Conductor  Pier  Giorgio  Calabria

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Pier Giorgio Calabria's conducting activities encompass an enormous range of repertoire from opera and ballet to 20th-century avantgarde music. He has exposed American and European audiences to nation-wide and local premieres of operas and symphonic works by such contemporary composers as Luigi Dallapiccola, John Eaton, Carlisle Floyd, Gian Carlo Menotti, Thea Musgrave, Luigi Nono, Francis Poulenc and Sergei Prokofiev. His operatic career received an initial impetus by his work with Claudio Abbado at La Scala in Milan, Carlo Maria Giulini in Florence and Nello Santi at Earl's Court, London. He guest-conducts regularly for Chicago Opera Theater, has been Music Director of Opera Illinois, and has conducted opera in Florida, California, Italy, Eastern Europe, and New Zealand. In the symphonic field, he has conducted orchestras such as the Auckland Philharmonia, Filarmonica Moldova, Romanian Radio-Television Orchestra, Sinfonia Varsovia, Milan Angelicum Orchestra, Bolzano Haydn Orchestra, Indianapolis Philharmonic, Lafayette Symphony, Orchestra Filarmonica di Ancona, Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana, Du Page Symphony, Harlem Festival Orchestra, Hidden Valley Opera Orchestra, Milwaukee Pro Muscia Viva Ensemble.

Born in Fidenza, Italy, Pier Giorgio Calabria studied conducting in Venice with Franco Ferrara. Thanks to a Fulbright Grant from the Italian government, he continued his conducting studies at Indiana University where he earned his Master's and Doctor's degrees with dissertations on works by Debussy. Consequently, he joined the editorial staff of the Paris firm of Durand-Costallat in preparing the critical edition of Debussy's 'La Mer'.

==  From the Operissimo website  

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Born in the Italian city of Fidenza, Pier Giorgio Calabria studied in Venice, with Franco Ferrara as his tutor. The Italian conductor also studied comparative literature and foreign languages ​​at Ca' Foscari University. He completed his doctoral studies "summa cum laude" with a thesis related to "WHAuden and Music". Later, he won a scholarship to study at Indiana University (USA), where he obtained his master's degree and doctorate as a conductor."I also taught literature and music in the Department of Letters and conducted Indiana University's new music ensemble," said Pier Giorgio Calabria. Later, he moved to Chicago (USA), where he was part of the faculty of the conducting department at Roosevelt University, becoming music director of the Illinois Opera and conductor of the Chicago Opera Theater. He was also musical advisor and principal conductor of the Pensacola Opera in Florida, where he still practices. "He was part of the faculty of the Faculty of Conducting at the University of Michigan (USA) and conductor of the philharmonic orchestra and the orchestra of the Conservatory of St. Cecilia (Rome). Pier Giorgio Calabria was recently invited to conduct at the San Francisco Conservatory. In Romania, he conducted the orchestras of Radiotelevision from Bucharest, the Moldova Philharmonic, Oltenia and the Operas from Iași and Craiova", the organizers claim.

==  From the Romanian site Sibiu 100, July 2, 2008  (Google translation, with corrections)  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

We met on Leap Day of 1988, and a portion of our conversation was broadcast on WNIB, Classical 97 the next day to promote these performances.  On this webpage, I am pleased to present our entire chat.

Bruce Duffie:   Currently you are conducting the Chicago Opera Theater
s production of Don Pasquale.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with this particular Donizetti opera.

Pier Giorgio Calabria:   There are many joys, but not very many sorrows.  There are a few difficulties.  The main one is trying to forget that it’s such a popular piece.
BD:   Why do you want to forget that detail?

Calabria:   Because I like to approach it from a standpoint of a person who has never heard the piece in his life.  Last year, the Chicago Opera Theater asked me to do an opera that had never been performed in Chicago.  That was The Two Widows by Smetana.  Nobody knew it because nobody had done it.  I’d never done it, so it was a totally unbiased approach.  We didn’t have any good or bad traditions to go by, and we all discovered the opera as we went along.  I thought we did a pretty good job of it!  In this case, Don Pasquale is an opera that is probably one of the most popular in the repertory.  It is a
war horse, and there is the danger that ingrained habits, either good or bad, may have crept in.  At times this really spoils the effect of a fresh approach.  I always conduct first of all with the person who has never seen or heard the opera in his life in my mind.

BD:   It’s the joy of discovery?

Calabria:   Yes, or rediscovery.  So, I have been actually trying to study this piece anew, totally fresh as if I had never done it before.

BD:   When you work with this score, is it obvious that it is a masterwork, and that it’ll be popular, as opposed to something that you don’t hear very often, or something that you don’t know at all?

Calabria:   Yes, it’s pretty obvious.  This is one of the all-time masterpieces, and there are very strong reasons for that.  First of all, it’s an opera that comes at the end of a long tradition of opera buffa, and it sums up the whole genre.  It makes a final statement because it’s such a late work as far as the genre goes. It sums up and concentrates all of the ingredients, and structurally speaking it is an extremely tight piece, which, incidentally, should not be cut as much as is usually done.  We are opening pretty much all the standard cuts.  We’re still having a few here and there, but mostly for the sake of not getting the singers too tired.  There are some spots at the end of Act Two, or the tenor aria at the beginning of that act, which are very tiring.  But that’s just for practical reasons.  Otherwise, the opera could be performed totally uncut, and it wouldn’t sound any longer.  It’s one of those pieces which you can savor every note.

BD:   Tell me about the joys and sorrows of doing it in English.

Calabria:   This is a very controversial topic, and I can only tell you what I think.  In my opinion, opera in general is first of all theater, with music tacked on, or sound that serves as commentary.  It enhances the text and the dramatic action.  So, first of all, the text must be understood.  I don’t think that the audiences are going to understand enough of the text.  I don’t think there is a limit to how much you can understand, and this is not just valid for comedy.  Of course, I know it’s very important to hear all of the nuances of the text, and all of the declamation, and all the jokes, but to me it’s valid for any opera.  If you don’t know Tristan and Isolde that well, and you go to hear it in German, and you don’t know German, do you think you will really be able to appreciate it as much as a person who can understand every word of the text?

BD:   No, not as much as someone who gets it all, but they’ll certainly feel something by hearing the score.

Calabria:   Yes, because we’re talking about a very powerful piece.  But I’m thinking about the close inter-relationship between text and music.  That is what opera is all about.  I’m not saying that you should understand every single word.  There are ensemble numbers in which it doesn’t matter.  Besides, there are many repetitions of words as well, especially in opera buffa.  But it’s very important to understand as much as possible.  So, I’m all for doing the opera either in the language of the audience, or the with supertitles.

BD:   Which you do prefer
having the supertitles and singing in the original, or to sing it in translation?

Calabria:   In this particular case, I don’t have very strong feelings about using an English translation, especially as good as the Phyllis Mead translation that we are using.  We have made some changes, but in some other cases in which the language is an important part of the total, I would prefer supertitles.  I cannot listen to Pelléas and Mélisande in any other language than in French.

BD:   Considering all this, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

Calabria:   It’s always a very delicate balance, and they can co-exist, but the entertainment has to be always contained within the limits of the artistic product.  To explain this clearly, it’s very tempting to use an opera buffa like Don Pasquale, where things can be overdone very easily, and we have tried to avoid this.  We have tried to stress the humanity of the protagonist, and to make the visual side and the musical side coincide to a point where you cannot really separate the two, in the sense of just having a good time by only looking at it.  There is always the consideration of the totality of the artistic product to keep in mind.  Single moments, or farce moments by themselves may be a bit diverting and entertaining, so they always have to be conceived within the context of the whole.  This is a structural consideration, and as a conductor I’m very conscious of this.  I try always to keep things in perspective.

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BD:   Do you conduct differently in different sized houses?

Calabria:   Oh, absolutely.  That is really something that the conductor has to be aware of.  It has to do with acoustics, and with the balance between the voices and the orchestra.  The Athenaeum [shown below], where I conducted last year, has got some problems because there is not a proper pit.  So, the orchestra tends to be too loud.  We really have to be very careful in striking a balance between having the orchestra lose their identity in a sonorous way by becoming puny, and becoming too loud and drowning out the singers.  We are really trying very hard to strike a balance, and have the orchestra project.  We use some cloths to dampen the sound a bit, so that the orchestra can still project but without really drowning out the singers.

BD:   Do you encourage stage designers to help project the voices with their designs and structures on stage?
Calabria:   I haven’t had much to with the stage design per se, and we don’t have that much time on stage at the Athenaeum to experiment with that.  We simply try to gear things in general in such a way to get an optimum balance.  It’s such a difficult topic.  Even at different points in the auditorium, you hear the balances differently.  Sometimes the orchestra sounds too loud from a certain point of the balcony, and it doesn’t sound as loud from downstairs.  So I always ask my assistant conductor to check the balances in rehearsals, because for the conductor it’s not so easy.  My vantage point in the pit is not the best one to judge the balances.

BD:   I would think if anything you’re in the worst place!

Calabria:   Exactly!  I may be able to hear singers, and people behind me may not be able to hear them at all.  In general, I always want to be able to hear the singers anyway, but I am too close to have a perspective from that vantage point.

BD:   Is there a big difference working with established international singers as opposed to young singers on the verge of big careers?

Calabria:   Yes, there is a difference insofar as established singers don’t need the conductor as much.  So I find myself having to re-adjust my gestures.  Whether I have to do that with established singers or with beginners, it’s an adjustment that takes place in little time.

BD:   Do you have to give the youngsters more help?

Calabria:   Yes, you do with less-experienced singers.  You have to do more of the traffic work, with attacks, cut-offs, and so on.  With experienced singers, you let them sing more, and not interfere with them as much.

BD:   Is conducting fun?

Calabria:   Oh, sure it is!  To me it’s one of the most complete forms of musical expression, because it entails not just all the theory and preparation and homework, but it really provides you with a means of expressing yourself physically.  You are just translating everything that you have learned and assimilated and experienced during the study of the score into an action that is immediately understood, or should be immediately understood by all persons concerned.  In a way, it’s almost like what a ballet dancer does, except in the case of a conductor, he does it to get results from the people that he conducts, whether it’s instrumentalists or singers.  He doesn’t mimic the music, but he has to do things always a little bit in advance of the music, so as to transmit the message in such a way that it’s received when the music happens.

BD:   You’re really leading the music?

Calabria:   Yes, I am always anticipating what is going to happen in the music.

BD:   As you conduct a run of performances, do you keep learning things in the third and fifth and eighth performances?

Calabria:   Oh, yes!  No two performances are going to be alike, for various reasons.

BD:   How do you keep it fresh towards the end of the run?

Calabria:   You just conduct every performance as if it were the first performance, and just remember that there is a new audience.  Today’s another day, and tonight is the performance night.  You must forget about the past!  For example, t
here are seven performances of this Don Pasquale at the Athenaeum, and one in Winona, Minnesota.

BD:   [Surprised]  Why Winona, Minnesota?

Calabria:   [Laughs]  They just asked us!  We have tour performances every now and then.

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BD:   Do you also conduct symphony concerts?

Calabria:   Oh, yes.

BD:   How do you balance your career between opera and symphony?

Calabria:   I’m Italian, and strangely enough, when I’m in Italy I mostly conduct symphony concerts.  It’s just a matter of being in a different artistic situation.  Also, the opera houses in Italy have major problems, while the symphony orchestras are in good shape.  So, it actually gives me more satisfaction.

BD:   Without delving into specifics, are these problems in the opera houses artistic or political?

Calabria:   Politics and artistic matters are so inextricably connected in Italy, that you cannot really separate one from the other.  This is because all Italian opera houses are state-funded.  There are no private opera houses, so whatever the political situation is in Italy, it will immediately affect the funding and the operation of the opera houses.  Besides, even the administration structure of the opera houses is such that people in the highest echelons are picked more for their political affiliation than their true qualities, or artistic worth.

BD:   Here in America, very often the administrations and the Boards of Directors are saying they need to get some state funding.  Do you feel this would be a mistake?
Calabria:   No.  In this country you need more of that.  You have got too much of the other extreme.  There should be much more of a concern about the artistic situation in this country.  Of course, it’s such a big country, and so diversified state-wise.  Italy is a very small country in comparison.  But public funding is inevitable, but it should not be followed or be connected with artistic control on the part of the political structure, which is, unfortunately, what happens in Italy.

BD:   Coming back to your own situation, do you approach symphony concerts in a completely different way from opera, in more than just the obvious ways?

Calabria:   No, not really.  I don’t really believe that there’s much of a distinction between operatic and symphonic music in the way of conducting, or even thinking about it.  It’s funny... I was just reading the diaries of Cosima Wagner, and she says that Wagner was thinking of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier in terms of how they would sound if they were sung by this or that singer.  There is so much symphonic music that is vocal in style, and there’s so much of a cross-fertilization between operatic and symphonic composers that you really cannot separate the two genres.  There is so much Bellini in Chopin, for instance, and you can perform Chopin much better if you know the bel canto vocal style of Bellini’s music.  So, I don’t really make a distinction.  I always try to get to the essence of whatever it is I’m conducting.

BD:   What advice do you have for younger conductors coming along?

Calabria:   It’s a very tough profession, and like all other musical professions, it’s very difficult to get a break solely on the basis of your capacities.  If you’re an instrumentalist, you just get a panel together who will listen to your playing.  You audition, and you can show what you can do simply by picking up your instrument and playing.  As a conductor, you need an instrument that is good enough that you can show your worth while conducting it, and that’s not easy to come by.  Then there are so many extra-musical considerations involved, and so many political things involved.  It’s a very tough profession, and it takes an awful lot of patience and stamina and strength.  You must just never give up.

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BD:   Do you also conduct modern operas, new operas?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with composer Robert Lombardo, and clarinetist John Yeh.]

Calabria:   Oh sure, I love contemporary music, and I’ve done some very interesting contemporary operas.  A few years back with an opera company in the Chicago area, we did the Midwest premiere of an opera by Thea Musgrave, Mary, Queen of Scots, and it was incredible.  It was very successful.  I was very happy with the production, and it turned out to be a huge success.  [This was the Hinsdale Opera, which, due to financial considerations, is no longer extant.]

BD:   How do you decide which operas you would like to conduct, and which operas you would rather do later or never?

Calabria:   I never stop looking at operas, and studying operas.  Of course, it all depends on what comes about in terms of what you get offered, but I can pretty much judge by now what operas are valid, and which are not so interesting.

BD:   What makes an opera

Calabria:   That’s a very tough question to answer in a few words.  First of all, it has to have an immediately graspable impact on an audience, and all the doable contemporary works have that kind of quality.  That’s the first criterion whereby to judge an opera.  It has to come to life on stage in the theater, no matter how difficult or intricate it is, musically-speaking.  Wozzeck, for instance, was received extremely poorly.  It took a long time to get a favorable audience.  But as far as contemporary opera goes, I will say that Wozzeck is becoming a popular opera, and the same can be said of some operas of Britten, such as The Turn of the Screw, or Peter Grimes.  There is always a very strong dramatic element, a very strong theatrical element, which is enhanced by the music, of course.

BD:   Are we getting some good American operas?

Calabria:   I had some misgivings about Philip Glass’s music before going to see Satyagraha at Lyric Opera [featuring Douglas Perry, and conducted by Christopher Keene], and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed that opera.  It was a fantastic production, and it really made an awful lot of sense.  I thought I would get bored because of the minimalistic music writing, but I wasn’t bored at all.  I actually enjoyed it more and more as it went along.  Lyric did a great job of putting it on.

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to compose an opera today?

Calabria:   Ha!  [Sighs]  First of all, choose subject matter that can really be significant, especially for the times in which we live.  There are still so many unsolved problems from a political standpoint, and from a human standpoint, and from an ecological standpoint.  The opera house can be as good a place as any to make such a statement.

BD:   So, you’re saying to speak for today, and not to try to speak for generations to come?

Calabria:   [Thinks a moment]  What we do today will inevitably affect generations to come, so we’d better say it, and we’d better say it now.  We’d better do things now that are needed, and the operatic medium is a valid way to do that.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Calabria:   Oh, sure!  Things have never been as good as they are now [1988].  New opera houses have been built, and fantastic singers are being trained, especially in this country.  The US is training the best singers in the world now!  You see American singers everywhere.  I spend much of my year in Italy, and at the Rossini Opera Festival, for instance, every summer they revive Rossini operas, and some of the main singers are American.  This is a great moment for opera.  Of course, opera is very expensive, especially to do it well, so there has got to be a consideration of the financial side.

BD:   Have you done any French opera?

Calabria:   I have done Romeo and Juliet, which is a very enjoyable piece... a little saccharin, maybe!  [Laughs]  Of course, I love Pelléas and Mélisande.  I was the assistant to Claudio Abbado when they did it at La Scala in 1986, and I enjoyed working with him immensely.  We also did a new opera by Luigi Nono.

BD:   Any Wagner?

Calabria:   Not so far [laughs], though I was the assistant to a production of The Flying Dutchman once.  That was in Spoleto years back, and when I was at the university in Bloomington, the opera company was staging Wagner’s operas.  They were student productions, but they were professionally done.  So, I got to assist in the production of Tristan, and Die Walküre, and Parsifal.

BD:   Thank you very much for returning to Chicago.

Calabria:   Thank you!  My pleasure.

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 29, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following day.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.