, not as a scientist, but we still need to sing. With different scales; the Egyptians had a different scale, the ancient Greeks had a different one, in the Far East you can look at how different the sounds of Japanese music are, but in a way there are always lines that you can sing.

    Today, contemporary music doesn’t follow this concept. But they are right in not following it, at least, the honest composers. Because there are many composers that are not honest. They write in the computer, and that is not acceptable, because it doesn’t come from inside, or from the knowledge of the counterpoint, of how to write music. Many times, we see effects, in the new compositions; just sound effects, and tentative experiments, for example, in how to use the bow, that are contrary to how a violin was created. I mean, Stradivari, Guadagnini, or Guarneri who created the famous instruments, didn’t think that one day the musicians would have to make music with the bow behind the bridge, no? Clack-clack-clack… [laughs].

    So, the world is changing. We are, in a desperate way, trying to find new paths, and this is correct, but where we will go, I don’t know.

    OL – Fascinating! Changing topics; one of our journalists said that he loves your recording of I Capuleti e i Montecchi [Gruberová, Baltsa, with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 1985, Warner Classics] but he believes that the same opera can sound strangely uninteresting under other conductors, even experienced ones.

    I feel the same way each time I listen to the Intermezzo in Cavalleria Rusticana when it’s not conducted by you – I listen to it and I say, but this is not Muti! Muti does it much better!

    RM – [laughs]

    OL – So, the Muti effect ruins it for me because yours is so great; theirs become pale. We want to know, basically: why are you so much better? What is that you do that leads to a vast advantage in interpretation, and it is all so enticing; the orchestra picks up and gets so lively? In other words, what are the specifics, or the secret of your technique that makes the instrumentalists play with so much soul? What makes of you a great conductor, and especially, a great opera conductor?

    RM – First, you mentioned I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and it is very right of you to mention Bellini, because many people think that this kind of music from Bellini and Donizetti is too simple. Many orchestras, especially the German ones – not the German public, but the musicians – they find that when they play Wagner or Strauss it is interesting because they have a lot of notes to play. But when it’s Bellini, it’s ta-ta-ti-ta-ta-ta [reproduces a simple scale], it is not interesting. It is not true. It is much more difficult, because with the simple elements, you have to create the universe, the infinite. So, Italian music, especially the bel canto, is bel… canto [beautiful... singing]. It’s based on the power of melody. German music is based on the power of harmony that sustains the music. It’s much more complex on paper and in our perception.

    But, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, in the second act, for example, when Romeo goes to the grave of Giulietta, and he believes that Giulietta is dead, there are two horns – ta-ta-tiiiii-oooo… [hums it ominously] Two notes. The conductor should know that those two notes are extremely [says it emphatically and slowly] important. They should be played in a way that these two notes have to evoke the ambience of a grave, of a tomba… If you do ti-oo [hums it lightly], that’s nothing. So, that is the difficulty. We need small elements to create big things. The ancient Romans used to say a phrase: “cuma parvis componere magna” – to create big things, great things, with small elements. That is the key.

    Of course, for this composer, you have to first give vital energy to the accompaniments of the orchestra that seem simple. If you just play ta-ta-ti-ta-ta-ta you will get bored musicians in the pit. You will kill the essence of the opera.

    An example: I was with an early orchestra playing early Verdi, and the musicians were in this ta-ta-ti-ta-ta-ta mode, and I said, “my friends, think for a moment that instead of Verdi, the same music is written by Schubert.” You know, the attitude changed completely!

    OL – Oh!

    RM – Yes, this is an experiment that I made. In Schubert many times you have simple accompaniment that comes from the Italian school. But if it is written Schubert, it becomes aristocratic and noble, high intensity level, etcetera. “Verdi, oh, you know, these are the Italians, ta-ta-ti-ta-ta-ta.” Allowing this, is the fault of the conductors who don’t know how to interpret this music. So, I guess that because I do, my recordings get to be a bit more interesting, like you said.

    [Editor's note - Let's hear this hilarious acceptance speech the Maestro once issued, talking about how simple conducting really is - of course this is for humoristic purpose, given that we all know that he does a lot more than what he indicates in this piece...]

    OL - I once interviewed a conductor who specializes in bel canto, and he told me he thinks that his role is one of supporting the singers and allowing them space. I believe that you are of a radically different opinion. Verdi himself said “io non ammetto né ai cantanti, né ai direttori la facoltà di creare.” [I do not admit, neither to the singers, nor to the conductors, the faculty of creating] You seemed to imply that giving too much leeway to the singers can lead to disaster, and you said “il direttore non deve seguire al cantante; deve far musica con il cantante.” [The conductor must not follow the singer, but must make music with the singer]. On the other hand you also said that “il rapporto palcoscenico-buca è strettissimo.” [The relationship between the stage and the pit is very narrow]. Please explain.

    RM – Sì, sì. In fact, when I read some critic who says that the conductor was very good in following the singer, this is blasphemy. As I said, we make music with the singers. That means, if you do an opera, you have to work with the singers for one month. That was the old style, the old way. Not imposing, just giving to the entire group of singers, a direction. You don’t say that the soprano sings her own way, the tenor sings his own way, and the conductor has to follow.

    In any case, not all singers are Caruso or Callas. You know, you have singers who are wonderful musicians, but maybe also singers who have good voices but are not musicians. What will you follow, somebody who is not a musician and is very eccentric in his way of phrasing, just saying, like many singers used to say, “io lo sento così” [that’s the way I hear it]. You cannot say “lo sento così” – the musical phrase has some laws that you have to know, and then you have to interpret the phrase, not going against the physical laws of the phrase. It’s very delicate.

    When I did my first Otello in Florence, it was the first Iago for Renato Bruson. He worked with me for one month at the piano, every day, together with the other singers. Until the end of his career, that Iago was the base for his interpretation. You know Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff, no?

    OL – I do.

    RM – He is the Falstaff of today. I taught him note by note by note. Given his personality, he had the possibility of realizing it, himself. So, I don’t force a singer; I don’t say “you have to do it this way.” The difficulty is to put together the personality of the singer, with your idea.

    When I read “the conductor followed the singer” or “the conductor let the singer breathe” – these are such stupid phrases! [laughs] Of course everybody needs to breathe, otherwise you die. [laughs] You have to breathe, you have to know the vocal technique. But unfortunately, my dear friend, today many conductors follow, because they don’t have any idea of the interpretation of the opera.

    Look at Toscanini, de Sabata, Karajan, no? They had the singers in their hands, but not in an imposing way. They had worked together, so in the moment of a performance we make music together like a quartetto, no? But this is still difficult to be understood. And again, this mostly happens in the Italian repertoire. If you do Strauss the conductor has everything in hands. If you do Wagner, no? But when you do the Italian repertoire… Because it’s l’Italia, mozzarella, pommodoro, mandolino [makes an over-the-top accent], everything becomes a joke, and that, I will fight against, until my last day.

    Why is it that all the great singers love to work with me? If I were a tyrant they would refuse, but they say that “with Muti we feel that we can express the best in ourselves” because I encourage their personalities to come out, but in a frame where all the singers who are performing the opera have to stay. You need one picture, the same frame, not a little bit here, a little bit there, which happens all the time when the big tenor comes and says “I sing it this way” and the soprano says “I sing it that way” – is this respect for the composer? No! It is made possible in the Italian repertoire because the orchestra doesn’t have the structure of a Wagner orchestra where the singers have to be with [emphatically] the orchestra.

    OL - In your autobiography you say you started by conducting by memory but then Sviatoslav Richter asked you, “Why from memory; no eye?” And from that point on you have the score with you even for the pieces you know by heart. I once interviewed a conductor who said that if you know it by memory, the paper score is distracting as you need to turn the pages instead of looking at your musicians and the various sections of the orchestra. So please defend your contrary point of view.

    RM – I am not the only one who conducts with the score. Today all the new generation is coming back to using the score. Mravinsky, the great conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, could write by memory the scores of Tchaikovsky, but he used the scores until the end. Solti, Klemperer… Stravinsky conducted the music that he had written, with the score. So of course there were stories like Klemperer who used to say “of course I use the score; it’s because I can read music.”

    The point, like Toscanini used to say, is that it is not important if you conduct by memory or with the score; the important part is, you need to have the score in your head, not your head in the score. This was a famous phrase of Toscanini’s. When I turn the pages, it’s almost automatic, because the music is in myself. But I feel more secure, because everybody can have a lapse of memory, no? Also, I will not mention him by name, but one of my famous colleagues told me that sometimes he has problems with black-outs.

    Why jeopardize a performance and the work of the musicians and the singers? Richter refused to play with a conductor who didn’t use the score, because if something happens, the soloists will get lost. What do you do? If you have a score, you know how to put together the when and the where. Also, it is not difficult to conduct by memory. What is difficult is to rehearse by memory. The rehearsals need a score.

    OL – So that you quote all the bars you want to work on?

    RM – . I saw Votto rehearsing Falstaff at La Scala. I was a student of his, and he didn’t bring the score to the theater. He came wearing this raincoat, gave it to his assistant, and went directly to the pit, with no book, nothing. I said, “Maestro, how is it possible?” Because he had visual memory. He could say “bar 34, bar 62.” This is a gift that you get from God. So, I asked, “how is it possible?” and he said “if you had worked with Him,” with a capital H, meaning Toscanini, “it would be easy, also for you.”

    When Toscanini wanted to do a new Falstaff, he called up Votto and said “there is this baritone who could be a good Falstaff, so work with him for six months, and after six months bring him to me and I will listen to him.” So Votto worked with this baritone, the famous one at the time of Toscanini; the name escapes me now but you will find him. So Votto worked for six months and bought the baritone to Via Durini, where Toscanini’s house was located. [Editor’s note – this street is right in the middle of a straight line from the Duomo to the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi (some 1,500 feet in each direction – La Scala is on the other side of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, some 1,000 feet from the Duomo.] So he played the piano, the baritone sang, Toscanini listened, and said, “bene, [good] I was right, he can do Falstaff; work another six months with him and then you come back.” [laughs]

    [Editor’s note – It is difficult to get the timeline on this with certainty, given some different possibilities. Giuseppe Valdengo was rumored to have worked for several months before being admitted by Toscanini to be the Falstaff in his 1950 recording of the opera with Nelli, Stich-Randall, Merriman, Guarrera, Madasi, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, remastered in 2000.

    This, however, was when Toscanini already lived in the United States. There is another Toscanini recording of Falstaff, from 1937, with Mariano Stabile in the title role and the Wiener Philharmoniker in Salzburg, released in a box set from the Andante label that also has Gobbi and Karajan in a later performance.

    Toscanini was still living in Italy at the time of this recording; he left the country when WWII broke out. Toscanini did pick Stabile for Falstaff in 1921 to reopen La Scala but Votto wasn’t his assistant yet; he was Toscanini’s assistant conductor from 1923 to 1929, so it is not certain that Maestro Muti is speaking of Stabile, although it is likely him, given that he sang Falstaff 1,200 times throughout his career, and Toscanini scheduled this opera at La Scala every year from 1921 throughout 1929. Also, while Votto was not yet Toscanini’s assistant until 1923, he had been already hired by La Scala as a répétiteur prior to that. After 1929, Votto continued to be at La Scala, just no longer assisting Toscanini, and developed his own career conducting there, from his debut in 1923, sporadically at first, but then regularly from 1948 on, all the way to the mid 1960’s. Also, Toscanini was already gone at the time of WWII but he did return from time to time to conduct the La Scala orchestra. Stabile sang at La Scala all the way from 1921 through 1955. Other Italian singers of the role of Falstaff with overlapping timelines included Tito Gobbi, who did debut at La Scala in 1935, and Rolando Panerai who also had Falstaff as his signature role but he only debuted in 1947. Giuseppe Taddei, another famous Falstaff, did debut in 1936 but mostly in Rome, only getting to La Scala in 1948. So, all things considered, it appears likely that the baritone who was the subject of this story was Stabile, especially if the the episode happened at the time of Votto as a répétiteur].

    This is gone. It’s all gone. Toscanini’s assistants used to work on the same text for months and months, every day, so that became part of their body. Votto always conducted everything by memory, but like Toscanini, he couldn’t see. He had to hold the score near his eyes, like Toscanini himself. At arm’s length distance he couldn’t read the music, as you will see in his pictures. Toscanini said, “I don’t understand why everybody wants to imitate me. I am forced to conduct by memory because I can’t see.”

    OL – Very interesting! So, we see a sharp division in what Verdi operas get to be staples of the standard repertory. Of course, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and Rigoletto are the most popular, followed by Aida ; Otello and Falstaff have extraordinary scores. Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra, Ballo, Macbeth, Nabucco, are all regularly staged; La forza del destino seems to be given less frequently. Then we start to see the others being sort of neglected. I know you are a fan of Attila and Luisa Miller.

    RM – And I due Foscari.

    OL – I due Foscari? So, what other Verdi operas you consider to be unfairly underestimated by the public or the opera houses, and should really be more promoted, and why?

    RM – All of them. [laughs] It’s very simple, because from the first opera to the last, it is a quite perfect arc. You can follow Verdi’s evolution from the beginning to the end. In every opera of Verdi you have elements of greatness. Some are academic moments; routine, let’s say. You mentioned Attila. When Atilla meets Papa Leone, the Pope, this confrontation of the two powers is exactly the anticipation of what will be, in Don Carlo, Filippo and the Inquisitore. Melitone in La forza del destino, in many ways is an anticipation of what will be the character of Falstaff.

    So every opera is important step by step to understand and follow the evolution of Verdi. I hope – I am not sure – but I hope that I will be able to do all Verdi operas. I have done at La Scala something that remains a source of pride for me. I brought back La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and Rigoletto, after more than twenty years of absence. Can you imagine it? In La Scala, the theater of Verdi, the popular trilogy should be the bread of every day, but I had to bring back Traviata after twenty-six years.

    Due to the disaster of Karajan and Freni who were booed wildly, nobody had the courage to do La Traviata. After twenty-six years when I started the prelude in the empty theater – because it was a rehearsal – the sound of the prelude was so comovente, so moving, that some players started to cry. To hear it again in more than a quarter of a century [hums it, lowers his voice] in the empty Scala… The theater was waiting for this music to come back to that hall.

    Sometimes the attitude of the audience in Italian theaters is very aggressive. I loggionisti... [Editor's note - the famous segment of the La Scala public that boos the performances they don’t like, usually sitting in the higher rings], they sometimes become an obstacle to the operas conceived today as culture, not only as a show for this tenor, that soprano, or that baritone. Today, it is not anymore about “OK, let’s see how beautiful the high C of the tenor or the E flat of the soprano will be.” If you find a singer that can do these notes very beautifully, it is good, but it is more important every night to go to the theater and learn about the world of opera.

    OL - You say that a singer can’t just be called for example a Verdi tenor because different roles in Verdi (and even within the same role) will require different voice types. You aim for a more specific concept, a Verdian accent. Please explain what exactly you meant by that.

    RM – Sì. For example if we take a tenor like Aureliano Pertile, who was so-called “the tenor of Toscanini,” and for me, an example of how a tenor should phrase, his voice was not very beautiful. He was a lyric tenor. He sang lyric roles, but also Otello. So he was not the right voice for Otello, but he did an interesting Otello because, as I said, he was able to create the Verdi accent, the articulation of the words.

    Verdi should be sung like Michelangelo made his sculptures. Very strong; not loud; I mean, strong in the articulation. L’articulazione della parola [the articulation of the word], that’s what the accent of Verdi is. It’s not just singing with a beautiful voice. It’s the drama in every syllable. Pavarotti had it. You can like or dislike his way of phrasing, but Pavarotti had the articulation of the words. There are singers who have it, and some who don’t.

    Callas articulated very well, because [Tullio] Serafin worked very much with her. Votto, my teacher, when he did La vestale with Callas in the early 1950’s at La Scala, Toscanini was in the hall during the rehearsals. There is a very famous picture of Toscanini sitting with his glasses, very old, a few years before he died, at La Scala, and behind him there is de Sabata who was La Scala’s artistic director at the time, and then you have Callas and Votto.

    This picture is very famous because during the rehearsals in the empty Scala, there was Toscanini sitting here, and de Sabata sitting on the opposite side of the hall, because the two of them weren’t very friendly, for many, many reasons.

    So Votto explained to me the reasons behind that picture. He said, “you know, it was embarrassing, in front of the orchestra and the chorus, to see two giants of Italian conducting, in an empty theater; instead of sitting together, one was sitting here and the other one all the way there.” So with the excuse of introducing Callas to Toscanini, during a break Votto brought Victor de Sabata near Toscanini, and brought Callas. The only words that Toscanini said to Callas, were: “Signora, le parole!” That’s it.

    OL – That’s it?

    RM – Terribile, no? I never said this to anybody, this story that Votto told me. It is very interesting. You can find this picture. De Sabata, Toscanini sitting like this, Antonino Votto, and Callas.

    From left to right, Toscanini, de Sabata, Votto with his back to the camera, and Callas. Credit unknown to us.

    So, no “Signora, you are a wonderful figure, brava, bravissima,” niente [nothing] but “Signora, le parole!” [says it slowly]. So, Callas had a wonderful articulation of the words as we know, but for Toscanini it was not enough.

    OL – How interesting!

    RM – And this is the Verdi accent!

    OL - How have your interpretive ideas about Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte developed between the recordings from the late 20th century and those from the 21st? Some recent productions of the former have suggested that Donna Anna actually engaged in consensual sex with Giovanni, and there have been stagings of Così fan tutte where the sisters are portrayed as complicit in Don Alfonso's prank on the two gentlemen.

    A recent one in Aix-en-Provence had Fiordiligi knowing what was going on but not Dorabella, and the former becomes depressed at the end and it is implied that she commits suicide – she takes a rifle off-stage and we hear a shot. Maybe she fired a shot to the air, frustrated; maybe she shot and killed herself. We don’t get to know. But this staging in Aix is extremely dark, and while, like you, I’m not a fan of changes in the plot implemented by stage directors, in this case I do feel that all this darkness is justified, since this piece for me is more dramma than giocoso, that is, more tragic than comic. Do you think that there is anything in the music or libretto that would support such approaches, especially in the case of Così? [See our review of the Aix Così, (here).]

    RM – Così fan tutte is called a dramma giocoso but it is one of the most negative operas that Mozart wrote. The question should be put to Mozart and da Ponte. What you just said about the Così in Aix-en-Provence certainly was not in the mind of da Ponte. The problem is another one. Many of these directors, they don’t speak Italian, and they don’t understand deeply the Italian language. The text of Così fan tutte, like it happens many times also in Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro, is full of double-meanings. There is an erotic aspect in phrases that officially say something else, no? So why these directors, instead of inventing a new story that is just in their minds, don’t try to understand deeply the double-meanings that are already there in the text?

    I was once invited by Sinkovicz, the chief critic at Die Presse in Vienna, to speak about Così fan tutte at the University of Vienna. All the students were shocked when I explained that many phrases can be said to the Pope; they are so pure; but the same words can mean something else, very clearly. That’s the genialità of da Ponte, and Mozart, who understood what da Ponte wanted to say.

    So, there is an official line that you can say to the priests and to the nuns [laughs], but the same words mean something else. Why don’t the directors work on this, also, trying to create new ideas, but following the real hidden meaning? For example, I always mention the fact that when Fiordiligi and Dorabella in the opera finale see the two men coming back, and they recognize the men and realize all that has happened, the tricks and the tradimento [betrayal] and everything, they sing [the Maestro sings it] “il mio fallo tardi vedo, con quel ferro un sen ferite” etcetera, etcetera. Now, “il mio fallo tardi vedo” officially means "I recognize my mistake.” Fallo is Italian for mistake. It is also a verb, “do it.” But it means also, the male member.

    OL – [simultaneously] The penis.

    RM – The penis, yes! [laughs] So, it’s “I recognize my mistake” but also “I recognize the penis.” [laughs] The two of them, da Ponte… we know da Ponte, he was a genius, and we know also that he liked to be very erotic, and to make love to as many women as possible, and Mozart was not less adventurous than da Ponte. So, the two together, they created many times jokes that could read as if there was nothing wrong – "I recognize my mistake" - but meant something else. I’m sure the two of them were laughing on the corner of the room. There are many, many such moments in the opera.

    Now, Così fan tutte [he pronounces the final letter e with emphasis – it’s the Italian plural that relates only to the feminine gender], it is important to realize that the real title is Così fan tutti [now the Maestro underlines the letter i, which is the neutral plural for both genders], men and women. At the time of course they blamed the women, but during the course of the opera you realize that all are at fault. That means, we are all made in the same way, and the finale indicates that we should not trust each other. The two men in the end say that they don’t want to do this experiment again. So, it’s a negative opera.

    I will do Così fan tutte in Napoli, and then we take the same production to Vienna and then to Tokyo, with the Regie [stage direction] of my daughter who is a wonderful actress, and she knows Mozart even better than me, since she grew up following the rehearsals of [Giorgio] Strehler at La Scala.

    OL – Chiara [Muti].

    Chiara Muti Photographed By Paolo Roversi For Vogue Italia Beauty

    RM – Chiara, bravo. Strehler, [Luca] Ronconi, [Antoine] Vitez, and she studied in the school of Strehler in Milano, so it will be very interesting. I hope you can come to Napoli. It’s in November and it will be my pleasure if you come.

    OL – Hm, maybe I will. [Note - indeed, I will]

    RM – Benissimo [great]. So, she knows all this world, and it is not going against the story. First, we have to realize one thing that I heard from a musicologist in Vienna. When I did Così fan tutte the first time in 1982 in Salzburg, that was in July and August, then I was in a concert in Vienna a few months later, and I met a musicologist who said to me, “Maestro, do you know why the opera takes place in Napoli?”

    OL – [Wiener] Neuestadt. [Vienna New City in German, a town located right south of Vienna. Naples, or Napoli, derives from the Latin nea polis, or new city]

    RM – Bravo. You’ve read this.

    OL – Do you think it is true?

    RM – I don’t know! But it makes sense! They couldn’t put the opera in Neuestadt because everybody knew the story of these four people, in Vienna. The genialitá of da Ponte was, Neue Stadt, Nea Polis. Because in fact in the opera, there is no element that tells you that it is in Napoli.

    OL – Except once, when Fiordiligi says it.

    RM – Bravo, , except once when she sings “Da Napoli partiti sono gli amanti nostri.” And the music doesn’t evoke Napoli, except in one moment [hums it] when it evokes the beauty of nature and the melancholy of the soul.

    So, I think it’s not by creating stupid stories on top of the music that you solve the problem of interpretation from the visual point of view. We need directors who pay attention to the right ideas, and in the case of Mozart and Verdi, like Wilhem Wagner did with the operas of Wagner, the less you put on stage, the better it is.

    [The Maestro’s assistant has entered the room and waits for the interview to conclude, seemingly in need of attracting the Maestro’s attention].

    OL – I think we ran out of time.

    RM – [Turns to her] Sì? [She says, “Maestro, you have another commitment.”] Yes. [Turns to me]. An interview, was only for you; I didn’t accept any others, but I have a commitment with the orchestra, now.

    OL – Certainly. Thank you so much, Maestro.

    RM – Grazie, grazie infinite. Are you coming to the concert tonight?

    OL – Yes, of course.

    RM – Then, I’ll conduct the Vespri overture for you, thinking of you.

    OL – Oh wow, I’m honored. Grazie mille.

    RM – Grazie! [Maestro Muti leaves].

    OL – [To his assistant] I’m sorry that we went beyond the allocated time, but he seemed to be enjoying it.

    Maestro Muti’s assistant – Of course! Thank you! Have a great day!

    OL – You too.

    Maestro Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chapel Hill, NC, 2/17/2018; UNC Memorial Hall - Photo Opera Lively

    The Maestro with Marta Gazzola (the journalist's spouse) and Luiz Gazzola


    To close this piece, let's hear this superb performance of Beethoven's 9th, with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in May 2015:


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    Comments 4 Comments
    1. Hoffmann's Avatar
      Hoffmann -
      Bravo, Luiz! Great interview - I'm envious. Thanks so much for asking my question!
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Well, thanks for asking it, James.

      It's all confirmed; I'll be in Naples for the opening night of the Così fan tutte directed by Chiara Muti and conducted by Riccardo Muti. Hopefully I will also interview the Intendant of the Teatro San Carlo, Mr. Paolo Pinamonti.
    1. Florestan's Avatar
      Florestan -
      I am visiting Riccardo Muti's website. Looks like a lot of good stuff/information there:

    1. Poppea's Avatar
      Poppea -
      Fantastic article, very interesting and informative. I really enjoyed Riccardo Muti's acceptance speech too, very humorous and also deep. Thank you.

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