Written by: Mansel Stimpson
If anybody is entitled to an ego it is surely Nicola Luisotti, but that’s not his way. “I’m here to learn,” he tells me, which is not the comment you might expect from a conductor whose current impact on the musical scene spans continents. And all this is happening to someone who, born in Tuscany, came from a humble village background. His father played clarinet in the local band and his mother sang in church; but Nicola’s own response to music was on another level from a very early age. As a child he was drawn to the harmonium in the church and the priest would catch him trying to play the instrument even though he did not understand how to do it. That same priest realised that the attraction was serious and showed him how to place his hands on the keys. Within days he was playing in the church and at the age of eleven was directing its choir. If you suggest to him that this marked him out as something of an infant phenomenon he comments laughingly that it was just a little village choir.
Shortly afterwards the organist Fernando Germani heard him and wanted the boy to come to Rome to study under him, but since Nicola was one of five children his father could not afford to send him and still support his siblings. Instead he found for Nicola a school that he could attend where church funds were available to help deserving pupils and thus it was that young Nicola came to learn the piano and the trumpet, singing and composition. Yet it was as early as fourteen or so that the boy’s interest in conducting became established, as he confirms: “I was conducting the church choir and enjoyed that and, one day, I told myself that if I wasn’t going to become an organist I would become a conductor. In some ways the organ and the orchestra are comparable. At the organ you are alone but you choose the register; with an orchestra you create with others but you choose the sonority and through your requests to the musicians you build a particular sound.”
Some years passed with Nicola studying in the day and working at night – the piano-playing that would bring him to La Scala as a rehearsal pianist had also enabled him to play in bars. What he learnt above all at La Scala came from being an assistant to Riccardo Muti. “The lesson I had from him was to get a score, to see what a composer had written and why and then to do it without changing anything. It’s a matter of fidelity and if you are a conductor who is a serious artist you recognise that it’s not about you but about respect for the composer. When you conduct, you are just a servant.”
When I spoke to Nicola he had just been rehearsing Madama Butterfly having already done the first night of Il Trovatore thus providing the rare example of a guest conductor new to Covent Garden being involved in two productions at the same time. This is the context as he elaborates on his approach to his work. “It is part of the conductor’s role to be there to learn from his colleagues. Every experience you have in life – not just musical ones – contributes to what you bring to your work. Similarly I have to discover from people around me what they are able to give out of their own experiences. This morning our Concertmaster Vasko Vassilev played his first act solo in Butterfly so wonderfully that I could only comment by declaring ‘I have nothing to say. Please don’t worry about me, because I will follow you: you play better than I conduct’.” Nicola laughs as he tells me this, but he adds: “I’m not saying this as a way of trying to be nice and sympathetic but because it’s true. As the servant of the music I need to learn a lot in order to give something back and I hope to learn and learn and learn every day.”
Nicola’s breakthrough that made him an international name came in 2002 with Il Trovatore at Stuttgart and since then he has conducted in opera houses around the world, Italian works being central to his repertoire. If he has been happy with this emphasis it is because he firmly believes that in conducting opera you need to be very close to the language to capture the mentality of the libretto and to deliver an idiomatic performance. But where he finds that a work speaks to his heart he is ready, perhaps with help from a translator, to embrace works from further afield. “I am booked already for Salome and Wozzeck and I will conduct Lohengrin.” There’s also the fact that this year has seen the announcement that he is to be the next Music Director of San Francisco Opera starting with its 2009/10 season and in succession to Donald Runnicles. That fact alone confirms just how far this man from Tuscany has come, but there’s more to it than that. With no language barrier in symphonic music, he is already building a wider range as a conductor in the concert hall, and next December is due to conduct Berliner Philharmoniker in Dvořák’s Requiem. Before then he’s with the Dallas Symphony in a programme that includes Glazunov and Prokofiev as well as Verdi and Respighi.
Due to a confusion of dates this last event has him flying out to Dallas and back between performances of Butterfly but he seems undaunted, just as he was by the idea of taking on the Covent Garden double. “First of all it was to be Trovatore, and then a year later they asked me if I was able to do Butterfly also. So I said: ‘Why not? I’m there’.” Aware of how much he has taken on, I mention in particular Monday the 12th of February when the full dress rehearsal of Madama Butterfly during the day is followed by an evening performance of Il Trovatore. “Yes, that’s right. I hope to survive to the end of that day! I just need to save some energy for it.”
Conducting Verdi and Puccini side by side might seem to be the perfect opportunity to compare these two popular composers, both so much loved by the public while some critics venerate the former and express doubts about the latter, as they also do about Tchaikovsky. Nicola, however, finds comparisons inappropriate. “They exist in two different worlds, Trovatore being from middle of the nineteenth-century and Butterfly the twentieth-century. In those fifty years so much had altered including in musical terms the influence of Wagner. Of course connections can be made between Verdi and Puccini, just as in the same way Rossini, Mozart and (Richard) Strauss, say, are connected to others. But essentially each is distinct: you can say that Trovatore is here, Butterfly is there and Don Giovanni or Salome is somewhere else: each composer is on his own planet.”
Nevertheless, Nicola does link Puccini with Tchaikovsky in one important respect. “I’m trying to say to the orchestra ‘Please don’t play it romantically’. Not because it’s not romantic music albeit with a twentieth-century colour, but because if you play romantic that which is already romantic then it becomes too much. It’s the same with Tchaikovsky: if you romanticise it in the playing you destroy the music.” We talk too about the balance in ‘Butterfly’ between intense emotion and the delicacy that makes it such an atmospheric work, and this leads Nicola to comment on where you may need to follow the score in spirit rather than literally. “Our Butterfly, Liping Zhang, is a wonderful singer and she really is Butterfly. It’s such a difficult part because the role starts out as a light soprano, becomes lyric soprano in the duet at the end of Act One, when the orchestral sound changes too, and ends up requiring a dramatic soprano. In that respect it’s not unlike Traviata. When you find somebody who can do Butterfly, everybody wants her but, of course, you have to have balance. Liping Zhang may not have the biggest sound ever but she has sound enough for a role like this and she has a big heart. It may be that, when composing, Puccini had in mind some singer who would allow him a fortissimo without any problems because sometimes what is written will cover the singer. So you may have to change fortissimo to forte because what’s needed is to create for the singer, so that she can express herself with the orchestra. You have to create the right sound.”
For Nicola the experience of London is exceeding his expectations and that applies both to Covent Garden and to the city itself. But it could be said that the world is now his oyster. As it happens that Tuscan village where he grew up, Bargecchia, is already notable in the history of music because it was hearing the bells in the local tower that inspired a visitor, Giacomo Puccini, to put their sound into the first act of Tosca. In the future, however, it seems that Bargecchia’s musical fame could be not only for giving us those sounds but for being the place from which Nicola Luisotti set out on a memorable journey in the service of music.
- The opening night of Madama Butterfly is 14 February 2007 at 7.30 and runs until 10 March. (Performances on 8 & 10 March conducted by Paul Wynne Griffiths.)
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera