Conductor  John  Fiore

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


A seasoned conductor well-known among the international opera houses, John Fiore is praised for his musicality and his skillful expression on the podium. Maestro Fiore has led acclaimed performances in a diverse range of symphonic and operatic repertoire with some of the finest orchestras and opera companies in the world. He is a frequent guest conductor at many of the foremost opera houses in Europe and the United States, with which he enjoys enduring relationships. After returning to the Gran Teatre del Liceu in June to conduct Tosca, highlights of Mr. Fiore’s 2019-20 season include a new production of Samson and Delilah at the Washington National Opera, Eugene Onegin at the Royal Swedish Opera, La Forza del Destino at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Fidelio, Les Comptes de Hoffman, and Die Fledermaus with his frequent collaborators at the Semperoper Dresden, and symphonic concerts with the Munich Radio Orchestra, Staatstheater Nurnberg Orchester, and Robert Schumann Philharmonie, among others.

fiore Fiore has been the Music Director of several leading opera companies including the Norwegian Opera, where he served from 2009 through 2015 as the institution’s first music director in over a decade. There, he conducted on average over thirty performances of opera, ballet, and symphonic concerts per season, including several world premieres. Mr. Fiore returns to the Norwegian Opera regularly, most recently to conduct a production of Tosca. He was also formerly Music Director of the Deutsche Oper-am-Rhein (1998-2009), where he kept an intensive and extensive schedule conducting in the company’s two houses in the neighboring Rhineland cities of Düsseldorf and Duisburg. Throughout his decade-long tenure there, he led more than sixty different operas in diverse repertoire covering German, Italian, Russian, French, and Czech languages. Concurrent with his appointment at the Deutsche Oper-am-Rhein, Mr. Fiore was also General Music Director of the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, and led full seasons of symphonic concert repertoire.

Mr. Fiore continues to be a regular guest at many of the world’s leading opera houses. In Europe, he has appeared at the Bayerische Staatsoper (Un ballo in maschera, Aida, Nabucco, Der Fliegende Holländer, Tosca, Carmen), Semperoper Dresden (Die Walküre, Arabella, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Nabucco, Aida, La traviata, La cenerentola), Deutsche Oper Berlin (Turandot, La forza del destino), Rome Opera (La traviata), Teatro San Carlo (Rusalka), Teatro Carlo Fenice (La bohème, La Gioconda), Zurich Opera (Tristan und Isolde), Grand Théâtre de Genève (Parsifal, Andrea Chénier, Nabucco), Opéra National de Bordeaux (Norma), and the National Theatre in Prague (Parsifal, Eugene Onegin, La bohème), among others. Mr. Fiore also conducted often at the Cologne Opera, the company where he made his German debut in 1990 with Manon Lescaut. He has returned there many times for a diverse repertoire of Strauss, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Janáček, and in addition conducted the city’s historic and renowned Gürzenich Orchester in many symphonic programs.

In the United States, he has appeared frequently at the Metropolitan Opera, leading over one hundred performances of nearly a dozen operas, among them the Met’s premiere production of Dvorak’s Rusalka, (1993, and revival in 1997) as well as Aida, La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, Un ballo in maschera, Carmen, and Tosca. He has long enjoyed relationships with both the Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, and Santa Fe Operas, and also has been to the Houston Grand Opera to conduct Tannhäuser.

In recent seasons Mr. Fiore has been exploring seminal twentieth century works, including a cycle of the major Janáček operas, Berg’s Lulu, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. In the 14/15 season, he led a new Jiří Heřman production of the opera rarity Pád Arkuna (The Fall of Arkun), the final stage work of Czech composer Zdeněk Fibich, at the National Theatre in Prague. In the same season with the Norwegian Opera, he conducted the world premiere of Jüri Reinvere’s Peer Gynt based on Ibsen’s play of the same name, as well as a double-bill of Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna and Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy, staged for the first time in Norway. In summer 2003 maestro Fiore led the world premiere of Bright Sheng’s Madame Mao at Santa Fe Opera, and in January 2005 he conducted the highly successful world premiere of Christian Jost’s Vipern for the Deutsche Oper-am-Rhein.

Born in New York City to a musical family, Mr. Fiore received his earliest musical training from his father, a pianist and choral director, and his mother, a singer. His family moved to Seattle, where he studied piano, cello and other string instruments. Mr. Fiore began his professional musical activities at age 14 as a pianist and coach for the Seattle Opera’s annual production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a job which he continued for six summers. He later attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. In 1981, he joined the staff of the Santa Fe Opera, where he developed an affinity for the operas of Richard Strauss.

Within a short period of time, he became a prized assistant in three of North America’s most respected companies: the San Francisco, Chicago Lyric and Metropolitan Operas. In the summer of 1986 he went to Europe, assisting Zubin Mehta for Die Meistersinger in Florence, and then to the Bayreuth Festival, where he worked with Daniel Barenboim on Tristan und Isolde, returning the following year for Parsifal and Tristan and again in 1988 for the Harry Kupfer Ring production. During this period he also freelanced as an assistant to the great Leonard Bernstein. Fiore made his debut at the San Francisco Opera conducting Gounod’s Faust in 1986, thus beginning his own conducting career.

In 1990 he embarked on an international symphonic career as well, making debuts on three continents. Since then Mr. Fiore has continued to build his repertoire and orchestral relationships. In the summer of 1996, stepping in for Robert Shaw, Mr. Fiore made a critically acclaimed debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl conducting Verdi’s Requiem. In North America, he has since conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Toronto Symphony, and New York Chamber Symphony, to name but a few. In Europe, guest orchestral engagements have included the Dresden Staatskapelle, orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bamberger Sinfoniker, Munich Radio Orchestra, Gürzenich Orchester, Orchester Rheinland-Pfalz, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Firenze, Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Slovenian Philharmonic, Orchestre National de Lyon, Orchestre Philharmonique de Montpellier, and Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra, among others.

==  Biography from the Opus3artists website, July, 2019  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


As can be seen in the biography above, John Fiore is in the midst of a distinctive and wide-ranging career.  Having started out as an assistant in several places, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, he has grown into a significant conductor of his own productions.

This conversation with Fiore was held in Chicago in December of 1994, at a time of transition in his career . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You started your career being mostly an opera conductor, and you’re now branching out into symphonic music?

John Fiore:   That’s right.

BD:   How are you dividing your time, and how has that changed in recent weeks or years?

Fiore:   It started out mainly in opera because I was working in opera houses as an assistant for years.  Then I branched out into the symphonic conducting arena, so I was really lucky the way it has turned out.  Opera takes an awful lot of time.  Each engagement has the rehearsal period, and all the performances, and since I was getting booked up for opera performances right from the beginning, there was less space to put the symphonic things in.  That’s started to change now.  I make more time for it, and I’m also getting more opportunities to do it, which is good.  It’s a very different kind of work.

BD:   Aside from the obvious, what are the differences between conducting opera in the pit, and being on the podium in a symphony?

Fiore:   There are certain things which are a little more reliable with the symphony.  Once you’ve rehearsed something, you can pretty well assume it will work much like that in performances... with some leeway, of course.  You can listen with freedom within the inspirational front.  But in opera, there are things that can happen that you never quite know about, and you have to be prepared for them.  But that’s the beauty of it.  It’s live theater, and that’s very exciting.

BD:   But you’re driving the bus, so you must be in control.

Fiore:   I am driving the bus, but you can’t always control who steps on it, or who you run into!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Are there ever times when the bus veers completely out of control?

Fiore:   Hopefully not completely, but there are moments when little earthquakes happen.  It can be very exciting, as well as a little frustrating.  One’s skill is certainly honed in opera performances, and your technique really develops because of all the odd things that can happen.  I love that.

BD:   When you’re rehearsing a piece, do you want to make sure that everything is completely reliable, or do you want to leave a little flexibility for the unknown?

Fiore:   I like to leave some flexibility, because I like to have imaginative singers.  I’m not one of those conductors who says,
“This is absolutely the way it has to be, because it doesn’t work with everybody, and it shouldn’t.  Certain singers have certain needs, and depending on what those needs are, it’s really important to support them, and help them.  You try to make compromises.  If there’s something that I really feel doesn’t work, I will strive to correct it, but since singers have different needs, it’s important to try and accommodate them within the integrity of the score.  That’s the tricky balancing act.

BD:   Do you serve the composer, or do you serve the singers, or do you serve the public?

Fiore:   I try to go for the composer first.  Sometimes a singer will come with a special need, and sometimes the compromises you make are not exactly what you might want.  But there are so many variables, and you try to do the best you can.

BD:   Are there times when instead of coming with special needs, the singers will come with special brilliances?

Fiore:   Oh yes, and that’s a pleasure.  But even the needs can be wonderful sometimes.  It
s just that sometimes they might have a very different idea than you had, and that’s okay.  I’m very happy to discuss things, and I’m always happy to have other viewpoints of music.  I tend to go pretty much with what the score says, which is a good place to start, although there’s a broad range of what one can interpret there.

BD:   Yes... just how fast is allegro?

Fiore:   Yes, and are the metronome markings really right, or were they just for that time?  How accurate were they?  Even in the Verdi operas, if you look at them, some of the metronome markings are a little strange.

BD:   Are you looking forward to this new edition of the Verdi operas that’s coming out from Ricordi?

Fiore:   Oh yes.  That’s fascinating, and I got a lot from their Rigoletto when I did it.  There are a lot of fascinating things.  They have done some very good stuff, and I’m reading a book on it.  Their Nabucco is out already, which is exciting.

BD:   Do you avail yourself by chatting with Philip Gossett while you’re here, since he
s at the University of Chicago?

Fiore:   I haven’t seen him this time.  I originally met him the last time I was here, but this time the rehearsal period was so crazy.  We had a lot of work all at once, so I really didn’t get a chance to get out there.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You say you have to be flexible to the needs of the singers.  Do you come with any kind of set program and concept, and try to impose those, or do you wait until you get there to form all of your ideas?

Fiore:   I try to come with my ideas pretty well set, but I have to adjust sometimes around what their needs are.  The trick is to try and pace it all, and make it work in a way so it has a coherent feel.  That’s not always easy.

BD:   Do you look at the score as a long line, rather than a series of numbers?

Fiore:   Oh yes, and I tend to move pretty instinctively through things.  I trust my instincts.  James Conlon once called it
a higher form of knowledge.  That’s a very nice way of putting it.

BD:   Is it a higher form of knowledge, or a higher form of feeling?

Fiore:   [Thinks a moment]  They go together, but
‘feeling is right.  I definitely come from the emotional angle.  My response to opera has always been that way.  I was cellist for a while when I was a little kid, and when I saw Janós Starker play, I thought it was marvelous, and wanted to do that.  Then I saw L’Elisir d’Amore which didn’t make an impression on me when I was eight.  But later I saw Turandot, and that completely changed my life.  I was at the piano learning to play, and I was tearing all the opera scores off the shelf.  My father was a chorus master in Seattle, and was also a great coach and a pianist.  So, we had lots of music around the house, and I grabbed all the scores I could, and started learning.  I started with the Italian opera, and I found Wagner when I was ten.

BD:   Being involved in the music, was your father pleased or horrified that you were going into the same profession?

Fiore:   At first he tried to dissuade me a bit.  Being a pianist, he said, “If you’re going to do this, you should be doing scales and all these things properly!”  I said that’s great, but I wasn’t interested.  I didn’t actually study the piano until I went to college, but I played all the scores, and when I was fourteen I got a job as a coach in Seattle playing the Ring.

BD:   Is this really the way to come up to be an opera conductor
to start as an assistant?

Fiore:   I think so.  It’s wonderful, and I was especially lucky because I was able to work for all the major opera companies.  During the course of the year, when I was in my twenties, I worked here in Chicago in the fall, and then I’d go to the Met in the winter, and I’d work in San Francisco in the spring, and Santa Fe in the summer.  So, I got to do a lot of repertoire, and worked with a lot of people.  The best kind of learning you can do is through exchanges with the great musicians.  School is great and all that, but I really got the most from being assistants to people like Zubin Mehta, and Jimmy Levine.

BD:   Did you get enough time to study the scores on your own?

Fiore:   Yes, I did.  I was familiar with them in a lot of ways because I’d learned many of them when I was kid.  I used to sing them all.  There used to be very noisy evenings downstairs in the basement, and then my father changed the garage into a music room.  There were a lot of pianos around there, and I used to bang through Elektra, and Parsifal, and I would sit down and do a performance every night of an opera, where I would sing all the parts.  I still have a voice, [laughs] which I will not show you now, but I could actually sing all the parts in the right octaves.  It was fun.  I continued to use that voice as a coaching voice, because I can never stand singing things in the wrong octaves.  Some singers have heard me do this, and when I give an example of something, the sopranos get so mad that I can hit the high notes better than they can.  They got better very fast!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Did you ever think of being a falsetto and singing some of those parts?

Fiore:   No, because I only like to sing the romantic parts.  I don’t want to sing Handel.  I’d like to sing Octavian, or The Composer, and things like that, but I don’t think that I would look very good.

BD:   [Looking at the guest closely]  At least you’d have a real beard!

Fiore:   [Laughs]  Perhaps, but I don’t really sing that much anymore.

BD:   Was there ever a thought that you would go into singing?

Fiore:   Nope.  I always wanted to be a conductor.  When I first discovered music, I heard some recordings of Toscanini, and somehow he meant a lot to me, and was an icon for me.  I identified with him immediately, and felt that was what I needed to do.

BD:   He was trained in the opera house.  Is that why you went there, or is it just coincidental?

Fiore:   It was coincidental.  My father was in the opera house in Seattle as a coach at the time, and he told the music director, Henry Holt, “My son plays the Ring, and you should hear him some time.”  [Much laughter]  Henry said, “Okay,” and when he heard me he said, “It’s amazing he can play, because he has no technique really!”  It was a self-taught technique.  He said, “His fingers are like spaghetti, but he plays it.”  I also developed my own orchestral sense on the piano.  I had to do a lot of tricks.  I was trying to imitate the sounds of the orchestra, so I was playing in a very unconventional way.

BD:   How would you know what orchestral sounds there were if you were reading from a piano reduction?

Fiore:   Because I had the full score!  I didn’t play it from the full score at the time, but I was certainly aware of it.  I grew up on the Solti recordings, and had all that brilliant London Records sound coming through my ears.  I tried to emulate that, especially in the German romantic operas, because I really got very excited about those.  There’s a lot you can do with them on the piano.

BD:   Now that you’ve matured, and are doing your own interpretations, are you recreating things that you heard earlier, or are you digging out of the score what really should be there?

Fiore:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s a good question.  It’s a combination of both.  Every year that you conduct, you hopefully develop, and your work deepens and matures.  I probably study in a little different way than I used to.  I operate very much on instinct because I trust that, but I probably do more research than I used to.  I certainly enjoy the assistants that I have working with me because I always like to get advice from people.  But hopefully, as one develops, one gets closer to the truth.

BD:   Is there ever a time when you get it all just right?
Fiore:   There are performances where you sense that it all really worked, and then you come off feeling that you’ve made a tremendous accomplishment.  Of course, there’s the opposite as well.  [Much laughter]  However, I don’t know if there’s such a thing as perfection.

BD:   But you’re always striving for it?

Fiore:   Oh yes, sure.

BD:   Do you find when you come back to some of these operas, that your ideas have changed either minimally or even radically?

Fiore:   Yes.  Every time you come back to a piece, your insights change.  You look back and you think you’ll try that this way this time, or maybe you get a better sense of the structure, somehow.  Ideas also change when you listen to recordings of yourself doing something, or tapes of broadcasts.  I find those are very helpful, because as you get older, you detect tendencies and things that you do, and you find yourself correcting them over the years.  When I first conducted, it was very strange.  I got so excited.  I was around age six when I first heard Traviata, which I’ve now conducted ten thousand times!  You notice it when you get very excited.  You’re conducting away, and sometimes you’re actually conducting faster than you think.  That doesn’t happen so much now, but I found that my adrenaline was so high that actually I was driving things a little more than I would have meant.  Something I’ve learned over the years is that you have got to trust, and step out a little bit.  When you first conduct, you stand in front of an orchestra, and you’re so dazzled by everything coming at you that you really learn to hone your hearing over the years.  Then you learn to step aside a bit and really hear what’s actually happening instead of what you’re thinking, and what you want to hear.  I’m very passionate about music, and I can’t help getting carried away by it.  As Richard Strauss once said, [paraphrasing] “The conductor shouldn’t sweat.  Only the audience should get warm.”

BD:   I hope you never lose that enthusiasm as you become a more mature conductor.

Fiore:   I don’t think I could do it if I didn’t have that enthusiasm.  It’s my life.  It’s the most wonderful thing in the world for me.

BD:   You get offered the opportunity to conduct various operas.  How do you decide if you’ll say yes or no?

Fiore:   It depends on the cast a little bit.

BD:   Does it ever depend on what work it is?  You’ll do some works and not others?

Fiore:   It depends on if it’s a work I’ve done a lot, or if it’s a work I want to do at all.  I haven’t been asked to do a lot of contemporary works, and that’s okay because I really love this standard repertoire.  I’m very happy to do that.  I’ve also had the opportunity to do a few unusual things, like the Rusalka premiere at the Met last year, which was fantastic.  I got to know the soprano Gabriela Beňačková.  She’s a wonderful singer, and she asked me to do it.  That was a fantastic opportunity to work with somebody who knows the score like she does.

BD:   You really learned it from her?

Fiore:   I learned it, and then took her knowledge as well because she’s sung the part so many times.  She practically owns the role, and has grown up in Czechoslovakia, and worked with great people like Vaclav Neumann and the other conductors who have done those pieces in the National Theater.  She certainly has a lot of experience.  I definitely picked up things from her because she’s a great lady.  Dolora Zajick was the Witch, which was great fun.  It was the first time she and I had actually worked together where I was the conductor.

BD:   Did 
Beňačková learn anything from you?

Fiore :    I don
t know.  Youd have to ask her!  [Both laugh]  Shes a wonderful singer.  We did La Bohème together once.  Actually, I knew her years ago because I played the piano in the San Francisco production of Jenůfa that they did.  I was a coach back then.  Then I saw her at Carnegie Hall when they did that fantastic performance led by Eve Queler.  I’d seen her again intermittently her over the years, but then she came to the Met to do the Bohème I was conducting, and that’s when we built up this latest relationship.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you made some recordings?

Fiore:   I made my first record with Chris Merritt last year, a disc of unusual Rossini and Donizetti pieces.  It’s out in Europe, and it should be out here soon, if it’s not already.
BD:   Are there others coming along?

Fiore:   I don’t know yet.  I’m not in any big hurry to do all that.  I’m really happy to get my experience, and do a lot of repertoire.  Eventually I want to be a Music Director, but I’m very happy with the way I’m able to live right now.  I’m able to move around to a lot of different theaters, and have a lot of different experiences, and have a little time to have a non-musical life, too.

BD:   I was just going to ask if you made sure to have enough time for yourself, and for family and friends.

Fiore:   I’m trying to keep that because it’s very important. It’s funny... in my childhood I didn’t really develop personally that much because I was constantly in the opera house.  So, in a way I missed my childhood.  I certainly didn’t have a normal childhood.  Kids don’t run around playing Die Walküre.  When I was eleven I discovered the recording, and was playing it, and learning it, and singing it.  In the opera house, I was working on the Ring with all these people.  George London was the director of the first Seattle Ring.  So I wasn’t doing the things that most kids were doing, and I didn’t have a lot of friends my age.  I did have one or two who were musically inclined, and who were sons and daughters of performers.  That was great, and we danced Elektra together in the basement!  [Both laugh]  A lot of personal involvements started happening when I got to be an adult, and it’s still an ongoing process.

BD:   You also travel all over the world.  Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

Fiore:   I do, except for when I actually have to leave home.  I hate leaving because I love home.

BD:   Where’s home?

Fiore:   San Francisco.  I certainly enjoy going back to houses that I am familiar with.  I have a relationship with the Met now that I really enjoy a lot, and with some houses in Germany.  I really enjoy working with singers that I see often, and the ones I can establish a relationship with over the years.  If you have already built something, you can always move to the next level.

BD:   What advice do you have for singers who are coming along these days?

Fiore:   Be very careful!  Get a good sense of where you’re going, and trust your instincts.  There’s a lot of advice out there, and it’s important that you get a sense of what you’re sounding like.  Maybe hear yourself on tape once in a while, and see if you like what you’re hearing.  If you do have a big voice, don’t be afraid to let it open up.  There’s sometimes a fear of big voices, and people tell them, “Be careful, or you’re going to blow it, and you’re going to lose your voice if you use it.”  Then, unfortunately some of them don’t develop.  I’m concerned about that.  It’s very difficult to teach the voice, and there aren’t an awful lot of great voice teachers out there.  It’s important that one sets about really making it is as natural as possible, because really the best singing is the kind that comes out naturally.  It’s when you’re manipulating and fooling around with it so much that it can get difficult, and things can get tightened up.  Then there can be problems.

BD:   So, to sing right is to sing right for you?

Fiore:   Yes, sing right for your voice.  At best it’s a natural outpouring of the soul by the vocal cords.  It’s a difficult thing to teach, and to actually know you’re trusting somebody to assume from what they’re hearing what’s actually happening inside your throat.  It’s very tricky.  I’m not trying to demean voice teachers, but you have to find the right person for you, and the right combination of things that will help you achieve your potential.  Also, listen to great singers on recordings, old recordings especially, when things were a little freer.  Listen to great stylists, and get with some coaches who really can help you, and work in detail with you on your languages.  Languages are important because if you don’t have the languages right, the style won’t sound right, especially in Italian operas.  If the Italian’s not good, it really quite funny.  When you go to Europe, when they sing in each other’s language, it is often terrible.  Americans are very lucky in a way, because they have such a diverse background that they are able to pick up languages very, very well, and emulate them better than people who live in Europe.

BD:   What advice do you have for audiences that come each night and buy their tickets?

Fiore:   Oooo...  It’s such a magnificent artform to be involved in, and the more you know about it the better.  Coming with some background is a good thing, and the supertitles have really helped tremendously, as that makes it much more immediate.  I don’t think you can expect people to memorize the libretto when they come.  Besides, in an ideal world you would almost want to come to a performance and not know what the story is, so you’re surprised as it went along.  Think if you would go to a film knowing what was going to happen, some of the shock value is gone.  But it’s not always possible to understand all the text, especially with the orchestra playing.  You have to sometimes let some diction things go in order to achieve certain vocal effects.  So, supertitles have certainly made opera a lot more accessible, and that’s wonderful because opera audiences are growing more and more now.  It’s a fantastic combination of so many elements together.  It’s theater with fabulous music.

BD:   Is the use of supertitles going to mean the death of opera-in-English?

Fiore:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s hard to say.  I don’t like translations anyway.  I never liked them.

BD:   You’ve participated in the Ring in Seattle, where one cycle was in the original German, and the other cycle was in Andrew Porter
s English translation.

Fiore:   Yes, and some of it was very funny, I have to say.  There were a lot of British singers that came to sing the roles, and their diction was so impeccable that it really worked in a lot of places.  But I really think the color of a language and the color of a country’s music go together.  For instance, I hate doing Janáček operas in translations.  I’ve done Kát
a Kabanová in German, and it just doesn’t sound right.  I’m so thrilled that the Met is doing things in Czech now.  It’s a fantastic language, and it goes so beautifully with the color of the music, and it’s right.  If you have the titles, which the Met will have eventually [both laugh], it should work well.  It’s the ideal world, because you’re hearing the right sounds, and you’re hearing what the composer imagined when he was working with the librettist.  It’s almost like changing the orchestration when you change the sounds that are coming with the vocal sounds.  So yes, supertitles are ideal because you can’t expect to understand everything anyway, especially in American houses which are so big, compared to European houses which are about half the size.  It’s perfectly valid, and actually a brilliant solution to the problem, and it really involves the audience so much more.  My little sister couldn’t stand opera before, and it’s opened up the whole world to her.  She loves it now.  I took her to Lulu here in Chicago a few years ago, and I wondered if she really wanted to go and see this.  Its not the easiest piece, but now she tells everybody, “Oh, Lulu is the greatest opera!”  I just love that.  It was immediate to her because the drama is so strong, and she understood it.  The music makes sense, and that’s something else which is very important.  When you actually understand a moment of text that’s happening in a particular place, like in Lulu or the Ring, and you hear the actual motifs coming up in the orchestra, and the support thats coming from below, it makes so much more sense.  Instead of knowing vaguely the scene where this happens, you know exactly where it happens, and I think it’s brilliant.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   For you, as the conductor, where’s the balance between the music and the drama?

Fiore:   The drama really comes out of the music.  It’s already there.  Are you talking about working with stage directors?
BD:   That can be part of it.

Fiore:   I hope it’s pretty obvious that the drama is composed in there, and grows organically out of what’s happening.  Also, it has to do with the combination of the personalities involved.  Every soup has defined ingredients.

BD:   Without mentioning any specific names, tell me about working with various stage directors.  How closely do you get involved with each one?

Fiore:   At this point in my career, I haven’t done a lot of new productions because I’m still very young.  I tend to do revivals, which is fine.  I’m thrilled to do that.  The last new production I did was Rusalka with Otto Schenk at the Met, which was a big one.  It was a Met premiere.  His production came from Vienna, and there was one problem with it that I really wanted to do something about.  There are two human characters who come into the opera.  They’re basically peasant folk who comment on the proceedings, and he had sliced them out.

BD:   [Genuinely shocked]  He made cuts in the score???

Fiore:   Oh yes.  There were some cuts anyway from Václav Neumann, who was the great Czech conductor.  But the two scenes that involved these human characters had been cut.  Briefly, there’s the fairy-tale with Rusalka, the Prince, the Witch, and Water Goblin, and there’s this little commentary on the side from the human world.  Cutting the two scenes was something they thought would make the evening shorter and better for an opera that’s not so well known, but I disagreed.  I’m a purist about scores in that way.  I will not insist on doing an opera with cuts for that reason.  When you’re cutting out characters, and whole scenes, there’s a real problem, and I was uncomfortable about this.  I know the Met had brought the Vienna production, and they were going to do that production, except I really felt strongly about this.  So, I decided to go after Mr. Schenk and ask him if he would consider doing those scenes.  I knew he was dead against them because he didn’t like those scenes.  So, I asked Jimmy Levine, who said to talk to Schenk and see what can be done.  I got 
Beňačková in on it, too, and the scenes were back!

BD:   You argued them back into the score?

Fiore:   I argued them back into the score.  I really worked hard at it, and said that I
d make little adjustments in them so they would work really well.  I got all excited, and made tapes of the parts with cassette versions for the singers to learn.  It was basically the complete Rusalka with a few little cuts here and there in the score.  It’s not a very long opera, but the structure was intact.  This is a very important thing in this opera because it contrasts the two worlds.  The commentary is very charming, and some of its a very comic, a kind of comic relief.

BD:   Did you convince Schenk enough that the next time he does the production he’ll put them back in?

Fiore:   I don’t know if he’d ever put them back in for Vienna.  Of course, in revivals in theaters like that, you don’t get to rehearse much, so I can’t imagine they would do those scenes.  However, the Met is reviving it soon, and the scenes will be there.  It was nice that The New York Times recognized it.  They said the Met was right to put those scenes back in, and I felt very vindicated for that.  Besides, people might have studied the video which had come out recently from English National Opera.

BD:   Does opera work on the small screen?

Fiore:   There are certain limitations, like movies which come out on the small screen.  The theater is the ultimate.  Video can certainly be a tool for spreading it around, and giving people experiences that they wouldn’t necessarily have.  Like the broadcasts they’ve done for years from the Met, there’s another element and another aspect to it.

BD:   Have some of your performances been televised?

Fiore:   No, not yet.  I’ve had radio broadcasts, though.

BD:   Do you change anything at all if the microphones or the television cameras are there in the theater?

Fiore:   No.   Hopefully the energy levels are a little different.  Sometimes you get very excited when the tape’s rolling, but no, I don’t change anything.  I just try to do the best job I can at every performance.  It’s very important for me that each one stays up.  Every performance is a new performance, and a new attempt into realizing the composer’s intentions.

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BD:   Is there one composer that you’ve conducted more than others, or are you getting quite a number of composers spread evenly in your career?

Fiore:   I tend to do more of the Italian pieces, even though my musical upbringing in the theater was very much in the Wagner and Strauss arena, because I was playing those pieces so much.  I am thinking of ten of the Strauss operas I’ve prepared, which is unusual, because Santa Fe often does unusual ones.  But I am getting to conduct some German things.  I did unusual things like Rusalka, and I did The Trojans this summer in Sydney.  What a fantastic piece that is.  I just love it, but mostly for the moment it’s still the Verdi and Puccini works, which is fine.  I love those works!

BD:   Do you find that audiences are different from country to country, and even city to city?

Fiore:   In certain places there’s a very deep musical tradition in the fabric of the society.  In Germany, a lot of the public will be much more familiar with the music of the German composers than they would be here in the U.S.  But there’s a kind of youthful enthusiasm, and a verve here that’s great.  We feel very excited by going to the opera.  It’s not just, “This is the opera we go to because this is part of our day,” which it is in some places in Europe.  It’s fresh and it’s exciting here.  It’s building, and the quality of the companies in America is going up so much.  This company, Lyric Opera of Chicago, is fabulous.  There’s such a high standard of the things they do here.
BD:   You seem to be conducting mostly in major companies.  Have you also conducted in small regional companies?

Fiore:   Sure, but not so much in America, although I did La Wally in Sarasota, Florida, a few years ago, which was very nice.

BD:   Helen Jepson was there for a while.

Fiore:   Yes, but mostly I work in pretty good-sized houses, which is nice.

BD:   Have you done some new operas?

Fiore:   If you mean contemporary pieces, no I haven’t done any.

BD:   [A bit disappointedly]  I was going to ask if you had any advice for people writing operas today, but is that a fair question?

Fiore:   I don’t know.  It’s not really my arena.  I’m so old-fashioned based.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  For you, opera goes to about 1949 and then dies?

Fiore:   Oh, no!  It’s wonderful that there seems to be more interest in doing new pieces here than there was before, and the more that’s written, the more chance there is of getting something wonderful.  My hat is off to people like John Crosby in Santa Fe who always puts on a new piece every year, or mostly every year.  I am also happy the Met is commissioning new pieces.  Chicago is doing John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles next season.

BD:   When you are working at an opera house, and a new work was being done, do you make a point of going to those performances, or at least one of those performances?

Fiore:   Oh yes, sure.  I’ve got nothing against conducting some of these pieces.  I would certainly consider doing a new work.  This just hasn’t happened to me yet.  Usually the Music Director might want to do that himself, or there are certain conductors who specialize in that kind of thing.  I tend to really like my standard pieces, and I’m happy to do them, but I’m certainly not adverse to branching out and doing a new piece, or being involved in the birth of a new work.  That would be very exciting, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen for a while.  To find a fabulous text and then watch an opera take shape would be very exciting.  My advice would be to make the vocal writing really expressive and fulfilling to sing.  It’s a very important thing that a composer can think about.  The art of singing is not always taken into consideration so much in some of the new works.

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BD:   You assisted in preparing the Ring.  Have you conducted those operas at all?

Fiore:   No, I haven’t conducted the Ring yet.

BD:   Are you looking forward to doing it someday?

Fiore:   Oh yes.  I assisted it so many times, and played it so much.  I
ve had it rolling around my head for ever, and I certainly would be prepared to do it when I do it.

BD:   When you’re asked to do it, will you keep in mind all that you’ve learned, or will you scrap everything and relearn it from the score?

Fiore:   I’ve had too much experience not to keep a lot of that with me.  Much of it becomes instinctual knowledge that’s built up through experience.  You take everything with you that you’ve learned over your life, and you put it through new lenses as you get older.  Your perspective changes, so I would restudy it and see if that’s what’s really in the score, and if that really is the intention of Wagner.  I definitely intend to do the Ring someday, and that will be really thrilling when it actually happens.  I’ve only conducted The Flying Dutchman in the Wagner cannon so far.  I’ve done it a few times, but often these pieces are the domain of the Music Director.  When the time comes and I decide I want to take a house that wants me to be Music Director, I’ll hopefully work out a Ring.  I’ve avoided being a Music Director up to now because I really do like the experience of moving around.  I want to go to a good place where I feel like I can really do something, and where I like the orchestra, and have a relationship with them.  It’s really important that something is established before one gets married to a house.  If anything, it’s a big step.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

Fiore:   I am, actually.  I’m ambitious but I’m also interested in developing as a person and a human being.  I’ve been very cautious about what I’ve done, and even when the Met first asked me to conduct, I turned them down a few times.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  That takes guts!

Fiore:   [Laughs]  I
ll tell you why.  I worked there as an assistant, and Jimmy [Levine] had always been very supportive and wonderful.  I didn’t want to go to the Met and do the ends of runs, and become somebody who just conducts the last performances.  The Met is a dream pinnacle of mine, and I wanted to conduct for real, with real rehearsals, and a real opening night, and do a piece that I was very comfortable with.  So I waited, and I think they respected that.  Eventually they asked about La Traviata, and I had conducted it in all the houses that I worked in.  I’d conducted it in San Francisco, and Santa Fe, and here [in Chicago].  Actually, it’s an opera I’ve conducted more than any other.  I’ve just done my fortieth performance of it last month, which is not bad for being just thirty-four.  [Both laugh]  I tend to do opera cautiously like that.  I don’t want to fill my calendar with so much stuff that I have no time to think, or no time to read, or no time to have relationships, or grow in personal ways.  You can burn out easily, and I always want to maintain my enthusiasm.  I can’t imagine I’d ever get tired of music, but it’s important that there be other aspects in my life that are also running.  I want to be a better musician and to be a more complete person.  That makes me a better conductor, hopefully.  Being a secure person helps one to be a secure conductor.  You can’t always be at your best psychologically.  There are times when you are affected by certain ways things are put together, and certain outside considerations, or inside considerations in the houses.  You have to make adjustments, and you’re not always at your happiest, but that’s life.  You learn from every experience, and hopefully grow and you get better.

BD:   Are you coming back next season, or the season after that?

Fiore:   I don’t know.  We haven’t talked about it yet.  Usually, I’m booked up quite a few years ahead, but it’s been very nice here this time.

BD:   Do you like knowing that on a certain Thursday three years from now you will be doing a certain opera in a certain place?

Fiore:   Yes.  I like looking forward to certain things.  I get very excited about certain repertoire, and things I’m doing, and I get very excited about increasing my repertoire.  For instance, I
m doing my first La Fanciulla del West, and I’m very excited about it.  I love Puccini.  Ive done quite a number of his works, but I’ve never done that one.  It’s coming into its own now.  People are doing a lot more productions of it than they used to.

BD:   Is that because they’ve heard La Bohème so many times?

Fiore:   Yes, but it’s a great opera.  Bruno Bartoletti is wonderful in all those things.  He’s a very warm and caring musician.  I always enjoyed playing for him when I was an assistant here.

BD:   Thank you for returning, and for taking the time to speak with me today.

Fiore:   Thank you.


Notice that Fiores father George is the Chorus Master!
See my interviews with John Conklin, Dale Duesing, Vinson Cole, and Archie Drake

© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 15, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two weeks later.  This transcription was made in 2022, 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.