• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with the great composer Salvatore Sciarrino

    After our spectacular interview with Maestro Riccardo Muti, we are now publishing the words of another giant of Italian music, Salvatore Sciarrino, the most important living Italian composer. Mr. Sciarrino is delightful and possesses great erudition. He speaks in a very literary manner, and likely would have produced even more sophisticated words, but since the interview was conducted in Italian, Mr. Sciarrino said he tried to "keep it simple" so that the translation would be easier. Well, it wasn't simple... His answers are deep and meaningful. We believe this is one of the best interviews we ever published on Opera Lively.

    Luiz Gazzola, who authored the questions and translated Mr. Sciarrino's words into English, is a big fan, after falling in love with his masterpiece Luci mie traditrici, easily one of the top five contemporary operas (and after getting acquainted with a couple of others, and some of Mr. Sciarrino's instrumental music as well). We extensively covered the Berlin Staatsoper production of this opera in 2016, which we attended in person, and interviewed the stage director Jürgen Flimm, the conductor David Robert Coleman, and the two principal singers (links to these interviews are available at our Berlin coverage portal - click [here]). At the time we would have loved to interview the composer, but he wasn't in attendance. So, now, this dream comes true, and it is timely, because we are going back to Berlin to see his new opera Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo, also given by the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

    It is not every day that we are given the opportunity to look in detail into the creative process of a great artist, and that's what this interview contains. It is truly a must-read, and we are proud that we are able to treat our readers to Mr. Sciarrino's fascinating words.



    Salvatore Sciarrino (Palermo, 1947) boasts of being born free and not in a music school.
    He started composing when he was twelve as a self-taught person and held his first public concert in 1962.

    But Sciarrino considers all the works before 1966 as a developing apprenticeship because that is when his personal style began to reveal itself. There is something really particular that characterizes his music: it leads to a different way of listening, a global emotional realization, of reality as well as of one’s self. And after fifty years, the extensive catalog of Sciarrino’s compositions is still in a phase of surprising creative development.

    After his classical studies and a few years of university in his home city, the Sicilian composer moved to Rome in 1969 and in 1977 to Milan. Since 1983, he has lived in Città di Castello, in Umbria.

    He has composed for: Teatro alla Scala, RAI, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Biennale di Venezia, Teatro La Fenice di Venezia, Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova, Fondazione Arena di Verona, Stuttgart Opera Theatre, Brussels La Monnaie, Frankfurt Opera Theatre, Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, London Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Suntory Hall. He has also composed for the following festivals: Schwetzinger Festspiele, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Witten, Salzburg, New York, Wien Modern, Wiener Festwochen, Berliner Festspiele Musik, Holland Festival, Alborough, Festival d’Automne (Paris), Ultima (Oslo).

    He was published by Ricordi from 1969 to 2004. Since 2005, Rai Trade has had exclusive rights for Sciarrino’s works. Sciarrino’s discography is pretty extensive and counts way over 100 CDs, published by the best international record labels and very often awarded and noted.

    Apart from being author of most of the librettos for his operas, Sciarrino wrote a rich production of articles, essays and texts of various genres some of which have been chosen and collected in Carte da suono, CIDIM – Novecento, 2001. Particularly important is his interdisciplinary book about musical form: Le figure della musica, da Beethoven a oggi, Ricordi 1998.

    Sciarrino taught at the Music Academies of Milan (1974–83), Perugia (1983–87) and Florence (1987– 96). He also worked as a teacher in various specialization courses and master classes among which are those held in Città di Castello from 1979 to 2000.

    From 1978 to 1980, he was Artistic Director of Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Academy of Santa Cecilia (Roma), Academy of Fine Arts of Bavaria and Academy of the Arts (Berlin).

    Sciarrino has won many awards, such as: Prince Pierre de Monaco (2003) and the prestigious Feltrinelli International Award (Premio Internazionale Feltrinelli) (2003). He is also the first prizewinner of the Salzburg Music Prize (2006), an International Composition Prize established by the Salzburg Land. e received the 2011 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award of Contemporary Music for renewing the possibilities of vocal and instrumental music and for the singularity of his sound materials.

    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview With Salvatore Sciarrino

    This interview done in mid-March 2018 is copyrighted to Opera Lively and Opera Lively Press, all rights reserved. Reproduction of short excerpts is allowed as long as the source is quoted and a link to this article is provided. Extensive quotes or reproduction of the interview in its entirety is not allowed unless permission is asked by using the Contact Us link on the bottom of our pages. Questions and translation by Opera Lively Chief Editor Luiz Gazzola. Photo credits are unknown, fair promotional use. We'll be happy to include the credits if we are told what they are. This is Opera Lively's interview #251.

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Your music has moments of silence, then a myriad of microscopic sounds that seem to reproduce a real-life universe. You use extended techniques and extremely high notes. The violins play spectral harmonics, the flutes play multiphonics... Please explain your musical style to our readers.

    Salvatore Sciarrino - I think of music differently. The other composers usually combine elements, and they are less interested in the overall result. On the contrary, I imagine an overall result and I realize the particularities.

    I do not have an objective idea of ​​the world, because the world is perceived through our senses. I place the listener at the center of the music; what he perceives, that is, I work on the relationships between the elements and on the relationships between the relationships. Music is an organism, and I create organic groups of groups. This is true for a corpuscular articulation (small or large masses of sounds) as well as to construct a simple melody. In this case I do not work for combinations of notes, but rather for combinations of intervals. The interval is a relationship and for me the sounds move as if they were alive.

    Working on perception means working on psychology and emotionality. But at the base of it all, there is human physiology. Like the universe that is made of periodic movements, equally, the music must be based on breathing. In this sense I write an ecological music.

    OL – Your vocal writing has elongated notes that usually engage in a crescendo which then abruptly ends with syllables sung very quickly. It reminds me of Renaissance music. It is a truly unique style. We immediately recognize that it is Sciarrino. What can you say about your vocal writing?

    SS – One can notice a certain vague resemblance between my music and the ancient one, especially because of messe di voce which you mentioned. [Editor’s note: messa di voce is a musical technique that involves a gradual crescendo and diminuendo while sustaining a single pitch]. In reality this kind of articulation I derived from observing nature. Some bird songs have similar articulations.

    My vocal style is now unmistakable but I built it step by step. For me the word is essential: the sound of the voice without the power of the word cannot become a song.

    In a second moment I also invented some vocal articulations that seem to speak. Employing very slow glissando [Editor’s note – gliding from one note to another] produces a microtonal aura that recalls speech. Perhaps not everyone knows that speech is a non-tempered and very irregular sound phenomenon. Yet I control all the inflections (which everyone thinks are spoken) by means of the intonation.

    OL - Your musical language is very advanced and decidedly contemporary, but it also seems to have some Italianitá [Italianness]. Do you agree with this statement? Is it profoundly influenced by Italian music, especially by the Renaissance? What are some of your influences?

    SS - I do not have the conditioning that the school gives [Editor’s note – Mr. Sciarrino is self-taught], in fact I do not understand why separate the ancient from the modern.

    When we listen to ancient music today, sensitivity, head and ears remain modern!

    On the other hand, without roots the modern has no identity. Personally I do not particularly love Renaissance music; if anything, I rather love the Baroque period.

    My training is modern; however, with a vast, in-depth and passionate knowledge of some classical masters, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (but also Bach). However, as a composer I climb over the classic, looking for an archaic imaginary.

    OL - Do you think that your vocal writing is difficult? Do you base your vocal writing on the skills of specific singers that you have in mind when you think about the roles? If this is the case, how do you select your singers? Is it hard to find singers who can perform your music the way you want?

    SS - Every writing is difficult: if made of many notes it becomes virtuosic. If made of a few notes it becomes dangerous like walking on a wire (Mozart for example).

    The knowledge of the part is basic and yet it is not enough in itself. I am demanding, and I need interpreters, musicians who are not satisfied with pseudo-objective accuracy. The [musical] language must communicate, and it becomes alive only when it is interpreted, that is: personalized and transfigured, or humanized.

    Knowing some singers is useful; I think every composer has his singers.

    However, the best theaters can put together appropriate, and often wonderful, companies.

    Germany is a magnificent nursery for singers, as well as for instrumentalists.

    OL - If I had to guess which instrument is your favorite, I would say, the flute. Agree? Would you explain what justifies this preference, if true?

    SS - It will seem strange to you, but the flute is not my favorite instrument. For me, the flute is like an extraordinary and agile mine of sounds. Today it is a mechanically very refined and widespread instrument in the world. Despite this, the flute still offers something to be discovered and invented, even technically. Then, if I get good results, I try to get better ones.

    In truth I adore the string instruments. But my true inclination is the voice.

    OL - While your works have been very successful, other contemporary composers find it difficult to find an audience. What do you think should be done to improve the acceptance of contemporary music?

    SS - Even the highest ancient music does not have a large audience: I think of string quartets, Lieder, and, in general, all chamber music. One of the main and worst current habits is that one uses music as a filler or a pleasant background.

    Instead, every type of music requires attention and concentration otherwise one cannot follow its telling (or perceive its architecture). True aesthetic sense requires discipline and is achieved after repeated listening. Then the pleasure of music grows enormously and can be shared.

    Returning to contemporary music, perhaps it will be better accepted when everyone likes a Beethoven quartet. People want to relax or have fun; they do not want to commit themselves; they do not want to think; they want to forget. On the other hand, art is important because it poses the problems of life.

    OL – Excellent answer! Among your colleagues, who do you think is writing good works today?

    SS - Unfortunately I have no way to follow the premieres of the other composers. And, I must confess, sometimes I do not follow the performances of my works, otherwise I would not be able to compose new ones. But when I can, I go. A few years ago I was able to enjoy Jakob Lenz by Rihm [Editor’s note: a one-act chamber opera by Wolfgang Rihm, premiered in March 1979], and this year I would like to go to La Scala for the new opera by [György] Kurtág [Editor’s note: Fin de Partie, which will be given at La Scala from November 15 to 25, 2018, with stage direction by Pierre Audi, conducted by Markus Stenz, based on a drama by Samuel Beckett].

    OL - You seem to be particularly interested in historical figures and events in the Renaissance, in works like Luci mie traditrici [My Betraying Eyes] and Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo [I See You, I Feel You, I Lose Myself]. Please explain this interest.

    SS - I do not care about the story itself; it interests me as a mirror of the current world. I do not know if this can explain my disposition for ancient theater: I read it inasmuch as it can teach us.

    As for ancient music, I like to reveal its most modern aspects, as I like to find the reflection of the ancient in today's things. Looking for the coincidence of opposites is a necessary and fruitful experience that I, as an artist, have always wanted. From a single point of view no knowledge is true. So if we talk about darkness we cannot exclude light; if we talk about life we ​​touch death. Don’t you think?

    OL – Indeed! In Luci mie traditrici, La Malaspina [Editor’s note – the lead female role] seems confident at a certain point that she will survive, that there will be forgiveness. She seems surprised at the end, that all this "I love you, I will not do it anymore" did not work. But we could also say that she knows from the beginning that she is condemned, because she sees that her husband, once he realizes that he has been betrayed, becomes very sadistic. Which one is the most accurate idea?

    SS - You frame the character well. La Malaspina is almost like a terminally ill patient: she sees but does not want to understand. While she is divided between two dreams, he, Il Malaspina [Editor’s note – the lead male role, her husband], is truly torn: he kills and does not want to; loves his woman and must lose her. Deep inside, he kills a part of himself, since in him, the terrible call of blood wins.

    OL - I will attend in person your most recent opera, Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo on July 9 in Berlin. Please tell me what to expect. Describe your opera for me, please.

    SS - It is a singular work, in which three dimensions alternate with each other. We are witnessing the rehearsals of a new cantata on the meaning and origins of music; the dramatic tale of waiting for Stradella, and the comedy of the servants, interweave with these rehearsals. For those who have never seen how a show is produced, it can be an opera full of charm [fascinating]. The true theme of the work is the artistic creation seen under various angles, because Stradella sometimes becomes my alter ego.

    Two musical languages ​​are touching each other: the modern one (mine) and the ancient one (Stradella’s). It's like a dream where everything is also something else. The action takes place in an unspecified time that could be ours; since today the presence of Stradella is still missing, this opera assumes a strange didactic function, that of making people feel immediately how original Stradella was. This allows us to present him and frame him as a forerunner of Romantic musicians, from Chopin to Puccini. In the opera there are points of very high dramatic tension.

    OL - I heard that Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo combines a philosophical approach, for example with a character who speaks of the divine properties of music, with servants who seem to come from the Commedia dell'Arte, for a comic effect. Furthermore, it is said that the libretto adds intrigue to a rather esoteric subject. Do you agree with these statements?

    SS - Yes, the libretto is strongly philosophical (or sociological) but it is understood by everyone. At La Scala there was really a truly attentive participation, that I would not have expected. The opera makes clear that the new cannot be understood immediately by everyone, because it abandons the norm. Or, it goes unnoticed. Here comes to play the myth of the discovery of a new world. We said that comic and dramatic intertwine. I have also trodden the hand on some gossip around Stradella; if they are substantiated or groundless, I do not care. The rumors are more alive than the documented facts, as everyone can verify by looking at the musical environment of our time.

    OL - What do you think about the stage direction by Jürgen Flimm for Ti vendo, ti sento, mi perdo? What are its strengths? Is there anything that would have been preferable to do otherwise?

    SS - The stage direction adheres perfectly to the drama, although to some [critics] the staging appeared overloaded. The representation of the theater within the theater is done with irony and extraordinary moments of magic.

    OL – You write your own librettos. Explain this choice, please. Have you ever thought of composing opera with librettos written by others?

    SS - The libretto of my first opera was written by a poet. The following two operas are signed by me together with a director.

    Over time I wanted to become a playwright myself and little by little I succeeded. Sometimes I do not feel like I'm a writer, but I work a lot and try to make reality out of what I imagine.

    OL - Your librettos seem synthetic; very concise. With few words, you create whole and profound scenes (like in Luci mie traditrici when La Malaspina speaks with her lover and just by mentioning some parts of the body, a huge erotic tension is created). I think you are not only a brilliant composer, but also an excellent poet. How was this talent for writing born?

    SS - Many years ago there was the habit that the composer wrote the program note on his piece. I started writing for this reason. The first notes were just two stunted words.

    OL - When creating a new opera, do you start with the music or the libretto?

    SS - I start with the libretto and try to get a good starting level. Even the depth is reached gradually. Then I detach myself completely from the text. Afterwards, writing the music, I still make important adjustments, but the last version of the libretto is ready only when the score is finished. Many musical images in me are born at the beginning and remain hidden under the words. Some librettos already have a synthetic notation of the vocal part, almost neumatic, next to the lines of the text. [Editor’s note: neumatic is any of various symbols representing from one to four notes, used in the musical notation of the Middle Ages but now employed solely in the notation of Gregorian chant].

    OL - How long does it take to write a new opera? What is your production style? Do you work continuously, or do you proceed little by little, or in another way?

    SS - The preparation of some operas extends for more than twenty years, naturally alternating with many other works. Macbeth was started in 1976 and staged in 2002. Superflumina was started in 1983 and performed in 2010. These long durations are the incubation of the theatrical idea, not just the libretto. Spreading the music then [Editor’s note: setting the libretto to music], it takes me from a minimum of six to a maximum of nine to ten months.

    There are phases in which the pace of work accelerates and stops at a crisis point. I must say that I never managed to compose more than one thing at a time. You need patience, passion and suffering; nothing is achieved without effort. The shortcuts, the easy results, often tend to superficiality.

    OL - I know three of your operas so far: Luci mie traditrici, Da Gelo a Gelo, and Macbeth. Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo will be my fourth. Of your operistic production, which opera gave you more satisfaction, and why?

    SS – Insofar as the number of performances, there is no doubt: Luci mie traditrici has the merit of being concise and snappy; it does not allow equivocations. My intent was to reform the operatic art form, and this includes it all, if people want it. I believe that an authentic opera of mine is Perseus and Andromeda, the hardest, the most perfect: island, sea, wind, and song in solitude. It is the first ecological and feminist opera: she refuses to follow the macho that frees her from the dragon. And for this she remains alone in the night with the stormy sea of ​​a polluted, post-atomic era.

    OL – Oh wow, I need to see it, then! When a director interprets your work in a Regie concept, are you generally satisfied with the results or does it turn out to be something very different from what you had imagined? If the latter, do you then try to influence the final product?

    SS - Every work of art requires interpretation, so I do not reject ideas that are different from mine, or rather I demand them. If something does not convince me, I like to discuss openly and I do not say "no". I try to propose alternative solutions among which the director can choose. It is important to understand each other and move in parallel, otherwise the opera is not born: it is shipwrecked.

    OL - Growing up, what made you choose this profession of composer? I heard you started with painting.

    SS - It's true, as a child I was practicing contemporary painting. Honestly I did not understand why at 12, I suddenly decided to be a composer. You understand, I did not want to become a musician, but a composer.

    I think that talent, alone, if it does not "go into crisis" does not exceed an average level that everyone can get. My talent as a painter did not lead me to become an artist. Instead in music I fight with the impossible. It is the thing that attracts me most.

    OL – Please describe your training path to become a composer. You were self-taught, right? How did you manage to learn composition?

    SS - I learned practically everything from the works of ancient tradition and modern tradition, not from manuals or methods of compromise. We do not become poets starting from grammar, but learning to imagine and think. Initially I showed my works to a composer from my city, and he gave me advice that was never authoritarian. I accepted it and I am still grateful to him, because he invited me to learn from masterpieces, old or new, and he lent me the scores of Boulez and Stockhausen, or Puccini. It was in 1959.

    OL - What kind of person are you? Reserved or convivial? How is your personality?

    SS - Reserved and at the same time convivial. I think that in order to write one needs to know how to isolate oneself, and yet I also work while traveling; I work everywhere. I have a double nature of ascetic and pleasure-loving.

    OL - What kinds of interests or hobbies do you have besides music?

    SS - Music is everything to me. My hobby consists in changing activity; I read and study the history of art (painting, sculpture, architecture), I read poetry and the wise [Translator’s note – or maybe he meant “essays”], but I am not a great reader of novels. I walk a lot; this gives me clarity and helps me fight back pain.

    OL - Thank you so much for the interview and for the very beautiful music!


    Let's watch a little fragment of Salvatore Sciarrino's masterpice Luci mie traditrici:

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