• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Ambrogio Maestri

    Opera Lively interviewed the great Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri, in person at the Vienna State Opera, on June 30th, 2018, on the occasion of his role of Falstaff for the Austrian company. Speaking with the affable and convivial artist was a pleasure.

    This interview is part of our Central Europe coverage trip in the summer of 2018, when we visited four countries, seven cities, and eight opera companies where we attended sixteen performances in as many days and interviewed twenty-one artists. We gathered this material in a portal with links to all articles, reviews, and interviews. Click [here] to consult the portal, or else, click on Read More or on the title of this article, to read Mr. Maestri's words.

    This is Opera Lively's interview # 256. It was conducted in Italian. Questions and translation into English by Luiz Gazzola. Copyright Opera Lively.
    Reproduction of small excerpts is authorized as long as the source is quoted and there is a link to this full article. Reproduction of the entire interview is only possible if permission is asked first: use the Contact Us link on the bottom of our pages. Photo credits are unknown to us; fair promotional use; we'll be happy to add the credits if we are told what they are.

    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Ambrogio Maestri

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Falstaff is your signature role. You have done it many times. What is the recipe for a good Falstaff, regarding acting and singing?

    Ambrogio Maestri - T
    o make a good Falstaff after 350 performances, the receipt is entertainment. I need to entertain myself and look for something new, and find it inside the different stage directions I am in. Because what I sing is always the same, but the stage direction is always diverse. If I entertain myself, then the public is also entertained. If I do not amuse myself, if I do not believe in it, then the public will not believe a lot in it.

    OL – Please, tell me about the psychological characteristics of Falstaff, the character.

    AM - Falstaff is Verdi’s last opera. Verdi never wrote a comic opera. Actually, it is not a comic opera. It is not Rossini or Donizetti; it is always Verdi. Therefore, there is always a melancholic side, because Verdi’s issue is solitude. He was a lonely man, ultimately. It is everybody’s fear. We all get lonely when we get old, because no matter how we behave in life, our hearts are in pain. Inside Falstaff, certainly there is Verdi, the old man with all his problems and fears. Death is getting nearer. When I first studied the role with Maestro Riccardo Muti, the first thing he told me was that even though this was Verdi’s only comic opera, it is not comic.

    OL – There was Un Giorno di Regno.

    AM – Sure, but that one, Un Giorno di Regno… who remembers it? People remember Falstaff much more. For everybody, this is his only comic opera that is remembered, including because when Verdi wrote Un Giorno di Regno, his wife and children had just died; it was a tragedy. When Verdi wrote Falstaff, he said to Giulio Ricordi that Otello, he wrote for the public, while Falstaff he wrote for himself, for his own pleasure. He had always wanted to write another opera from Shakespeare, but he did not have a good libretto before, and he did not have Boito. Shakespeare, Verdi, and Boito was a perfect trio; it is a wonderful opera.

    OL – When you have done a role so many times, how do you manage to keep it new and fresh? Do you do any modifications to the role when you perform it again?

    AM - If I tell you the truth, for me nothing changes, in the sense that I’m always the same character, but every stage director can impact something into the role that makes people laugh – or rather not laugh, but be entertained – and also makes people cry when they see the old man pretty much destroyed. The music already prepares you for it. Verdi prepares you for what is coming, with his music. There is a more humane dimension; he wants one woman, two women, but in the end, he is just a human being. We have him cunning or angry before, but in the third act, we find a human person. Therefore, I always try to be as humane as possible. If I were to exaggerate his negative traits, it would not be something beautiful.

    OL – Please tell us about a couple of Falstaff productions you did, that you best liked.

    AM – The one I did with Carsen was very beautiful. The one by Michelletto in the Casa Verdi was also very beautiful. The first one I did, at La Scala, was wonderful; a bit better than this one, because this one is very traditional. I did one in which I am inside a container in an automobile factory. I remember fondly the ones I did in the most important theaters, like in New York, London, Vienna, at La Scala, and in Japan.

    Maestri as Falstaff at the Vienna State Opera

    OL – I interviewed maestro Riccardo Muti, and he told me and he said that you are the Falstaff of our current times. He said he taught you the role note by note. What are the recollections you have from maestro Muti when you did that iconic Falstaff at La Scala and Busetto?

    AM – Yes, I remember every coma that he told me, in one full year of studies. He taught me everything. The first thing he told me was, “You know all the prayers, the Ave Maria, and so forth, but for this opera you need to know more. Because if you do not really know this opera, how it was truly written, you will not feel entertained; you will always be at odds with the conductor. This opera is musically hard, because it condenses Verdi’s entire wisdom. The orchestration is very delicate and difficult to play, sing, and express”, he said. He added, “You need to learn it in a manner that has never happened before in your entire life.”

    So, when I thought I had learned everything, he said “Now, you are doing a nice draft, but on top of this, we need to create a character. You are doing it like a 30-year-old young man. You are not doing it like an elderly gentleman.” He then taught me everything about the body language, including how to get into the basket. Doing all the physical part in that scene made me miss the tempi in the orchestra, so he taught me to do it, including how to walk, with the right tempi.

    Strehler was already dead at the time but someone who had worked with him like maestro Muti, had a bit of his style. Strehler was a great man. He listened to singers, and if something displeased him, he would hit the singer on the hand with his baton, saying that if he just mentioned after the fact what the mistake was, the singer wouldn’t get it, but if he hit the singer right at the moment of a mistake, he’d remember it, and would never make the same mistake again. This great tradition of perfection, only La Scala could have helped me to attain, and only maestro Muti. I will thank him until the end of my days.

    OL – You have performed many serious roles from Verdi, in addition to this buffo role of Falstaff. Do you feel more comfortable with buffo roles, or serious ones?

    AM – Serious roles, you can sing anytime even if you are sick. Sometimes if you are sick, you can do an even better serious roles. The buffo roles, you have to be in top shape, and you have to be creative. For me, the buffo roles teach me how to do the serious ones. Falstaff has taught me a lot about doing other roles. If you can do Falstaff, you can do anything. For example, Nabucco, or Simon Boccanegra, you only need to be there in a certain position and sing; you do not need to be as physical as you are with buffo roles.

    Another role I did many times was Scarpia. A person in command like Scarpia does not need to do much. He just stares at people, and his minions do everything. He should not yell. Falstaff taught me this – when Falstaff looks at his pistols and makes a gesture, the others understand everything. The same thing happens in other Verdian roles. Verdi’s last role taught me how to do his earlier ones.

    OL – After a career with a strong focus on Verdi, lately you have done several Puccini roles. What is different in singing Verdi’s roles as opposed to Puccini’s ones?

    AM – The difference is that Verdi does not tire your voice. Puccini’s orchestration is more powerful. Puccini’s sound is infinite. Obviously, the conductor needs to control this a bit, because if the trumpets are too strong you cannot hear the violins. The brass section in Tosca is huge, especially in the “Te Deum.” So, you need to be attentive to avoid giving your all, because there is still the second act to sing.

    The difference between Verdi’s music and Puccini’s, is that Verdi helps you in getting to the acute notes. He starts with soft sounds and allows you to warm your voice up, while in Puccini you need to be warmed-up immediately; it is the Verismo, it is pretty intense. To sing Puccini well you need to have sung Verdi before, and other composers before Verdi. You need to go step by step to get to Puccini, because Puccini is the maximum. [laughs]

    OL – Where would you want your career to go in the future, in terms of new roles?

    AM – I do not know. I would very much like to learn a bit of German and do a Wagnerian role. You have to have a lot of structure to sing Wagner. In the future, who knows? But in the meantime, I need to learn a bit of German. I would not want to do like some singers who sing in Italian but do not really know the language and do not know what they are doing. It is important to know what you are saying. The words are very important in Wagner and Strauss. In terms of comic Italian roles, I would like to do Don Bartolo from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. I would be already content if I could sing most Italian comic roles; I would not even need to go to all the serious ones.

    OL – In your illustrious career, you have interacted with many prestigious conductors. Which ones were the most inspirational, and why?

    AM – The first one who inspired me was maestro Muti. After him, another one was maestro Mehta, a great man and great musician. I also enjoyed a lot working with Daniele Gatti, who is also a great musician, one of the few who know Falstaff by memory. I liked all the conductors who taught me something, because those who just say, “OK, it’s all good; do it the way you want” are not that helpful. I want to know what the conductor wants from me. I like to work with those who teach me something for my future.

    Maestri as Falstaff at the Vienna State Opera

    OL – The cinema director Fezan Ozpetek offered you a role in his movie Magnifica Presenza. Please describe to us the experience of performing a movie role, rather than an operatic one.

    AM – It is something incredible. I did not really like performing a movie role, because in opera, music commands everything, while in a movie it is the opposite; it is silence that commands everything, and in those moments of silence, it was hard for me to know what to do. I was the nightmare of the sound engineers, because everybody spoke softly to the microphones while I was always speaking too loudly. They were desperate because they had to adjust the sound all the time up and down when I started or stopped speaking.

    Another thing is that in cinema there is no linear sequence. They film the last part, then the first one, unlike in opera. The important thing in cinema, Ozpetek who is an excellent director said, is the editing. Also, the sound track needs to be adjusted to each scene. You cannot film a scene with the actors making somber faces, and then add lively music. Ozpetek’s movies are actually very focused on the music and they are incredible, but me, I do prefer the opera, always.

    OL – After an initial interest for the piano and voice, you had your first role as a young boy aged 10, but then you turned to sports and became a basketball player. Later you came back to singing. You used to sing for the clients in your parents’ restaurant. This was a sort of unusual path. Please tell us how your passion for opera came to prevail over your passion for basketball.

    AM – The passion for opera, and in the larger sense for music, I always had, since I was a child. Basketball came later, but even while I was a basketball player, I continued to sing to my friends. I never abandoned music. I always played the piano, and I always sang for personal pleasure.

    When I started singing in concerts for very little pay, the equivalent today of 30, 50, or 100 euros, I thought that they did not really need to pay me to sing. Because, when someone is happy, he or she sings. Italians sing.

    So, singing for the patrons of my parent’s restaurant was a joy; not work. I still believe in this. Singing is joy. If you make of it a job, you do not do it as well. You only do it well if you are joyful while you sing. This knowledge that I earned from singing for free at my parent’s restaurant, I kept with me forever.

    OL – Please, describe your personality. What kind of person are you? What else do you like to do, other than singing?

    AM – I am a very sedentary person. I like being at home. I do not like going around too much. Especially when it is cold; I would be afraid to catch a respiratory illness and I have a lot of rehearsals to do.

    One of the things I like the most, is reading biographies of singers, conductors and composers, especially the ones written in the past, rather than the current ones. I thing that learning about the life of Caruso, for example, is a treasure. I like books about the great singers of the sixties like Callas and Del Monaco. I think a common trait we find in these biographies is solitude. This is a solitary profession.

    When the theater calls me in the morning and they ask “Is everything fine for tonight’s performance?” I say, “I hope so; these are the first words I spoke today.” Because if I am home alone, I do not speak with anybody. How will I know if my voice is good? It is a difficult thing. But a singer understands, even if he does not speak, if his voice is well or not.

    Personally, I am a jovial person. I like to have company, when I can. I like to eat, I like to drink, I like the things that are good for the soul. I like to make new friends, like I’m doing now with you.

    OL – Do you like football (soccer)?

    AM – Football? Yes, very much! Italy did not qualify for this World Cup, and Germany got eliminated! Brazil is doing well. I was expecting Spain to be stronger than they were. Argentina with Messi, was a disappointment. I hope Brazil does not win their sixth World Cup, because they would have too many.

    OL – Yes, Italy has four, and Brazil five.

    AM – Yes, precisely, we do not want to fall behind. Germany also has four. Do you live here in Austria?

    OL – No, in the United States.

    AM – Ah, in the United States! Do you do anything else, other than opera journalism?

    OL – I am a medical doctor.

    AM – Ah, that is nice!

    OL – Thank you for the interview.

    AM – Thank you! Maybe we will see each other at the Metropolitan! I will be in two operas there, soon.

    OL – Absolutely! Can we take a selfie, for a souvenir?

    AM – Yes, sure. [Looks at the photo] Very nice! Thank you for everything!


    Let's listen to the singer in the role of Falstaff, at the Met:


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