Conductor  Carlo  Felice  Cillario

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Carlo Felice Cillario (7 February 1915 – 13 December 2007) was an Argentinian-born Italian conductor of international renown.

Born Carlos Felix Cillario in San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina, he went to Italy in 1923, where he studied the violin and composition at the Bologna Conservatorio. He hoped to become a soloist but a wrist injury playing soccer made him turn to conducting. He made his conducting debut in 1942 in Odessa. During the war, he returned to Argentina, where he conducted the Symphonic Orchestra of the University of Tucuman.

Upon his return to Italy, he founded the Bologna Chamber Orchestra in 1946, and reserved a major portion of his time to opera, conducting at the opera houses of Rome, Turin, Florence, Milan, etc. He quickly began appearing outside Italy, notably in Athens, Berlin, Oslo and Paris.

The year 1961 saw his debuts in England, at the Glyndebourne Festival in L'elisir d'amore, and in the United States, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in La Forza del Destino, later conducting The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, La favorita and La bohème. In 1964, he made his debut at the Royal Opera House in London at the request of Maria Callas, conducting her now famous series of Tosca performances with Tito Gobbi. Debuts at the San Francisco Opera followed in 1970 (Tosca) and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1972 (La sonnambula).

He became one of the favorite conductors of Montserrat Caballé, conducting at her Covent Garden debut in 1972 (La traviata with Nicolai Gedda and Victor Braun), in a London concert performance of Caterina Cornaro, and shortly after in an RCA studio recording of Norma.


See my Interviews with Fiorenza Cossotto and Ruggero Raimondi.

Carlo began conducting seasonally in Australia in 1968, working with the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia) at the Sydney Opera House, becoming principal guest conductor in 1988, before retiring in 2003; leaving behind a legacy of musicianship and phrasing evident in his surviving music scores at the Opera Australia library.

Carlo Felice Cilliaro stands as one of the most singer-friendly of all conductors, a reassuring and solid presence both in the opera house and in the recording studio.

He died in 2007, in Bologna, Italy.

--  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

Conductor Carlo Felice Cillario spent five season in the early 1960s with Lyric Opera of Chicago, and then returned in 1982 for a double bill of La voix humaine and PagliacciJosephine Barstow was in both operas, and the rest of the Pagliacci cast included Jon Vickers, Cornell MacNeil, Lenus Carlson, and David Gordon.  [The conductor
’s full repertoire in the Windy City is shown in a box farther down on this webpage.]  It is interesting to note that Cillario had some very uplifting ideas as well as some disparaging things to say about the verismo opera he was doing!

During that final visit, the conductor was gracious to allow me to sit down with him for a conversation.  He was jovial at all times, and his English was quite good.  I have corrected many tiny problems, but in several instances I have left in the charming construction since it does not interrupt the flow and his meanings are always clear.

Here is what was said at that time . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’ve been involved with opera for a long time.  I noticed in your résumé that you made your conducting début in 1942?

Carlo Felice Cillario:    Yes, it’s true.

BD:    How has opera changed in the last forty years?

cillario CFC:    There were many changes in productions and new operas.  One change was in the public.  Forty years ago, when I was a student, I was a violinist, a fiddler [shown in photo at left], and I did many, many concerts with virtuosos for many years.  That is the reason that I started during the War.  I remember that for us musicians, opera was not interesting very much, because we considered it was an old art.

BD:    Did you consider it dead at that time?

CFC:    Not dead, but not as interesting as another form of art that was growing up.  This was the movie, the cinema.  Cinematography was the important thing, especially because we thought there were not composers good enough for opera.  Opera is based on singers, and the modern composers are more instrumental in their writing than helping the singers.

BD:    If a person is going to compose an opera today, should that composer take some voice lessons and learn to understand the voice?

CFC:    Well, I don’t know.  It depends because art just is what you’re speaking about this moment.  All the arts are changing a lot, more than people are changing.  I was surprised by listening recently to some concerts of instrumental music.  The composers were not aggressive at all.  They just put it on stage sixteen or twenty people with an ensemble of instruments, and generally they played one by one.  One did [imitating noises at various pitches high and low] ‘beep’ and the other ‘baw’, ‘brrrrr’ and ‘cheee’!  Then after a couple of days I saw in the newspaper they said it was a new Mozart to our ears.  That was a really terrible insult to my favorite composer!  [Both laugh]  I am not against modern music.  On the contrary!  Instead, for example, I hate really, ‘verismo’, especially starting with Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana.  I don’t say Puccini because Puccini was an opera composer.  But I am a Mozart-lover, so I cannot accept people on stage biting ears and making funny things that destroy the music.

BD:    So when you’re asked to conduct Pagliacci, why don’t you say no?

CFC:    I said many times ‘no’ in my youth, when I was a young conductor.  I refused offers of Cavalleria and Pagliacci several times.  But then there was a moment that I was forced to accept it.  First of all, a conductor of must accept everything.  It’s not possible to close yourself in just one or two composers.  Many times I discussed this with my father.  He loved everything in music.  He was potentially a tenor because he had a marvelous voice, and a teacher destroyed his voice in South America.  That was where he was born.  But he loved especially Wagner and also Verdi and Puccini.  We had terrible fights because I said verismo style opera is dead.  Mascagni’s music was smelling too much of onion and Leoncavallo was mediocre.  He said that I must be mediocre because they are two great composers.  They are successful.  So then I was forced to accept Cav & Pag because Madrid offered me a lot of opera with just two performances of each, and if I refused Cav & Pag, I had to refuse all of the block and they would call another conductor.  So I accepted.  I said it will be challenge for me, an experiment!  I was in France at that moment, so from Paris I sent a cable to my father, who was my best friend.  I lost a lot in losing him.  The cable said,
“At last I will conduct Cavalleria, and the answer of my father with another cable was Poor Mascagni!”  [Both have a huge laugh]  But you know that when we are involved then, I like them because they are masterpieces in their way.  I am not against modern music.  On the contrary, especially when I was reading a lot in South America.  I was resident conductor of La Sinfonica at the University of Tucumán for a couple of years, and in every concert we included a modern piece.  I think that a modern conductorand I consider myself still modernmust know everything, good and bad.

BD:    But of course, it’s a little different conducting fifteen minutes of something of something that’s modern rather than a whole evening of one composer.

CFC:    That is the point, especially because the modern operas cost a lot to perform especially because they need a new production.  Because  now I am more and more and involved with opera, I do not have as many occasions as I would like to conduct modern music.  I was in Paris conducting at the Opéra, and I was invited to a Berio concert at the Champs Elysée Theatre.  I arrived a little late because my rehearsal finished late, so my seat was already taken by somebody else.  But they told me I could stand up in a box near the orchestra.  I saw Berio conducting and an old fellow playing the viola.  He was beautiful, like Paganini, tall with white hair, very slim.  It was a concerto for viola soloist, four more soloists I think, and a huge orchestra.  When this fellow was playing, the result was a noise, something like scratching a chair [demonstrates the noise].  Then the four other solo players played also made some kind of [demonstrates another scratching noise].  Then when the big orchestra had its intervention, they were covering everything so it was all a terrible noise of trombones, etc.  At that moment I don’t accept the use of instruments like a Stradivarius violin that is born just for singing to produce this scratchy sound.  I think that it is a pity.  It is like asking a Pavarotti, for example, to produce ugly sounds.  He would refuse to do it, so I am sure that if the Strads could talk they’d say,
Don’t do that with me!  I am born for other sounds!

BD:    Use a fifty-dollar violin instead!

CFC:    Yes, though sometimes even those sound good!  [Both laugh]  But for that reason I am following with interest the electronic music.  This is music that can be produced by other sources, by other instruments, not the normal instruments.  Remember when they would take a piano, for example, as they did years ago, but instead of playing the piano, they were taking a hammer and they destroyed pieces of the piano.  It’s really cruel, I think.  I don’t like that.  But I am very, very interested in electronic music.  Occasionally I am writing something just for my pleasure...

BD:    [With eager anticipation]  Have you written any operas?

CFC:    No!  What I write are just tiny caricatures or musical jokes.  Opera, as I told you, is special because the human voice is the most delicate instrument of all.

BD:    Then let me go back to my first question.  How has opera changed over the forty years?  Are voices today stronger, or better, or more direct?


CFC:    I was listening to some very old records, and it was amazing in a way that the taste now is more intransigent.  For example, going back to the violin, which was my instrument for so many years, I got a present from a friend of a Eugene Ysaÿe (1858-1931) record of a Brahms Hungarian Dance.  It is not great music but it is Brahms, and he was considered one of the greatest violin players for his era.  But in my opinion his playing was so strange that if a pupil did it today we couldn’t accept it.  Perhaps it is also the same with singing, such as the voice of Maria Galvani (1878?-1944), for example, a very old singer.   She had a very strange interpretation, but I don’t know because from voices we accept much more elasticity than from instruments.  Sometimes I am asking my players in the orchestra to try to imitate the singers.  They’re the best, especially in music of Mozart or Wagner.  We must ask the singers to try to imitate the instruments, and the instrumentalists to try to have the kind of flexibility the singers sometimes have some times.  It’s charming.  Singing is the goal of the instruments, especially in opera.  Also the public is certainly changing because even though we are not interested in opera at all, now the youth are much more interested in opera because they consider opera as it is.  They don’t ask from opera something that opera cannot give.

BD:    Is opera art, or is opera entertainment?

CFC:    [Laughs]  Ah, I fight against this terrible word.  Being an entertainer, in my opinion, is an insult!  I don’t understand why they use the English word ‘entertainment’!  In Italian or in Spanish, the word ‘entertainment’ can be a evening for dancing.  You entertain with your fiancé, and you go to a dance and have good wine, etc.  But in opera it depends.  Pagliacci can be entertainment...  [Both have a huge laugh]  I already put Puccini down as entertainment.  Some Donizetti can be entertainment, perhaps also, but not if you speak of Fidelio, which is perhaps my favorite opera together with Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute!

BD:    What about Figaro?

CFC:    I put Figaro after Giovanni and The Magic Flute.  If we start to discuss all that we go on for weeks.  That is not
entertainment.  How you call it a museum that has Leonardo da Vinci or the great painters of the past ‘entertainment’?

BD:    Is the opera house becoming a museum?  This is an argument we have sometimes...

CFC:    It depends on the repertoire that you do generally.  The management just tries to balance, to do some operas just for the public and some operas for cultured people.  It is a pity that television is not used yet in the right way.

BD:    Does opera work on television at all?

cillario CFC:    I think so.  It could, and I know that Karajan has already introduced some good things on television.  Often television is just taken from a live performance, but I think it must be something made special for television, not in the bad way we do often.  We just put a camera in front of the singer, and you see all the dentist’s work in the mouth of the stars.  That is not interesting at all.  But if it is planned for television, it can work.  If you have the singers two yards from the public, that is very, very good because the public will be much more impressed.  For example, I will tell you something that my daughter did.  She’s a biologist, so she not just interested in music.  She plays guitar and a little flute, and one day I was in Naples conducting an opera and I attended with her a performance of Otello.  We were in the big, huge, Teatro San Carlo in Naples and the wonderful cast included Mario del Monaco.  I saw that during the first act my daughter was absent; was not involved within the opera.  At the end of the first act I asked her if she was interested and she said she was bored!  I told her I liked her sincerity!  During the intermission I took her into the dressing room, and then to the wings of the stage for the second act.  She was then just a few yards from the production of the sound and from the acting of the singers, and she was completely involved!  Often it’s the distances that kill the interest of the public.

BD:    Are opera houses too big?  Should we have opera houses that are only, maybe, 800 seats?

CFC:    No, that is not enough, but maybe 1,500 to 2,000 seats would be wonderful.

BD:    We have twice that here at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

CFC:    I was a little worried about La Voix Humaine because it is forty-five minutes.  A lot of us were worried about it, but in the end, Josephine Barstow is so good.  Poulenc is not easy to sing because the orchestra is pretty big.  It is not merely an orchestra but a big orchestra, and so it is impossible to do in a small chamber theater.  In Sweden, where I am conducting a lot, in Stockholm they did it not in the  big theater but in a small room.  They were forced to tape the orchestral sound, and then Elisabeth Söderström was singing in that small room with a very good tape of the orchestra played on loudspeakers.  That makes for more difficulties, and it is more artificial.

BD:    Were you glad it was done in English for this audience here in Chicago?

CFC:    Generally during all my career I have tried to maintain the original language.  Now that I’m conducting a lot in Australia and I’m going there every year, there are two kinds of critics there.  In Sydney, all the critics prefer in the local language, which is English.  I fight against it, but they asked for English to be used in comedy like Don Pasquale, L’Elisir d’amore, and also Mozart unfortunately.  I was forced to conduct The Magic Flute in English.  It’s terrible!

BD:    What about the idea that because it’s closer to the audience they can understand the spoken dialogue?

CFC:    Yes, that is important, but i
n Melbourne, on the contrary, all the critics clamored for things in the original.  So often the Australia Opera did also a very funny thing.  They built up an opera in two languages!  The poor singers had double exertion because they must cancel one language and use the other one.

BD:    I can see having two casts, but not using the same cast for two languages!

CFC:    Yes, it is a big trouble.  But for example, I know just a few works in Russian.  I didn’t know the Russian language at all when I was listening to Boris Godunov, and I didn’t understand one word, but in my opinion it was much more magic.

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???

CFC:    Yes, it was a language coming from the stars, from another planet.  Later on, when I knew the words, I felt it’s not necessary. 

BD:    Have you heard Boris Godunov in Italian?

CFC:    Of course.  Earlier in my career I was forced to conduct Wagner in Italian.  I did Der Fliegende Holländer in Italian, and it is something very special, especially in Bologna, the town where I was studying.  I consider it ‘my town’ even though I was not born there!  Bologna has a wonderful Wagnerian public because Giuseppe Borgatti (1871-1950), a great Italian Wagnerian singer, was born just near Bologna, and Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909) was the Director of the Conservatorio, and he was mad for Wagner.  So we did good performances of Wagner and still now there is a wonderful Wagnerian public in Bologna.  A very smart man translated all the operas of Wagner, and there is a great picture in the Conservatorio which is labeled ‘Riccardo Wagner, Cittadino Bolognese’ [Richard Wagner, citizen of Bologna].  It has been declared on a couple of occasions that Lohengrin perhaps was better in Italian than in German!  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:    When you conducted Flying Dutchman, did you do it in one act or three?

CFC:    In three acts.  However, I used to like to see it in one because when I am in the audience I am a disaster.  When I attend a performance, if it is a dramatic opera that is not well done I am laughing.  The people around me are looking at me and wondering why am I laughing at people who are dying on the stage?  It is because if it is not very well done, that makes me laugh!  And if it is a comic opera, I am bored if the music is not high quality.  For example, Fra Diavolo is a fine opera, but one time I was jet-lagged when I was flying from to Sydney and I attended a performance.  They gave me the seat behind the conductor and I fell asleep.  Going home after, I was thinking it’s strange that in second act nothing happened!  They started beautifully and the company was great, but nothing happened.  Then when I was reading the libretto, and I saw a lot of things!  But I was sleeping and the artists noticed it, because when they are singing the artists see everything happening in the hall.

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???

cillario CFC:    I didn’t believe that, but a lot of them the following day told me, “You were very concentrated yesterday during my singing!”  [Both laugh]  The music is not high quality, of course.  [Sighs a bit, then moves on to the more general topic]  In any case, now I see that the youth have a great enthusiasm for opera.  I had the pleasure to conduct Callas in Covent Garden for several performances of Tosca in a Zeffirelli production many years ago, and people were sleeping three nights and two days in the freezing November weather...

BD:    Oh, to queue up for tickets?

CFC:    Yes.  They were sleeping with little fires, and friends were making coffee just to be able to go inside for the performances.  There were forty standing room seats being sold at the last moment, but there were 200 people in the queue, and only forty survivors were able to go in.  The others were sent packing and went back home!

BD:    You have conducted many performances of Tosca with Callas and with others.  Was that production with Callas really the revelation that we remember?  [Backstage shown in photo at right]

CFC:    Oh, yes.  That I can say a great ‘yes!’ because there was big excitement during the rehearsals, and the general dress rehearsal was the most exciting one.  There was big excitement the first night, but after the first night, I started to be bored.  I confess to you that Tosca is not my favorite Puccini opera.  With Callas we did seven performances plus the second act for television, which they are still broadcasting sometimes.  But when you take a cast like Callas, Tito Gobbi, the tenor Cioni and the production of Zeffirelli
— which was very clever — the orchestra was wonderful and the chorus was marvelous, the public went mad, screaming for twenty minutes after the end of every act.  Every time it was a new performance and every time I had a new excitement.  So you see often it is not the composer who is guilty!  [Both laugh]  I must tell you something else.  I was talking against Pagliacci, and often I have been trying to discover which was worseCavalleria or Pagliacci?  Working with them both, honestly I think Cavalleria is superior, yes.  But when I was conducting Pagliacci with a great cast of singers the first time at the MetRichard Tucker and Cornell MacNeil and Teresa Stratas in the same Zeffirelli production as here in ChicagoI discovered that Pagliacci can be better than Cavalleria!  During the performance I am very excited.  I must be, otherwise, as you said, it’s better not to conduct it.  So I tried to convince myself that I am excited, and it was the same here because Cornell MacNeil is the same, Jo Barstow is a wonderful artist in everything she does, and all the cast is excellent.  I had the occasion to work with Jon Vickers so much many times many years ago.  He’s a wonderful artist with not only his voice but all his heart and all his sentiments.  That is what you need in this opera, and that makes the success.

BD:    Is it good to have a different opera besides Cavalleria with Pagliacci, such as La Voix humaine here?

CFC:    I think so because Cav & Pag are too similar in way.  I saw it some place in Italy one time where, just to save some money
they had the same set for both the operas.  They turned it around.  One side was painted for Cavalleria, and then they turned it and had the set for Pagliacci.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let us come back to the topic of intermissions.  When you’re doing, say, a three-act opera, do the two intervals bother you as a conductor?

CFC:    Now is the habit to do fewer intervals than in the past, and I like that very much because I hate intermissions.  One of the reasons why I don’t often go to opera is because the intermissions, in my opinion, are terrible.  People are going just to show their beautiful gown, or all they are going there just to criticize, to show how much they know about Wagner, about Mozart, etc., etc.  They enjoy intermissions, but I don’t drink and I don’t speak about the opera with many people.  So intermissions for myself are terrible.  That is the reason that I would like very much for Der Fliegende Holländer in one act.  I am not a terribly enthusiastic fan of Richard Strauss.  I have great admiration, but in my opinion he wrote too many notes.  Mozart with three bars says everything that Strauss needs four hours to say!

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  So you prefer works like Salome or Elektra?

CFC:    Yes!  I like them very much, especially ElektraElektra is really a masterpiece, and not only because it is one-act!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Would you ever do Lohengrin without intermissions?

CFC:    No, I would not!  On the contrary, when the composer writes something just for applause, for the cheers of the public, we must take the applause because they are operas and they are born in that way.  Something I hate which a lot of producers use today it is a black-out.  Often, if you do it in La voix humaine it is necessary, or The Rake’s Progress of Stravinsky, also.  But often they do it in Aïda or in Trovatore, and that kills the applause.  If the public has the desire to applaud, we must have the applause.

BD:    When you’re conducting then, you’re conscious of the audience behind you?

huberman CFC:    Of course.  Every artist is in touch with his public.  Don’t forget that I was a virtuoso violin player, so I always had the public in front of me.  I remember something that is very funny from a man that was not a great humorist, but he said something funny one time.  It was Bronisław Huberman (1882-1947), the greatest violinist in my opinion, a Polish man.  I was so lucky that I had the occasion to hear him a few times to play Beethoven especially, and Brahms and Bach Chaconnes.  In my opinion, Pablo Casals (1876-1973) and Bronisław Huberman were the top players.  Anyway, because he had crossed-eyes, with one looking to the left and the other looking right, he liked to do a joke.  He said,
A beautiful woman can inspire an artist, and I am a lucky man because during my playing I can look at one beautiful lady in the top gallery and another on the main floor and get inspiration from two ladies!”  [Both laugh]

BD:    Did Casals and Huberman ever play together, perhaps the Brahms Double?  [Whether they played together as a duo is unknown, but, as seen in the photos at right, they played as a quartet with two other very distinguished musicians!]

CFC:    I don’t think so.  Their two personalities were so different.  Casals did it with Jacques Thibaud (1880-1953) on a marvelous record.  Speaking about that generation of players, I think that they had such a personality.  I was able to listen to Huberman, Ferenc von Vecsay (1893-1935), Adolf Busch (1891-1952) and Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), and all the violin players, each one of these artists, had a different way with interpretation of Beethoven, for example.  It was completely different music.  Now what I blame is coming from records.  For a record you must have a big personality, but you must play fast and correct.  Those are the two important requirements for records.  Now we have not great personalities.

BD:    They all sound the same?

CFC:    Yes, but they are wonderful.  For example, when Isaac Stern is playing or teaching, he does these activities and I am made just to stay there and admire him because he’s so spontaneous.  But if we’re speaking about interpretation, I don’t say that they were correct.  For example when Fritz Kreisler was playing with tone, I don’t think it was the correct one but it was very interesting.  It was probably the way that Paganini was playing the Beethoven Concerto.  He said it was not interesting at all and he was not a very fine interpreter of Beethoven, but there were these different ways.  Now you take the Americans players and Russian players,
the two top schools.  I think that they are relatives.  They play the same way; they play correct and fast.

BD:    Should the inspiration come from the head or from the heart?

CFC:    Both I think.  You are touching a very important question because that can be also reversed in music.  The movement of Romantic music was coming from the heart.  Now what we’ve got is modern composers writing from the brain.  That is a very noble part of the human body.  It is best if you have a good balance. 
Bach had thismy second God with Mozart.  It is very strange.  I started to play violin when I was five years old, and really at eight years old I was playing Mozart concerti – not as an enfant prodige [child prodigy] because I was never an enfant prodige, but just a good youth playing.  Now it’s not surprising because with the Suzuki System they have waves of children.  In Australia I go there to collaborate with the conservatory in Sydney which has five orchestras.  I go often with the seniors – 23 or 24 years old – and they are wonderful players.  But I get to also conduct with the little kids7 or 8 years old and they are monsters, because they are so mature!  They are not afraid of anything. At 8 years old, I remember I was naïve, I was innocent.  But they know everything now, probably because of television, so you must be very careful what you teach them because they take everything seriously.

BD:    Too seriously?

CFC:    Too seriously, in my opinion.  My mother, my father and my teacher slapped me every day because I preferred to go outside to play soccer.  They forced me because they discovered that I had the quality to be a musician, and they slapped me every day.  But now parents don’t need to slap the kids.  With the Suzuki System now they start to play the violin at 3 or 4 years old, and when they are 7 or 8 years old, they are adults.

BD:    Are we getting too many violinists?

CFC:    I don’t know.  We’ll see what happens to them in ten years, when these kids who are now 8 to 10 years old and have the craze of developing themselves.  Some people think we will have a disaster, a lot of mediocre players, but I don’t think that is correct.  I’m very interested in this experiment.  Going back to soccer, it is like Brazil.  In Brazil, or even in Italy or England where they can win sometime the World Cup by beating Brazil, but Brazil is much better.  They have plenty of players.  Italy can have twenty good players, but Brazil can have 200 first-class players.  Why?  You go to any Brazilian beach, and there’s plenty of kids there just playing ball from seven o’clock in the morning and until five o’clock in the afternoon, just not letting the ball touch their hands because they are acrobats.  They are virtuoso with the ball, and there are millions of Brazilians who play soccer.  The same will be with Suzuki System.  There will be a moment when you will be able to choose the best from the big number of players.

BD:    Do we have too many singers today?

CFC:    Oh no, not at all, not at all.  [At this point we stopped for a moment to turn over the cassette, and then he continued right along with another story...]  I don’t know if it is just malicious expression against him or what, but I had some friends in the Teatro alla Scala orchestra tell me that when Karajan is conducting and producing, during the rehearsal the orchestra can play Lili Marlene and he doesn’t understand because he is so involved within the stage problems that he has no time to listen to the orchestra.  He’s confident that the orchestra will play well.  [Both laugh]  I don’t know if it is true or not, but in any case Karajan is fantastic as musician.  I was conducting his Trovatore because he was producing it in Vienna and conducting.  So I was conducting his Trovatore while he was dealing with the scenario.  I was very proud of that.

BD:    Did you consciously try and listen to his records and imitate his style, or did you bring your own Trovatore to the pit?

CFC:    No, I don’t like very much to listen to the others.  I prefer to be around by myself!  Of course I try to listen to Karajan often because he is a real genius.  Speaking about Cavalleria, he surprised me, first of all because I didn’t believe that he was interested in that work.  I thought he was much better if he was conducting more works like Parsifal.  The second surprise I got was that he conducted the best Cavalleria that was ever performed.  He transformed Cavalleria in a masterpiece of Romantic music that even Mascagni couldn’t believe could be so good!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you done some world premieres?

CFC:    In symphony music, yes, but not opera.  There was something very funny that makes me very proud, and that was that I conducted the world premiere of La Betulia Liberata.  It is an oratorio of Mozart.  He was composing it when he was in Padua when he was fifteen years old.  It wasn’t performed in Mozart’s era or even later on.  We did the record in Italy when I was resident conductor of the Angelicum Orchestra in Milan, and it was the first complete performance.  It’s a very good work.  He wrote it at fifteen years old just as a normal fellow who had the maturity of thirty or forty. 

BD:    The reason I asked about conducting world premieres was to inquire about how it affects you to have the composer standing over you, watching your rehearsals.

CFC:    Yes, some of the composers are a bit boring.  Some of them are calm and accept what I do and say it is wonderful, but ordinarily they’re boring because they change their minds during the rehearsal.  They ask if they can change this or that, or if they can change the order of some things.  Our boss is the clock, and these composers completely forget about the time.

BD:    Do you believe in cuts?

CFC:    [Smiles]  Ah, that depends.  When I was conducting those young Mozart operas
La Betulia Liberata, Ascanio in Alba that he composed as a Festa Teatrale when he was fourteen years old in Milan, and Lucio Silla, which is a wonderful piece in my opinion, which he wrote at sixteenI had a great experience about cuts.  When he used libretti from Metastasio, Mozart had not yet mastered the ability that he got later on when he was composing Don Giovanni.


BD:    That was Da Ponte?

CFC:    Not only Da Ponte, because in my opinion Figaro is less important than Don Giovanni, not because it’s less beautiful music but because it can be cut.   The form of Figaro is not as perfect as Don Giovanni, and that is the reason I agree with Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher.  He wrote a little booklet on Don Giovanni and he said,
I’m not interested in the other Mozart operas.  Maybe they are good, but I am interested in Don Giovanni, and have tried to discover why it is a masterpiece.  Don Giovanni has the proportion like the absolute perfection of a pyramid, or like a Greek temple.  It would be this comparison, and my opinion is that is the right way to face Don Giovanni.

BD:    So then if you’re doing Don Giovanni and the producer says you must cut this or that...

CFC:    No, no!  I surprised the producer and the management of the theater every time I did Don Giovanni because I asked for cuts!

BD:    [Confused]  But I thought you said it was perfection!

CFC:    My opinion of perfection was the original Don Giovanni Mozart wrote for Prague.

BD:    Oh, without Dalla sua pace [aria for Don Ottavio]?

CFC:    Without this marvelous Dalla sua pace and without this masterpiece that is the Elvira aria Mi tradì.  That is one of the greatest, so the public will react because they like that.  So I said if the public like those, we can do an encore at the end of the performance!  Or we can do a record with these pieces to give to the public, but don’t destroy the proposal of Don Giovanni of Prague.  You know that Mozart was writing these two arias and another duo, and he revised the finale of the opera for Vienna, and it was less successful than in Prague.  That Vienna Don Giovanni, in my opinion, is a specimen just of good opera.  So I want to use the Prague version just for that reason, it is not just for the beautiful tunes.

cillario BD:    How do you end Don Giovanni?  Do you end it with him going down to hell, or do you include the epilogue?

CFC:    [Laughs]  No, I have no courage!  Even Mozart was scared about his original finale, because it was against the taste of that public.  He was trying to shock people by ending the opera in D minor, and without the moral.  In Australia, one of the two Don Giovanni productions I conducted there was with a wonderful producer who came from the theater of Shakespeare.  He respected a lot the music, and he invented a finale where Don Giovanni disappears.  It was so simple but so strong, so full of effects that we had to stop the performance because the public was applauding so much at this ending.  In that case with such a good production, it was possible to avoid to have the finale with a moral.

BD:    Did you do any of the other Mozarts such as La Finta Giardiniera?

CFC:    Not La Finta Giardiniera, no.  I did a lot of Magic Flute, and Die Entführung.  You asked me earlier why not translate them, but first of all I think that Italian opera must be sung in Italian because the Italian language helps the singer to sing beautifully, as do many other languages.

BD:    They’re all open vowels?

CFC:    Yes, and to sing into the mask.  Another very good language for singing is Bulgarian because it’s also very clear.  Another is Swedish.  They are all very good singers as are any Americans or English that are able to sing in the way not to produce sound that is all in the nose like normal French-speaking, or in the throat as many English singers do.  We did experiments in Australia with kids.  We invited kids to attend a performance, and at the beginning a young fellow was talking to the kids about sounds of the instruments.  He then showed them about a change of lighting that was being used.  That was great because the kids were involved inside the stage with their minds.  Then we showed a change of scene from one scene to the other, and then we performed one scene.  Certainly it was already built-up for them.  Then we asked the teachers of these kids in the school to pose many questions, and one was,
Have you been disturbed because it was sung in Italian (Don Carlo) or in German (Fidelio)?  They said no.  The majority, eighty-five per cent, said they were not disturbed.  It was because our teacher explained previously what happens, so they understood everything.  Somebody said because the acting of the scene was so good that they understood everything, and several of them said, It doesn’t matter because sometimes we listen to opera in English and we didn’t understand one word!  [Both laugh]  They never really understand, and that is funny because wherever I was conducting operas in both the languages, English or Australian singers take much more care of pronouncing correct Italian than of pronouncing correct English.

BD:    Maybe they have to work harder at it?

CFC:    I don’t know why, but it might be because the language helps to be clear.  For example, I am a very bad Italian speaker because Italian forced my pronunciation.  I prefer much more English because it is easier to speak inside the vowels.  It’s not necessary for me to produce a good sound!  Now I imagine you will ask me if I am happy to be in Chicago, and I am delighted!  [Both laugh]  It’s not just a routine answer as we say often in any place where we go.  But you know that I was here conducting for five consecutive seasons.  [See box immediately below.]  Since the first time I loved Chicago very much.  Often I am telling American friends that my favorite town in America is Chicago, and they laugh at this.  They say it’s not possible, that it’s New York or San Francisco!  But it’s Chicago and I don’t know why.  I think it is because the people are friendly, and that this theater is so solid.  The organization here is so good, and I see fortunately now with Ardis Krainik and Bruno Bartoletti are going on with the same organization that they had twenty years ago when I was first coming.  Then Ardis Krainik was the assistant manager, and Carol Fox and Maestro Pino Donati were responsible for the operation of the company.


Carlo Felice Cillario at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1961 - La Forza del Destino with Farrell, Bergonzi, Guelfi, Christoff, Cesari, Ludwig
            Barber of Seville with Simionato, Bruscantini, Alva, Corena, Christoff

1962 - La Bohème with Rubio/Sighele, Tucker, Zanasi, Moynagh, Wildermann/Christoff, Cesari, Corena
            Tosca with Crespin, Zampieri, Gobbi, Cesari, Corena
            L'elisir d'amore with Adani, Kraus, Zanasi, Corena

1963 - Barber of Seville with Berganza, Zanasi, Kraus, Corena, Christoff
            Don Pasquale with Adani, Kraus, Bruscantini, Corena

1964 - La Favorita with Cossotto, Kraus, Bruscantini, Vinco
            La Cenerentola with Berganza, Casellato, Bruscantini, Tadeo, Cesari

1965 - La Bohème with Freni, Corelli, Bruscantini, Ariè, Martelli, Cesari, Tadeo
            Madama Butterfly with Scotto, Cioni, Bruscantini, Casei, de Palma
            Aïda with Price/Lee, Lamberti, Cossotto, Bastianini/Colzani, Vinco

1982 - La voix humaine with Barstow; and Pagliacci with Barstow, Vickers, MacNeil, Carlson, Gordon

[Continuing]  Something else is the orchestra.  It is not only to have a good resident conductor, Bruno  Bartoletti, but that makes the orchestra have good training and good habits.  The leaders are very well chosen, and you have here something that I asked God to maintain.  At least in Chicago you have this lucky situation.  [He is referring to the
stagione system, whereby an opera is rehearsed and performed with a single cast and orchestra, as opposed to the repertory system where operas are done throughout the season with varying casts and orchestral personnel.]  That [repertory system] is something which destroys the quality in many, many theaters in the world.  That means that you have a rehearsal with some players, and then at the performance you have different players.  [Laughs]  I remember when I had the responsibility as Musical Director or Resident Conductor, I was standing for hours thinking if a player was moving to that seat, or was it better to put him closer to another player because the balance of the sound would be better?  How can you be responsible when they change every time?  Now I am doing a lot of new operas.  I conduct so many operas, you can’t believe it. 

BD:    Are you too busy?

CFC:    Yes, sometimes, because I have no time to relax.  At least for a couple of weeks I must go home to see my children and to relax.  But the other reason is that to be happy God gives me now new operas to study, and that’s very good.  One of the points that I was always trying to fight against is to become just a routine conductor.  This is especially true in Italian opera, unfortunately.  Because of my Italian name I am considered an Italian conductor, and to lead German operas is difficult for us, much more than for anybody else.  An Italian conductor in the past often was just a conductor with big experience, but not that sacred fire that you must put forth every time you invent something, just as I did for Tosca when I had Callas and Gobbi.  So I must study now.  The next opera I will be conducting is L’Italiana in Algeri in Barcelona, where I’m going from here.  Then, before Christmas, La Vestale of Spontini.

BD:    Who will be singing that role?

CFC:    Monserrat Caballé.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  I hope she sings it and doesn’t cancel!

CFC:    But Monserrat never canceled with me!

BD:    Really?


CFC:    Really!  I’m very lucky.  She sings very difficult roles in spite of the fact that when you listen to her, you think that she makes it so easy.  Everything sounds so natural, but no.  If s
he’s sick, she’s really sick.  She can’t help that.  She is a very delicate singer.  Let me tell you about the time we did with a record of rarities of Rossini with the Rome RCA Orchestra.  [They would also do a record of Donizetti Rarities with the London Symphony.]  It was already time to start recording, and you know that every minute is a lot of dollars!  Around the piano with Monserrat and myself was a wall of directors of RCA, waiting for the moment when she was ready.  But she was telling me, Ah, Carlo, let me try this passage a little faster.  I tried to take it a little faster but she said, “My technique is not good enough, so may we try it slowly?  So I tried it a little bit slower and she said, Oh, that is very heavy for my voice.  Then while we were walking to the stage I said to her, “Why didn’t we do that before to come here? and she said, I can’t.  I must improvise in order to get results.  She says that in the morning she will sing a phrase or two, and if the voice is there, okay, otherwise she cancels.  One of the greatest Italian conductors was Maestro Franco Capuana (1894-1969).  He was very meticulous, even to the point of exaggeration sometimes.  He was rehearsing Barber, for example, with Sesto Bruscantini, and he was beating all the recitatives.  Caballé tried to sing with Capuana, but she couldn’t.  She said he was a wonderful conductor but she couldn’t work with him.  As a symphony conductor, generally when you have had your general rehearsal you know ninety per cent what will happen in the concert.  But in opera I like this improvisation a little bit, and in opera never you know what can happen tomorrow, or even this evening. Every time it’s new, and that makes excitement.  It is a wonderful profession.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do the prose writings and letters of composers have an influence on you when you’re conducting?

CFC:    I try to read, but unfortunately I don’t have time enough to read them.  When I find a good book I buy it.  For example, now I found here and paid $1.69 for Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner.  You can imagine how interested I am because one of the new operas that I must conduct next will be Die Walküre in Sydney, in German.  So it is very interesting to read Nietzsche, but unfortunately, generally I say that this is a book I must read with calm when I will get my holiday, so I put it in a corner... and this corner is full of books that I never have time to read!  [Laughs]  I did Parsifal in a concert performance in Sydney, and it was a big sensation there.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

cillario CFC:    Oh yes, I am positively sure of that.  If we don’t destroy all the public and we continue to have good voices, operas will be always very interesting for the crowd.  For example, in Sydney they have a new opera house and they have a big public for opera, so much so that they must repeat so many times during the summer.  Remember, opera has all the Mozart repertoire, all the Wagner repertoire, all the Verdi repertoire plus Richard Strauss plus Fidelio.  It is my favorite.  It is my masterpiece, plus the Stravinsky opera is a very high standard also.

BD:    Do the very early works still speak to us today
Monteverdi, Cavalli, etc.?

CFC:    Yes, there is very great interest again for Monteverdi especially, and Cavalli.

BD:    Should we do them in large theaters, or have we lost the ability to be able to present these works properly?

CFC:    I think that they need small theaters, especially Monteverdi and Cavalli.  [Returning to his own upcoming schedule]  Another new one that I must prepare now is another Rossini.  Both Rossini and Donizetti are very high standard.  I must prepare La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) for Cologne Opera in 1984.  It is a very tricky opera and very difficult to stage. 

BD:    You have to get the bird to come down and snatch the necklace!  [Both laugh]

CFC:    Yes, and I don’t know how they will do that!  I was asking the director because I am very curious to see what trick he will find.  He said he is still curious, so for the moment it’s still in the air.

BD:    Will this be in Italian or German?

CFC:    In Italian, of course.  When it is in another language, I suffer.  When I was conducting The Magic Flute in English, I saw that the singers were singing differently from the instruments.  The voice must be honest, must be used with the same feeling, the same technique.  I said,
“Why do the instruments do ‘tacka, tack, tacka, tack’ and you do ‘vara, vara, vara, va’?  In German it’s easy to do it right, but in English there were different words, so you cannot accept that.  You cannot see the Mona Lisa with another interpretation, another language, or to put modern dress on her.  You must take it as it is.

BD:    You can put a mustache on her!  [Both laugh]  But music is an interpretive art.  Paintings are there to be seen and that’s it, but music has to be interpreted, it has to live, it has to grow.

CFC:    I think we all must grow, but I don’t believe in interpreting too much.  Toscanini was a very strong character, and sometimes he gave no answers.  A lady once told him,
You are so extraordinaire!  How do you do Brahms or Verdi?  He said, I do nothing special!  I do just what must be!  He was being honest because each one of us must think that his interpretation is the right one!

BD:    Are you convinced that your interpretation is the right one?

CFC:    It takes a lot for me to be convinced.  So first of all I try to study the work.  Later on I try to listen a good performance or a good record, just to find the quality, not to try to copy but to try to see how much I am different, how much I can be wrong.  I discovered from Karajan the importance of a tape recorder.  In the beginning I felt that an artist must be responsible and not depend on a machine to teach us the answer.  So I try to be convinced that I was right in my way without to listening to any recordings.  That was many years ago, when I was jumping from virtuoso playing to conducting.  Then when I was listening by conducting, I discovered that it was so horrible, so terrible because the speed often was too fast or too slow.  The rallentando, I didn’t like.  The balance was so poor.  I wanted to find the reason, so my friends said,
Look at Karajan.  Every time he is conducting a new opera, he’s putting in La Scala everywhere his tape recorder.  Then he’s running the minute after the rehearsal to his hotel just to listen and to correct and see if he is happy.  I think that I get a lot of good advice from that, especially because as conductor, if something wrong happens, I am destroyed.  If something wrong happensnot only to me, but to anybody in the performanceI think that everything is horrible and it is a disaster.  But later on, when I am listening, what I considered to be a catastrophe was a minor catastrophe, and perhaps a lot of people didn’t even realize it.  In that performance, there were many acceptable things, so I am comforted.  I get good help for myself.

BD:    Are commercial records that you make and sell to the public too perfect?

CFC:    That’s the very thing which makes commercial records so terrible.  I did many, and I think that this system that uses scissors is really immoral.  I remember that I was given an advance copy of one and I gave this copy to my dentist in New York!  The dentist is someone that makes us suffer, so now he will suffer!  [Both laugh]  I have been asked what I consider my best records, and you’ll be surprised but I feel that my best records are the ones I didn’t get to correct.  They are the pirate records.  They are taken from live performances with perhaps some mistakes, but there is a line that doesn’t exist in the others.  In the studio, one singer will like a take from three days ago but others prefer the take from yesterday.  That is really immoral because some directors and managers sometimes engage a singer by listening to a record, and that record is not the face of the real singer. 
For example, one time we spent hours and hours just to cut the wrong things that some mediocre singer did.  Then I met this singer in the street and the singer said to me, Maestro, why were you so unhappy with me?  I was listening to the record, and it was wonderful!  So I said, What if I send you all the pieces that we were forced to cut?  That is the record you deserve.”  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:    Maybe someday you should put out another record with all the bad sections which were cut!

CFC:    Yes, it would be wonderful.  In Buenos Aires, we did a concert with the Radio Orchestra.  The conductor and the soloists didn’t know, but during the rehearsals they recorded some takes, and these included the conductor screaming bad words and things like that.  Then they put it all together, and on the eve of the concert they broadcast this part.  It was fantastic.  You have no idea how funny it is! 

BD:    You have to be careful what you say!

CFC:    Oh yes.  There were bad words, but they accept everything as being part of the job.

BD:    Thank you so very much for speaking so frankly and openly with me today!

CFC:    It was a pleasure.  I had a lot to say about very important matters and also some trivial things.  Now it’s your problem to make it interesting!  [Both laugh]


Monsignor Lorenzo Perosi (21 December 1872 – 12 October 1956) was an Italian composer of sacred music and the only member of the Giovane Scuola who did not write opera. In the late 1890s, while he was still only in his 20s, Perosi was an internationally celebrated composer of sacred music, especially large-scale oratorios. Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland wrote: "It's not easy to give you an exact idea of how popular Lorenzo Perosi is in his native country."  Perosi's fame was not restricted to Europe. A 19 March 1899 New York Times article entitled "The Genius of Don Perosi" began: "The great and ever-increasing success which has greeted the four new oratorios of Don Lorenzo Perosi has placed this young priest-composer on a pedestal of fame which can only be compared with that which has been accorded of late years to the idolized Pietro Mascagni by his fellow-countrymen." Gianandrea Gavazzeni made the same comparison: "The sudden clamors of applause, at the end of the [19th] century, were just like those a decade earlier for Mascagni." Perosi worked for five Popes, including Pope St. Pius X who greatly fostered his rise.

According to biographer Graziella Merlatti, Perosi was the most prolific composer of sacred music of the 20th century. According to musicologist Arturo Sacchetti's estimate, Perosi composed 3,000-4,000 works. A great many still await publication; some have not yet been located.

Despite the relative obscurity of his name today, Perosi was a prominent member of the Giovane Scuola, of which the most important Verismo composers or Veristi (Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Cilea) were all considered members. An entire chapter is dedicated to Perosi in Romain Rolland's Musiciens d’Aujourd’hui (1899). Perosi was deeply admired not only by Rolland and by the above-named Veristi, but also by Boito, Toscanini, and many others. Caruso sang his music, as did Sammarco, Tagliabue, Gigli, and other great singers from that era, and also quite a few in modern times, such as Fiorenza Cossotto, Mirella Freni, Renato Capecchi, and fellow Tortonese Giuseppe Campora. His French admirers included Debussy, Massenet, Guilmant and d'Indy.

© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 8, 1982.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB 1986, 1990, 1995, and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2015, 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.

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.