The San Francisco-Naples connection: Maestro Nicola Luisotti talks about his projects for Teatro di San Carlo and his tenure at the SF Opera

' We have to invest in culture so that everybody can appreciate knowledge and beauty'

9 January 2013


'How do you say excited in Italian?' That is a question that came up during my conversation with maestro Nicola Luisotti. When speaking a language different than English, it is always difficult to find a term that implies what this one does – an emotional state, a high-level of energy. And it is a term that Luisotti must use a lot, as his personality is characterized by an infectious enthusiasm and a heart-warming desire for a collaborative kind of artistic work.

The first time I met Luisotti was in 2010, at the end of his first year of tenure as artistic director of the San Francisco Opera. He is now halfway through his fourth year, and he has contributed to a harmonious and enterprising environment at the War Memorial Opera House. As evident to those who have seen him at work, he is aware of the history of San Francisco, of its cultural identities, and of the place that music can have in the metropolitan texture of a city.

In addition, in February 2012 Luisotti has been appointed as the new music director of the historic Teatro di San Carlo of Naples. Therefore, while continuing his successful tenure in San Francisco, he will also take his enthusiasm and expertise back to his native Italy.

Luisotti's continual growth as a conductor has benefited from his international experiences and his collaborations with artists and institutions from all over the world. His international career brought him to Japan, Germany, the UK, and all over the US. This month (January 2013), he is back at La Scala for a new production of Nabucco staged by Daniele Abbado and featuring Leo Nucci in the title role.

It is clear that Maestro Luisotti's schedule is incredibly hectic – even when he's not travelling abroad and back in his headquarters in San Francisco. However, he still finds time to take breaks: we met immediately after the rehearsals of Tosca and, as we entered in his office, his orchids caught his attention – they weren't getting enough sun. He took care of the plants for a few, quiet minutes: "I love flowers!" – he commented. And then I saw a Playstation next to one his orchids and I asked about his relationship with that other item – "...Ah ah! Yes, sometimes with maestro [Giuseppe] Finzi we play soccer. We've known each other from when we were both at La Scala... it's been ten years!"

It is interesting to learn about what he does in his downtime. With all his engagements, does ever he get tired?

'Sto benissimo! [I'm totally fine!],' he exclaims cheerfully. 'Yes, I had Lohengrin yesterday evening, and Tosca rehearsals this morning... I arrived home late, had dinner late, but above all my adrenaline was up, as it is after every performance... and I can't sleep until very late! And in the morning I wake up early for rehearsals... but you know, I'm always happy to see the musicians of the orchestra in the morning. They're wonderful. What a theatre, this one!'

What are his thoughts after working on his first full Wagner opera?

Luisotti'...It's a very long opera!' he first comments, jokingly, 'compared to the operas I usually conduct. But it's been a wonderful experience. I had a lot of fun, I learned a lot. It's interesting because it made me think of something that one often forgets – that is, when the music is in a different language, the structure of the music itself changes. Doing Italian opera is different than doing German, or French, or Russian opera. With this production of Lohengrin, I tried to bring some of my italianità to my interpretation of the music. And the musicians – the singers especially, who all perform in Bayreuth, went crazy about it!'

'And also, I finally had the direct knowledge of a composer whom I knew, of course – I conducted scenes, preludes and various pieces, mainly in Germany – but I had never a big experience such as conducting one of his operas. It was a great experience, and I believe I will repeat it in the future... I was thinking of doing Tannhäuser. We'll see, but I'd love to conduct something else by Wagner.'

I was curious to know more about his new San Carlo commitment, so we shifted our conversation from San Francisco to Naples. How was he was initially approached by the San Carlo administration?

'I was chased for months by general director Rosanna Purchia, and then by [Naples] mayor Luigi De Magistris – and by "chased" I mean "chased!,"' he jokes. 'I would conduct somewhere, and they would be there looking for me! We saw each other at La Scala, and then also in Berlin. Finally, in December 2011, I was doing a concert with the Berliner Philharmonic, and we were having dinner together after the concert. Rosanna was sitting in front of me. She wasn't eating, and instead she was staring at me... I thought: "Has she taken a fancy to me?",' he laughs. 'She finally spoke: "Nicola, I can't eat." And I said, "How come? What's the matter?" "You know, I'm still taken by the concert... and also... I need to ask you now: will you be new the music director at San Carlo?" And I replied: "Rosanna, I would love to, but I'm already in San Francisco, how can I do it? Being responsible for the direction of a theatre is a huge commitment!"'

Luisotti'After that conversation, one thing led to another. With the help of an agent, we realized that we could organize everything during those times of the year in which I would have been available. So we started looking at the calendar, and it seemed like the first possible time would be January 2013. They were so eager to work together with me that we also did I masnadieri, in March 2012. And we did it in twelve days of rehearsals! We could do it with the help of the extraordinary Giuseppe Finzi, who went rehearsing for me when I couldn't. In the end, that was a great success, and it was also recorded for a DVD release. Then I did two concerts – in one, I replaced Claudio Abbado because he was unwell, and in another one I did Puccini's Mass. The latter was already planned for me to conduct during the running period of Tosca at La Scala.'

So how is it going at Teatro di San Carlo so far?

'We've had little time to be together – a month, basically. And that time... it was a month of romance – un idillio! We loved each other, and we smiled at each other all the time! It was just excellent. The theatre was in ferment. Then, the time for leaving came... we knew of course! They knew I would leave for a long time but, even when you know it, it's almost unbearable. Love requires proximity but, unfortunately, the only condition under which I could accept a contract with San Carlo was to go back only after a long time – that is, in 2013.'

'Of course, the main clause was that the San Francisco Opera would remain my first theatre – I would never touch any commitment with San Francisco, and that's how it will be. San Francisco is sacred. This is a theatre that put so much trust in me. It gave me so much, and I hope I'm giving something beautiful back! I don't know if you were sitting in the auditorium at [Tosca] rehearsals now... if you were, you could see how much the musicians work, and how good they are. They want to challenge themselves. They want to play music, and play at music with me. I'm in love with them! It's a great relationship, it works so well. And the good moment continues... I've been coming here since 2005, and this is my fourth season with them as the artistic director... there could have been signs of fatigue, but that's not the case, not at all. Our love goes on, and we're all still having fun.'

During his tenure at the SF Opera, there have been successful collaborations with Italian theatres, such as Teatro Massimo of Palermo (La fanciulla del West, 2010) and La Scala (Attila, 2012). Now that he is directly involved in the artistic management of one of the most prestigious Italian theatres, is he planning co-productions or, more generally, on creating a connection between Naples and San Francisco?

'Yes, definitely. On the other hand, decisions like this need to be taken together with the general management – a relationship between the two administrations must be created. When this bond is forged, I'm sure that something exciting will come out of it. We're already working on a project that I can't talk about, and hopefully it will be beautiful.'

In the recent years, and even more in these times of economic crisis, the Italian government has demonstrated that cultural activities do not represent a priority in the political agenda and has cut funds to cultural institutions – including theatres [see: The Guardian, Il fatto quotidiano, Annuario dell'opera]. How does he imagine the musical activity at San Carlo in the context of Naples and in a broader national and international context at this particular historical moment?

'Italy is behaving really badly with theatres. The government needs to understand that theatres do not only represent the city they're in. Institutions like Teatro di San Carlo represent the whole country. San Carlo is the oldest theatre in Europe, dating back from 1737. And, at the moment, the financial situation is tricky: the administration has money on paper, but they don't have liquidity... As general director Rosanna Purchia explained me, the theatre has funding – in theory, but they are not disbursed on time. So, what I think is that either the people who decide on these issues – the province, the region, the government – decide to make the theatre work and make it a symbol of a working Italy; or everything will go to waste.'

'And this is true for most Italian theatres – in Florence, Genoa... Some of the theatres that are still working well are La Scala, or La Fenice. San Carlo has got enormous potential, both for the structure itself and for the professionals who work there. Unfortunately, this potential is under-utilized, and to me that is a consequence of a mismanagement of funds. The Teatro di San Carlo is not one of those institutions that has hired too many people over the years. It doesn't count hundreds of people in its staff. So I think there should be a better administration not from the people working inside the theatre, but from the people who administer it from the outside – as I mentioned, these would be the region, the government, and so on. And I'm sure they want to do a good job, they're in good faith, I don't want to say they're doing it on purpose. But something important must be done, and really soon.'

Luisotti'Teatro di San Carlo must shine, because it's a jewel, it's an Italian jewel. When I travel the world, what people know about Italy is food, cars, soccer and theatres – La Scala, La Fenice and San Carlo. And these – and not mafia or corruption – are the beautiful Italian things that must be disseminated and fostered. Because we have enormous abilities, and extraordinary beauties, and one of them is culture. We invented opera! And Naples contributed to the birth of the opera seria as we know it today. We have to invest in culture, we have to educate people so that everybody can appreciate knowledge and beauty... You can appreciate these things only if you are educated about culture and history. You have to know history to appreciate the present. You have to value the past and understand the past, so that you can create a future in the present. But, in order to do so, we all have to be aware of our history. If you don't invest in culture, you don't invest in humanity. If you want to learn, you have to study, and if you want people to study, you have to invest in the people who will study in the future. So many young people go and study instruments, singing... How can they say that people are not interested in arts, in music? How can they withdraw funding from the arts?'

'They say it's too expensive to make opera. Of course it's expensive! Movies are expensive, too. Preserving the tower of Pisa or the Colosseum is expensive, too. But they are also beautiful things, and they are teachers of history. Nobody thinks of letting the tower of Pisa, or the Colosseum, fall into ruin just because they have to maintain them and refurbish them, and spend money on them. We have to value culture and diversity. The only thing we can do is work all together, on the basis of the history that comes before us.'

Is he thinking of a precise repertoire or particular projects for Teatro di San Carlo?

'I am but, as a general rule, Naples announces its seasons later, compared to US, so I don't want to say I'll do something before it's officially announced! We have so many projects, and all of them are amazing – operas and symphonic works. One can do everything at the San Carlo, the people there are great and ready for every ambitious project.'

'I would say, though, that the main project I have for San Carlo is to turn it into a modern theatre. And in order to turn a theatre – one with a great and long tradition like San Carlo – into a modern one, you have to know its history. So, I'm starting slowly, because I don't want to tread on somebody's toes. Rather, I want to work with those people who've already spent so much energy working there. And, as I was saying before, there's a great potential in the people: they are cultured, both in Naples and in the theatre. We'll have to sit all together and make sure that this theatre becomes fast and disciplined... In Italy, in general, there's not a lot of discipline in theatres – maybe apart from La Scala. In general, in theatres in Italy, things are a little laid back, we tend to talk a lot during rehearsals... and I would like to change this kind of system. But I need the help of all the people working at San Carlo.'

'So, yes, I do think about the repertoire a lot. But, first of all, we need to think about how to make the theatre fresh and engaging... a theatre in which everybody smiles at each other, where nobody screams in the corridors. I want to contribute to turn San Carlo back into what it deserves to be – a prestigious theatre.'

LuisottiLuisotti's goal is clear: he aims to make Teatro di San Carlo's cultural impact even more vigorous. Considering his international experience with a successful and cutting-edge institution such as the San Francisco Opera, he might realistically be able to inject an important impulse to the artistic scene in Naples and in Italy, even amidst economic turmoil. In this case, I wonder if this San Carlo could become a model of how to make Italian theatres – prestigious but often culturally somnolent – participate in a broader cultural dialogue.

'You know, in Italy people are sick and tired of being led by bad administrators. They need people who motivate them. An orchestra conductor does not only have to do his or her job, but also be a real leader who has a clear vision of how things should be. And I do have a vision for the San Carlo, as I have for San Francisco.'

'I think in Naples it will take a little more time, because sometimes we, Italians – myself included – are more casciaroni [messy]. We think we can work on something and, at the same time, talk or do something else and do it equally well... we think we can work and at the same time decide where we're going to eat afterwards!' We share a laugh. 'I wish I can make people understand that when you're doing music, you only have to do music. If problems arise, we talk about them. And then we can go and eat together! But not all at once.'

'My projects for San Carlo also depend on institutional decisions. I wish I could meet the ministers of the Italian government when I'm there in the next few months, and hopefully I will meet them. At this moment, the electoral campaign is going on and, perhaps, those in power will be afraid of taking any action. But I believe important decisions need to be taken independently from political allegiances... especially for the Teatro di San Carlo. Of course, I think that every theatre is important. But there are three theatres in Italy that have a fundamental place in history: La Fenice, La scala, and San Carlo. These theatres witnessed enormous cultural events for musical history. And it's not only their external structure that needs to be preserved. The people who participated in their history, and the works they created, need to live on. Just think about the history of San Carlo: its music director was Giovanni Paisiello. Later came directors such as Gaetano Donizetti and Gioacchino Rossini... can you believe it? Lucia di Lammermoor was written especially for the San Carlo! In the theatre, there still are the box seats where Rossini and Donizetti sat during performances. The general director told me, "We're going to give you Rossini's box." And I answered, "I don't think so! I'll take a different one!" I wish I had Rossini's or Donizetti's substance, but I don't, unfortunately... they made history, I merely repeat it.'

Well, he and all musicians and performers, keep history alive...

Luisotti'Yes, I help keep it alive, but I reproduce it. We, musicians, do that. On the basis of the historical information, we have about San Carlo, it's our duty to make it work – there's no other way. We need the necessary effort and money to make sure that the San Carlo is a great theatre – and not only in Italy, but internationally.'

'I'm confident we will make it. If we work all together, if we're united, and if we have the will to do it, it will be wonderful. We don't have to find excuses, we just need to concentrate on our job. Music must be everybody's only thought when we're in rehearsal. It must be everyone's drug. When we're done, we all go back to our life and our problems, because everybody has them. But music is too great. Music will outlive us, as it outlives those who compose it. I think we have to be a little more idealistic as for the music. It's a big fault, I know. But you feel so great when you're idealistic about the music – if you think music is the most important thing and that it has an impact, this passion comes across in your performance.'

From what he's telling me about his colleagues in Naples, it seems like there's a strong will of making things work in this theatre.

'Yes. My hope is that we will find the artistic and financial resources to make a change, and without finding excuses like "it's not the moment, there's a crisis..." Of course there's a crisis, but all the administrative staff, the mayors, the parliamentarians, myself, and so on, are still taking their salary at the end of the month. And money for culture is fundamental.'

'So, this is what I would like to say to the Minister of Culture in Italy, when I hope we meet soon: I won't make compromises. Teatro di San Carlo is like La Scala: it has to have its autonomy, and it has to have the power to organize as many as cultural activities as possible. And, of course, in this sense, the touristic track should also be pursued. They should make sure that people who go to visit Naples can purchase package deals which include opera tickets. The San Carlo is not only for Naples, but it's a patrimony of the humankind, and everybody should be able to enjoy it – like La Scala, Vienna, Convent Garden... and this is true also of other historical theatres in Italy, such as the Teatro Verdi of Trieste, Teatro Bellini of Catania, Teatro Regio of Parma... You cannot abandon these places to their own destiny. Administrators spend millions to plan and build new theatres, like in Florence, and then they don't open it because there's no more money. How is it possible that the money to build them is there, but not those to open it? Then they say that opera is expensive. Or maybe it's more than nobody really can profit from doing opera and that's why they don't want to finance it? Let's do something about this! Together! I'm doing my best.'

Is he going to try to have younger people interested in the life of the theatre, and perhaps have schools and university involved in musical projects?

'Yes, we're definitely planning something regarding education and schools. I went for an interview at the radio of the university, and it was crazy, we had a lot of fun! We joked a lot...'

Did he sing?

'Maybe I did!'

Starting from the next few weeks, he will be busy in Naples; but he is also working at La Scala on a new production of Nabucco, staged by Daniele Abbado.

'Yes, at the end of December I started rehearsing. It's a new staging – a contemporary and intelligent take on the opera. We hope that the audience will appreciate the production and accept its modernity. It's an exploration of memory and exile based on Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It will also be at Covent Garden... I'm really excited about it. We will make a DVD of Nabucco in Covent Garden and it will be also broadcast in cinemas.'

As for his future plans, is he planning to explore works that he hasn't approached so far?

Luisotti'As I mentioned, I would definitely love to do more Wagner. It's funny because, for example, I love the Impressionist symphonic repertoire, but at this moment of my life I don't feel like I'm suited for it... it's my temperament. I think you need people that are more introspective, perhaps less outgoing... I think I'm too extrovert for inward-looking operas! I think the Impressionist world is huge but it develops on the inside – it's made of small, delicate emotions. I love to listen to it, but I don't think I have an aptitude for them. It's a little like the French repertoire. I did Carmen, but one wouldn't really call it French! I also did La damnation de Faust, and recorded some French works... and the funny thing is that everybody loves them. People tell me I'm good at that repertoire! But I still feel agitated when I have to conduct these operas!'

As his international career has become busier and busier, he has gained many new homes besides his native Tuscany – San Francisco, Naples, Tokyo, New York, Milan, and so on. How does he feel?

'I feel... confused! Rita, my wife, travels with me... she is an exceptional woman. It's like we carry within us many lives. And I'm grateful to this job for this. It allowed me to have memories that make me re-think or talk about myself as if I were a different person... Sometimes a piece of memory comes to mind, or I talk with someone about an experience, and I think to myself: "Was that me? Am I the same person?"' If you do many different things, if you live in different places, and in different languages, time has a different value.'

By Marina Romani


Photos: Nicola Luisotti (Terrence McCarthy); Lohengrin at the SF Opera (Cory Weaver/ SF Opera); Luisotti conducting at Teatro di San Carlo; Teatro di San Carlo today; Teatro di San Carlo as portrayed by Aniello D'Alosio (1775-1855); an early poster for Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor; Luisotti (Terrence McCarthy).


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