Nicola Luisotti chats about his first year at the SF Opera, his Puccini, and future plans

'Every day is an opportunity to learn something new. I hope to remain with this idea for the rest of my life.'

15 June 2010


In one word: inspiring. Maestro Nicola Luisotti is enjoying his time as Music Director of the San Francisco Opera, and so are the people working with him. Waiting next to his office before talking to him, I was exchanging some words with the friendly staff of the communication and the artistic departments of the opera house. I soon realized that a single recurring term seemed to be associated with Luisotti: he is an inspiring person. The same word came up a few hours later, in conversation with Patricia Racette. For Luisotti, the collaborative dimension of opera – and of music – is fundamental, and when handled with care, can produce amazing results in an opera house. It is clear that he has a true talent for making people his colleagues comfortable and give their best. His energy is infectious.

Luisotti's appointment for the 2009-10 season followed the successful tenure of Donald Runnicles – and the affection and respect that the that San Francisco audience still has for the former Director can be perceived whenever he is on the podium at the War Memorial Opera House, such as in the current production of Die Walküre. Moving from his native Tuscany with his wife, Luisotti, as well, has found a home in the Bay Area. His original take on the repertoire can be seen in the choices that he, together with General Director David Gockley, made for the 2009-10 season. In fact, one of his aims is to explore more the Italian tradition – and he did just that with Il trovatore, Otello and Il trittico, among others. But he also engaged with Salome and Faust repertoires different from the Italian one. Luisotti also combines his activity as an opera director in the major houses of the world with symphonic interests. As Principal Guest Conductor of the Tokyo Symphony, he will perform with several orchestras around the world: Beethoven Symphony no. 4 and works by Nino Rota in Rome with Accademia Nazionale Santa Cecilia, along with Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Verdi's Ouverture to La forza del destino with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, are just some dates from his busy schedule.

For valedictory stand on the podium, for the 2009-10 season at least, Luisotti chose La fanciulla del west. This is the opera that the Metropolitan commissioned from Puccini and that premiered – controversially – in New York in 1910. This production is an important step for the San Francisco Opera, as it marks a prestigious collaboration with the Teatro Massimo di Palermo, acting as a co-producer (along with Opera Royal de Wallonie).

We caught up a few days before La fanciulla's first night at the War Memorial Opera House. Being in conversation with him immediately brings to the surface his personality. His temperament is really warm – his office felt like his home.

The first question is inevitable: how his first year in San Francisco has been? "I cannot describe precisely but," and he pauses for a second, "it's even better than I thought it would be. We need to work, improve, organize, but this is the routine of every theatre in the world. More than organizing, we, all together, need to find ways to make the theatre grow. And the theatre is growing a lot. The orchestra and the choir are improving in an extraordinary way, they're doing a fantastic job. The whole theatre is... excited. We all feel like we're participating in a great project. This is a united theatre. Everybody wants to do well. This is a beautiful thing, and something that taught me a lot."

One of the most vivid images I remember from the 2009-10 season at the SF Opera was the end of a performance of Trovatore – the one broadcasted live at the AT&T Ballpark. For the final applause, Luisotti put on a baseball hat and joined the cast on stage: the complicity with the singers, the orchestra, the audience was intense. It was a very moving experience. "The theatre is loved by the city. Just think of that: you do Trovatore at the stadium – and you imagine some people will go. Well... 25,000 people went. It's a lot. The city of San Francisco feels the opera its own. When I'm around, sometimes, and people see me and recognize me, they tell me 'Oh! I love opera, I haven't been to the opera house yet, but I really want to go"... the city lives also around the theatre. And it's incredible, as it's a city that is so far removed from what one might think about opera – we're in San Francisco, 10,000 km from Italy. It's a bit like in Japan. In Japan, you discover so many people that know opera better than you, as an Italian! Italians, lately, tend to despise what they have built . I understand that there's a need to reform things in Italy but, sometimes, I think it's like giving cortisone. Administrators tend to give cortisone when they see some things going wrong. Yes, the immediate inflammation goes away. But the problem does not."

Was there a moment when he thought he found a sound, a musical identity he was looking for? "Yes, on many occasions! And even more with this Fanciulla... during the work I've done with the orchestra, I found extraordinary things. I was moved by how much the theatre responds – not to me, but to the music! Perhaps this happens through me, but what comes to the surface is how much we are united in the same project by music. It's been really moving."

LuisottiThe last work he selected to conduct was La fanciulla del West: a rarity for many opera houses and for San Francisco (a photo from the 1910 New York premiere is shown on the right). Why Fanciulla? "Thirty-one years: this is how long this opera has not been performed here. Apart from the extraordinary beauty of this work, I wanted to bring La fanciulla here because this year will be the centenary. When the Met asked me to conduct it, we thought that we should do it here too: David Gockley reminded me that Belasco [the author of the play on which La fanciulla is based] was from San Francisco. And if we do it in New York because it premiered there, we must do it in San Francisco, and not only because of Belasco. We must do it because in that period, those miners, who are great figures in this opera, came here and sacrificed their lives on this land, creating the great Californian cities. San Francisco was born after the gold rush. In 1847 San Francisco wasn't there, there were only little fishers' villages – about fifteen houses, I believe. In 1848, in January they found the first gold nugget. At the end of 1848, the city of San Francisco was born – about 90,000 inhabitants, it was already an enormous town, revolving around the gold rush. So, putting on stage La fanciulla del West on its centenary year has a great significance: to represent again the story that led so many people from around the world to relocate themselves in this area and creating, in this way, the foundation for the San Francisco that we all know today."

Puccini is one of Luisotti's favourites, but he is a complex composer: his works are usually the easiest to listen and the hardest to analyse. "... To analyse – and to conduct! I assure you it's one of the most difficult things in the world! And Fanciulla in particular. Its score scares everyone – including me! And I love Puccini, and I've done it many times in many different roles: in the chorus, as a chorus master, as a pianist, and as a conductor. And every time I do it... coming out of the first act, and organizing the third act is a very complicated process. And there's this marvellous second act, that many relate to Tosca's second act, but to me it has another flavour. La fanciulla del West is truly a unique work. It's difficult to associate it with Puccini's other works – you cannot conflate it with others. It's like a Kandinsky painting."

During the presentation of this production at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Luisotti underlined that La fanciulla is pervaded by a sense of loneliness and desperation. "Yes: it's Puccini's most dramatic opera. In his other operas, tragedy is resolved through death. And you, as a spectator, experience a catharsis. Here there's no catharsis, there's no solution. She goes away, they both go away. And she, more than he, leaves her sweet California behind: 'Addio mia dolce terra, addio mia California' ('Farewell, my sweet California'). She cannot go back to California: if she does, she will be hanged. They must go. And the others, the miners, are people who spent their time looking for something that did not exist – because gold had existed for only ten years or so, and not for the majority. In fact, around 1858, corporations were established because people couldn't find gold anymore on the surface. These corporations regulated the gold rush, and they eventually allowed miners to dig more in depth. With their financial support, miners stated building mines with drills and mechanical systems, that were too expensive for single people."

Gold Rush"These corporations would hire miners and gave them a percentage of the gold they found. So these people, in the end, were paid labourers, not gold finders. They were just miners, with all that comes with this kind of activity: they would go underground and risk their life, for really just a piece of bread that they could send to their families living far away. And many of them were ashamed of going back home and hearing people say: 'And what's this? You went to find gold!'. Because many of them said 'I'll go there and come back rich, I'll buy a house for you, and a ranch...' while there, either they joined corporations, or starved. Their salary was that of a skilled worker. They could hardly live off that – they lived in cabins, in the cold, and sent home just some crumbs of gold, just to allow their relatives to survive. There was no money to be made. The only richness described in this opera is the presence of this girl, who was probably brought up by the miners themselves. There's no preface to the story, not even in Belasco's version. But we can imagine that she was, perhaps, the daughter of other miners that arrived there at the beginning of the gold rush. They didn't make fortune but they did build a saloon. She was then, perhaps, twelve, thirteen; her parents died, and she found herself with the saloon to take care of, together with her colleague Nick. She grew up, and everybody grew fond of her."

Like Marie in La fille du régiment, then... "Yes, like some kind of Marie! And in the end everybody is in love with this girl, everybody gives her presents. And of course she is a strong girl: she has grown up with men, so her character is a bit masculine. And in the end what does she do? She leaves them for a bandit! 'How could you do that to us!," says Luisotti playing the part of the miners, 'we've been working, we're honest people, we've been wooing you for such a long time, and now we have to see you torn from us! He's a thief, and he stole her from us, too ...' As Sonora will say in the end, the bandit Johnson is a 'ladro d'oro e di ragazze' [thief of gold and girls]! It's beautiful. But in the end, the love of the miners for her is so deep that they let her be separated from them to lead her own life."

"But this is not like the end of La fille du régiment in which all the soldiers go and visit her... no. They have to remain there. And as Puccini says in his text, 'Si accasciano piangendo disperatamente' [they all collapse to the ground, crying desperately]. They're desperate. They can't see a way out for themselves. Perhaps some of them will go away, the day after. Some of them will stay... but gold for them, 'il biondo,' was Minnie's hair. People think that the fact that nobody dies makes for a happy end – it's absolutely not an happy end. In this production, at the end we see a majestic panorama. But, in reality, that is not a panorama that welcomes them, but something that they will not be able to see ever again. They must go away. They might go to Arizona, Nevada, Mexico... they have to run away to a different country."

Gold RushAnd how does he approach all the rapid changes of styles and motifs in the score? "A lot of study, and a lot of instinct. A conductor leads his orchestra by instinct. You have to study a lot in order to eventually free your instinct, which allows you to make choices. And this is because your choices are so immediate that you don't have time to think 'now I'll go like this.' You're caught up in what you're doing. When a new moment arrives, if that moment is not already within yourself you cannot face it. If at any time it were different, you would cause chaos in the whole stage and the pit. In order to give security to the orchestra and the singers you really have to know the score."

On several occasions, Luisotti commented on the figure of the conductor. He stated that "composers belong to history, conductors to the present" (L'espresso) and that this profession has a symbolic power (La repubblica delle Donne). But the most interesting remark, for me, was an image that he disclosed to OperaChic: the conductor as a time traveller. "The time-traveller is an extraordinary figure. I remember that the first time I mentioned that was to [film and theatre director] Gabriele Lavia. And he said: 'You are a poet!'" he says laughing. "The idea is that we always think: 'Ah, if I had a time machine to go back in time...' We don't have a real time machine. But we have documents that allow us to go back in time. One of them is music. I open the score, I start playing La fanciulla del West, and it is clear that I am going back a hundred years. And I carry back with me the stage, the pit, and all the people in the auditorium who are listening. I make a temporal transport: first, I go back first, because when the music starts you're no longer in San Francisco, but you're together with Puccini – and Puccini is in the theatre, judging whether it was too loud, if dynamics were wrong... But then Puccini disappears, and music becomes the real figure. Going there in the past, and coming back to the present, something is lost. You lose Puccini, you lose Toscanini, you lose the Ricordi staging. Some elements are lost, but the fundamental one remains, and that is music."

"Music takes you there into the past and back to the present. You get in this marvellous time machine, and for three hours you don't know if you're still in San Francisco. You could be in London, Milan, or New York. Eventually, there is the wake-up moment, the applause after the last note. The applause frees you from the slavery to this time machine, it takes you back to San Francisco. But something from that past that you visited still lingers on in you. It's like when you read a poem. When you read Dante, Paolo e Francesca for example, you cannot be here in the present time: you're with them, and you cry because you believe in what you're reading, e caddi come corpo morto cade [Inferno, Canto V: 'I fell like a dead body falls']. You live the poem, and in that moment you're with Dante who tells that story to you. Every text – a musical, a poetic, a literary one – that you truly live from within, will take you back in time. It will be your time machine."

Gold Rush"Music does it more strongly because you don't have to make an effort, you just have to sit down" – and at this point he mimics someone who's talking on the phone and frantically turns it off and checks if he's ready as the lights are going down on the hall... we both find it hilarious and quite adherent to reality: "Is it true or not?" he smiles. "The conductor enters, and you're still in the present. The music starts...," he pauses and mulls over, "...and it is as if you are in a planetarium. You enter an atmosphere that is no longer real. Have you seen the planetarium in San Francisco? I was there a few days ago, and it's the most beautiful in the world! The first few minutes I was breathless! We all were: because it carries you into the universe. Music has that same power. If you go to the theatre to listen to a romanza in a recital, you're in the present; but if you have a sensitive soul, and the cast is very good, and the orchestra plays well, and the spectacle is beautiful, you really are in a time machine."

Luisotti shares his musical life between opera houses and symphony halls. Does he feel closer to one or the other? "Symphonic music fascinates me a lot. I feel more involved when conducting symphonic music and probably my future will be more projected towards that rather than towards opera. My desire would be to do opera and symphonic more or less in balance, half and half. I know that today it's difficult to find conductors who do opera well, but I feel the need to be more in touch with the music in its pure status, with the element of pure musical language without the text describing the music. The story, in opera, happens through two important texts: the words and the music. These two texts, when combined, create an extraordinary force – opera. Music is a language in itself, and it's extremely mysterious, and according to me it has not yet been deciphered. It is used. It us understood. It is loved. But it remains a very mysterious language. For me, it's God's voice. In the billions of years of evolution of the universe, God has used music to tell us something though the works of composers – something that we haven't yet understood. If I devote myself to music and words, as with opera, I understand this secret something, because I combine a deciphered language – our language – with that of music. And so music becomes less mysterious because I can translate it – in Italian, Russian, German, French and so on."

"Through music alone, language becomes more complex because we don't have words for describing the situation. It's a language that speaks for itself. And this language fascinates me tremendously because it leads me in a direction that is opposed to my own habits of thought. Human thought, however philosophical it may be, will never arrive to the purity of music. Musical thought is like an faculty unto itself that has no need of explanation. Do you remember the movie Close Encounter of the Third Kind? The idea is extraordinary. I combine sounds so that they can communicate to beings that I don't know. I don't know what these sounds mean, but they allow me to communicate to people I don't know. Music is language that is codified, organized, but not deciphered. It's a bit like we haven't found our Rosetta Stone to understand music."

LuisottiBut Luisotti makes it clear: we'll never decipher musical language: "Never! As we'll probably never see God. We want to see things to be able to give them a name. But how many years it took to define all the essences in the world? Music is an essence in itself, but it's a mysterious one. You can say it's music, but you cannot define it. You can say 'Ah, Chopin wrote this, I know it!' but that's not a definition of the musical language. We can live it, we can use it, but we can't yet understand its real strength. That's why pure music fascinates me, because it gives me the possibility to explore a field I do not know. While in opera, that I adore, I'm helped through the words. Words leads me into the music. And music draws words into itself and gives power to the whole spectacle."

What are your future plans? Too many to tell: "San Francisco for now. Then I will conduct at La Scala, Covent Garden again, Berlin, Santa Cecilia in Rome, Paris, Valencia, Tokyo again, Frankfurt, New York, Atlanta, Cleveland..." Any ambitions? "Nessuna ambizione! No ambition! I'm not an ambitious person," he confesses, smiling. "This is something I always like to say. Many people are ambitious. Me... the only thing I adore is to be a musician, and try to do it as well as I can. Because it's hard to do it well – and, actually, it's hard to do it at all!," he laughs. "But to do it well it's even harder. I do my best to improve. Every day is an opportunity to learn something new. I hope to remain with this idea for the rest of my life. I prefer to learn rather than to know things, because complete knowledge of things lead to the exhaustion of your energy. So I want to improve myself, and though this, improve the life of those who are around me. This is the goal of my existence."

By Marina Romani

Photo Credits: Terrence McCarthy, apart from the following: The photo of the 1910 premiere of La fanciulla del West (second from the top) shows Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson, Emmy Destinn as Minnie and Pasquale Amato as Jack Rance; Copyright: Metropolitan Opera. The photo portraying a gold searcher (third from the top) is by L. C. McClure and it's taken from Douglas Brinkley, History of the United States, Viking Penguin: New York, 1998 (p. 151).



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