Conductor  Paolo  Olmi

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Paolo Olmi studied under Massimo Pradella and Franco Ferrara in Rome and began his conducting career in 1979 having studied the piano from an early age. Since making his operatic debut in 1986 at the Teatro Comunale Bologna he has conducted in many of the major concert halls and opera throughout the world including Europe, North and South America, Australia and Asia.

Successful productions have included Moses in Egypt at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, after which he was subsequently invited by Wolfgang Sawallisch to conduct this opera at the Bayerischer Staatsoper in Munich. He was later awarded, with stage director Pier Luigi Pizzi, the French music critics’ prize for the “Best Opera of the Year” for the outstanding production of William Tell at the Thèâtre des Champs Élysées, Paris. Other operatic highlights have included The Barber of Seville, The Thieving Magpie, Nabucco and Turandot at Barcelona Opera, a concert performance of Nabucco at the Royal Festival Hall, London, and Manon Lescaut at Teatro Colón di Buenos Aires.

In Italy, Olmi has also conducted a highly successful production of Rossini’s Le Siège de Corinthe at the Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova, and he also conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus in a performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Arena di Verona. In London, he has appeared at the Royal Festival Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducting Verdi’s Requiem, and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he made his debut conducting Rossini’s Moses in Egypt. At L’Opera di Lyon he made his debut with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and at the Strasbourg Opera he has appeared on numerous occasions conducting Tosca, Don Carlos, and Ernani, and a special performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater to celebrate the Italian presidency of the European Union. At the Royal Danish Opera Olmi has conducted Madame Butterfly, and he made his US debut at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1995 conducting Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. [The interview below was recorded during that visit.]

Since making his debut at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1992, Olmi has returned on a number of occasions for productions of La Fanciulla del West, Aïda, La Forza del Destino, and Il Trovatore.

Olmi is also very active on the concert platform, and has conducted such orchestras as Tokyo Philharmonic, Santa Cecilia Rome, Orchestre National de France, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra in London, and the Orchestra of RAI Rome where he led the complete symphonies of Mendelssohn, which were televised by National Television. Following highly successful concerts in Spain with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra in 1996, he appeared with the Orchestra in September 1997 at the Athens Festival, and has toured the orchestra again in Italy and Germany in 2000.

Following a highly successful debut at the Hamburg State Opera with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Olmi was immediately reinvited for a new production of La Forza del Destino at the beginning of the 98/99 season. Engagements during the last few seasons have included his debut in Athens with La Bohème, at Stuttgart Opera conducting The Barber of Seville and Un ballo un Maschera with the New National Theatre, Tokyo where he returned to conduct a new production of Nabucco in 2001, and Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’amore in 2002 with a very successful DVD. In January 2000 he conducted a very successful performance of Verdi’s Aïda in concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorus which was subsequently taken on tour in Italy, and in December 2000 he conducted the LPO on tour in Korea.

In 1988 Olmi was the first Italian conductor in China (Shanghai and Beijing) where he came back in 1998 for the opening of Shanghai Grand Theater in collaboration with Teatro Comunale di Firenze. He was invited to conduct a special Traviata in Shanghai to celebrate de 50th Anniversary of Chinese Revolution in 2009. He conducted also Traviata in Macau, Otello in Beijing, and the first tour in China of Teatro La Fenice di Venezia in 2003. He came back to China in 2005 for Shanghai Festival (Rossini’s Barber of Seville), 2006 for a Tour with Shanghai Conservatory of Music, 2007 for Hong Kong “French May Festival” (with Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet).

After very successful productions of La Gioconda at Deutsche Oper Berlin,Verdi’s Jerusalem and Falstaff , Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam , the concert offered from Dutch Television to the Queen of Holland, recorded by EMI Classic, Rossini’s Stabat Mater with London Philharmonic Orchestra and touring in Italy, Elisir d’Amore, Ballo In Maschera, Italiana in Algeri and Barbiere di Siviglia at Bordeaux Opera, Rossini’s Stabat Mater with London Philharmonic Orchestra, Aïda and Lucia di Lammermoor at Savonlinna Opera Festival. During 2012, he has recorded l’Italiana in Algeri for French Television (recorded from Nancy) and for Italian Television (recorded from Teatro Comunale di Bologna) and Barbiere di Siviglia recorded last October in Bordeaux.

Later engagements include the Easter Concert from Jerusalem, televised and broadcast in many countries, and a very successful Don Pasquale al Toulouse Opera.

After Traviata at Savonlinna Festival, he conducted Fledermaus in Shanghai, and many concerts in Italy, China, Israel, and France.

Paolo Olmi has great experience in making orchestral and opera seasons, being appointed Music Director of Roma Radio Orchestra in 1991, Opera Theater in Ravenna and Opera National de Nancy et de Lorraine in 2006 ,where he stayed for 5 years. For 10 years he was also visiting Professor at Guildhall School for Music and Drama of London, teaching symphonic and operatic repertoire.

--  Biography mostly from Proscenium Artist’s Management website.  
--  In this box and below, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


As noted in the biography above, Paolo Olmi made his debut in the U.S. in the fall of 1995 conducting Don Pasquale by Donizetti.  Paul Plishka sang the title role, Ruth Ann Swensen was Adina, Timothy Nolen and later Victor Benedetti appeared as Dr. Malatesta, and Bruce Ford was Ernesto.  Paolo Montarsolo, himself a fine Pasquale earlier in his career was the director, with designs by John Conklin and lighting by Duane Schuler.  The Chorus Master was Donald Palumbo.  

The conductor agreed to meet with me after the opera was running, so we got together between 1st and 2nd performances for an interview.  His manner was gregarious, and what follows can only allude to the spark and zeal he showed when responding to my questions.

Bruce Duffie:   Being a conductor, how do you divide your career between concerts and opera?

Paolo Olmi:   Yes, it’s just fifty per cent.  It’s not only my choice, because for a conductor it is really necessary to do both.  For example, the concert activity helps me during the opera because we are pushed to find they symphonic dimension, even when there is none, or there’s very little, like in the operas Don Pasquale, or Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  On the other hand, the operatic repertoire helps you in many pieces of music because it shows you the theatrical dimension, for example in the piano and violin concertos and symphonies of Mozart.  It’s there many times.  In a music world that is, for many reasons, much more difficult now than fifty years ago, it is one of the few things that is better now.  If you consider such important conductors, especially Italian conductors, like Antonino Votto, or Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, or Gino Marinuzzi who was a wonderful conductor, they didn’t conduct symphonic music.  Poor Giuseppe Patanè, who was a very good friend of mine when I was a boy, told me that he’d like very much to conduct concerts much more, but especially for an Italian conductor, the times were much more difficult.

olmi BD:   He wasn’t asked to do symphony concerts?

PO:   They didn’t ask him.  If you don’t ask early, you can’t start at forty-five or fifty years old because it’s difficult.  For example, Patanè was conducting opera for many years in the theater.  At fifty years old, he couldn’t start back at the first steps in the symphonic realm.

BD:   So you’ve made sure at the beginning of your career that you conduct symphonies as well as opera?

PO:   Yes, yes.  My career was a little bit unusual because I was studying medicine at university.  I just studied music because I liked it, but I didn’t believe I would become a professional musician.  At nineteen or twenty I decided to change.

BD:   Do you ever regret abandoning the medical profession?

PO:   No, no, no, I don’t.  But, of course, my way was a little bit different because when you are twenty it’s not like you are fifteen.  On the other hand, you have to work, you have to do your career as soon as possible, otherwise you are fired!  It’s going from start to finish.

BD:   Because you have a background in medicine, are you more sympathetic to the vocal problems that each singer has up there on the stage?

PO:   Ah, no.  I would like to have it that way, but I come from a typical Italian old-fashioned family in which everybody was very fond of opera.  When I was two or three years old, I remember being at the seaside, and my grandmother was singing Vissi d’Arte.  I remember that, and so my attitude is to understand these problems as much as I can, because opera is, first of all, music.  You cannot do music without singers, and you have to respect them.  You also have to know as much as you can about their job, so that you can advise them.  But simply telling them something is too fast or too slow is nothing, because they have a lot of problems.  I always say to them that they sing in front of the audience, and I conduct with my back to the audience.  I understand them very well.

BD:   But maybe in a performance you might hear something in the throat before the singer realizes they’re coming down with a cold.

PO:   Oh, yes, maybe.  One of the secrets is to always watch the singer so that you are sure and they’re sure, and to ask the stage director that they always have to be at some place on the stage to be in touch with you, because you are watching the way in which they’re breathing.  This is the first thing.  You can understand, for example, if they’re going to be late or anticipating because of their breathing.  Also, the expression, the position of the mouth can show you if in this moment it’s harder for them than during the rehearsal, or because maybe something happened, and so you can anticipate before the thing is going to happen.  This is important.

BD:   When you’re in the heat of the performance, how much can you lead and how much must you follow?

PO:   This is the point of the rehearsal, how the rehearsal went for an opera conductor, also for a symphonic conductor that has to work with a soloist.  Maybe it’s not too difficult to follow it a bit more if you see that something is up, or simply that this speed is much different than the usual one.  Sometimes it can happen that you don’t want to change because you like it this different way.  It’s lacking in the spirit that you decided together, and you don’t like it.  If the rehearsal was good enough, you can also anticipate that because you can know the singer prefers this speed.  I try to convince him to change, but maybe on the stage he forgets, or he’s not able to, or something happened.  So you have to be ready.  If he’s always watching you, and you are watching him, you can also help him in this way.  Sometimes it’s unusual that the conductor is not in front of everybody, but an arm or a hand signal to the singer shows that he is flat or sharp.  It’s not good, really, in front of everybody to work this way, but you can help a lot.  But, of course, if you realize that something is happening at the performance, you have to follow.  At the rehearsal you can stop, but at the performance you have to follow.  Otherwise it’s not good.  I always tell the singers that everybody is here not to find the right way in the opera to show how good it is, but we’re all here to serve the opera and the composer.  It is my responsibility first, but also the singers.  In the old times, it’s seemed to the singers that the opera was just an occasion for them to show how good they were, and for the audience to listen to just the high notes, and to enjoy that was all that was important.  But now that idea is through completely.

BD:   Perhaps this is a dangerous question to ask an opera conductor, but in opera, how much is music and how much is drama?

PO:   Usually I have very good stage directors, and sometimes it happens that the singer or the chorus won’t want to have a movement that they feel is impossible to do.  But I tell them that this is an opera, not a concert, and sometimes they have to try.  Consider how an opera like Bohème or Rigoletto can be musically very good.  The quality of the music is not like bel canto, but they cannot survive in concert.  You lose a lot of things, because in Verdi and Puccini the music is strictly related to the movement, to the acting, to the lights, to the dramatic situation.  You lose a lot of this if nobody does anything.  I don’t like it at all when the singer is forced to sing while looking in another direction.  I understand that it is dramatically true, but the voice cannot arrive to the audience, or even to me!  [Laughs]  Sometimes, with the chorus there is the same problem.  In opera there are just a few basic things.  One is that everybody in the audience can listen, and this happens only if the singers sing in the direction of the audience.  This is not in the recitativo secco in Figaro of course, but during the normal music.  The next basic thing is that everybody can watch.  Maybe some people consider it to be a strange thing, but I remember a Fanciulla del West in which in the last scene, Minnie comes in with the guns just in a corner of the set.  Thirty per cent of the theater could watch, and the rest simply realized that Minnie had arrived.  They could hear her, but they didn’t see her.  This was at La Scala.

BD:   That’s a mistake?

PO:   Yes, it was really a mistake, because this is the coup de théâtre at this point.  These are the two basic things that are necessary, but there are many other things.

olmi BD:   Can you work with the stage director to prevent these kinds of problems?  For instance, if the he wants to have a character to face upstage, could the character do it when he’s not singing?

PO:   Yes, why not.  Sometimes there are special points.  For example, when Violetta sings Amami Alfredo, or in the second act of Andrea Chénier, when Gérard sings during the procession, it is necessary that the singer is downstage where the prompter is, because the orchestra is very heavy.  You cannot ask the orchestra to play piano at this point because it is written forte, and the singer has to be heard.  He must be right on the prompter
s box to sing towards the audience just for a few seconds.  Then he can move, of course.  But if I know that with this stage directors it’s impossible to work in this way, I don’t accept the job.  I was only a couple of times involved with that kind of stage director, because I prefer to communicate and collaborate in a good way.

BD:   So, you’ve got to have a rapport with the stage director?

PO:   Oh, yes, of course.  This has to happen with all the people involved in the opera, including the musicians of the orchestra.  There are different ways to have a rehearsal with an opera like Don Pasquale and an opera like Andrea Chénier.  In Don Pasquale, if the singer is not there, the orchestra cannot appreciate it, cannot enjoy it, so I try to work as fast as I can during the first reading, and only stop many times when the singers are there.  In Europe, where we have a lot of a rehearsals, many more than here in America, I simply ask the singers if they can come also for the first reading, just to listen to the orchestra, and for the orchestra to hear them sing.  In Andrea Chénier, it’s not necessary because the instrumentalists are always playing beautiful music.  But I don’t think that our work is like the military, in which someone is there to order, and someone else is to simply obey.  You have to convince the people, and in the end it should be the result of your schedule, because the conductor has the responsibility for the way the opera goes.  It’s like a teacher with a son.  You cannot simply oblige him because it’s difficult to get results.  For me it’s important to get results.

BD:   You’re teaching the performers how to perform these roles.  With your selection of repertoire, are you also teaching the audience about the traditions of Italian opera?

PO:   Yes, partly.  For example, ninety per cent of the time the arias are written in a way that the audience can applaud, and I think it’s not wrong to do so.  It’s good for the audience, because if they like it very much, they need to do something, and clapping is a way for the audience to be one part of the opera, to have one sound from them.  Also, for the singers it’s very important.  For example, in Tosca you cannot do that, or at least I don’t do that, because after Recondita Armonia, the music can follow, and I don’t like to stop.  If there is a little clapping, then they stop because they hear that the music is still going, and for the tenor it’s important.  When this clapping doesn’t happen, the tenor is unhappy all through the rest of the opera.  Maybe he sings much worse because he’s afraid that they didn’t like him.

BD:   I would think that you would put in a little concert-ending, and then pick up the music after the applause has finished.

PO:   Sometimes we do that, but when the music goes on, I don’t want to change what the composer has in the score.  Puccini, of course, knew about this, and if he decided to go on, there is a reason.

BD:   In the rehearsal, then, can you tell the tenor there will not be a pause, so there will not be applause there?

PO:   Oh, yes, this happens.  It also depends on the audience that you have that night.  In Italy, where they usually know the opera very well, they know also all these things.  So the applause comes soon, but sometimes the applause comes a little bit later, and if you stop at this point, it just to show you were waiting for the applause.  [Both laugh]  This is not elegant for the way in which the opera has to develop.  If you stop many times, maybe it’s not so good.

BD:   You’re always concerned with the flow of the opera?

PO:   Yes, yes, this is very important.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask another balance question.  Maybe it changes from period to period, but in opera, how much is art and how much is entertainment?

PO:   This an important question, and we have to be honest.  Basically, in all the music of the Eighteenth Century, there was much more entertainment than art, with some exceptions such as Mozart, of course.  Mozart didn’t write anything different from the other composers.  The only thing is the quality is always so high, so astonishing that, for Paisiello or Salieri, people went to the theater with another attitude.  They went to the theater just to spend time.  The theater was a hot place to go.  There was the light, food, games, ladies...

BD:   Diversion?

PO:   Yes, and sometimes they paid attention to the opera.  I will have a little meeting with the audience in Chicago in the Italian Institute of Culture, and I advise them we have a title for this phenomenon within Italian opera in the Eighteenth Century, and it is the ‘aria di sorbetto’, ‘the ice-cream aria’.  The best-known example of the ice-cream aria is the aria of Berta, Il vecchiotto cerca moglie in the Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  It’s an aria of a small role just before the end of the opera, in which people were not so interested.  So they could have their last ice-cream before the end of the opera.  [Both laugh]  It’s a real thing!

BD:   You should have vendors coming down the aisles with food and beverages, like at a baseball game!

PO:   Yes, yes, yes, yes, it is just that!

BD:   Is it, then, the particular genius of a stage director to make that aria interesting enough so that the audience doesn’t want to go out for the ice-cream?

PO:   Yes, it is possible...  There are also some practical reasons.  I remember once I had two casts in Florence, and in the second cast, Berta was really bad.  So, I tried to have first Berta also for the performances of the second cast.  It was possible for some of the performances, but one time it wasn’t.  So I advised that when we used the second Berta we cut the aria, but it was impossible because then the Count didn’t have time to change his costume.  So, sometimes there is some reason to do something else.  I remember that the staging was very interesting at this point, because they showed that Berta was not so old.  She was still a woman, and she was very angry with Rosina because everybody was liking her.

BD:   She was jealous?

PO:   Yes, she was jealous, and that was interesting.  The thing that you asked about being entertainment, with the middle period Verdi it doesn’t exist anymore, but with the early period, yes, of course.  Consider Aroldo, La Battaglia di Legnano, I Lombardi, and Alzira.  These are operas that nowadays are a little bit difficult to perform in a normal season.  Also back then, Donizetti wrote seventy-six operas, and I don’t believe that he could conceive that after 150 years we could know everything of these operas.

BD:   Should we revive these operas occasionally, or should they be consigned to the trash heap?

siege of corinthe PO:   Some of these operas could be revived, but we have recordings now if you want to listen to rarities.  For example, there is La Romanziera e l
uomo nero of Donizetti, which is a very strange opera.  For this, you simply can have the record.  [Interestingly, five years after this interview, in 2000, this work was recorded by Opera Rara, with Bruce Ford among the cast.]  I don’t think it’s necessary that the theaters spend a lot of money to stage it.  But some rare operas that can be staged.  For example, Verdi’s Aroldo could be done as part of a special festival.  But nowadays, many theaters have nine or ten new production titles a year, and it would be a shame to have that as one of them.

BD:   It’s a waste of time?

PO:   Yes, I think so.  There are some operas that can be done.  For example, I conducted The Siege of Corinth of Rossini in the original French version that had not been done in the last 150 years [recording shown at right].  It’s very different from the Italian version which we have on a very beautiful record with Thomas Schippers conducting at La Scala, with Beverly Sills and Marilyn Horne.  [He is referring to a pirate recording of a live performance, which is different from the commercial recording on EMI/Angel with Sills and Shirley Verrett, also conducted by Schippers.]  But this opera is very much different, and I was very glad when I was asked to do it in 1992 for the anniversary of Rossini, because it’s really very important music.  Other operas, like Ermione or Bianca e Falliero really belong at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, yes.  It’s very good to do them there, but in a normal theatre it’s not so good.

BD:   Is this how you decide which works you’re going to keep in your own repertoire?

PO:   Yes.  Some things are difficult to decide because you have to agree to them with the theater, especially when you are still young.  I prefer to conduct a little less, but with a theater I trust.  Maybe it’s possible to sing some role that you don’t like very, very much, but to conduct well you have to convince the other people to bring it the way you want, and you really have to believe in it to that.

BD:   In the course of your year, or your season, do you make sure that you have enough time off to learn new repertoire, or do you just keep working, working, working?

PO:   No, no, not me!  I am also in discussion with my agents because I don’t work a lot.  The maximum for me is sixty nights a year.

BD:   [Very surprised]  Only sixty nights???

PO:   Yes, no more.  There are many of my colleagues who work 100 or 120, but not me!  Basically, every year I do five or six different operas.  About half are new, and half are revival for me.  I have conducted twenty or twenty-two different operas, but for me the place is very important.  Also, it’s very important if I like the city, because otherwise I cannot live far from my country, far from my family in a city I don’t like.  It’s really impossible.

BD:   I hope Chicago has made you feel welcome.

PO:   Chicago is very important, and the atmosphere of the theater is very, very easy, and very friendly.  My family is here now, and it’s very important for us.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   With a concert you can rehearse a couple of days and then do three or four performances, so it’s all concentrated in a week.  With an opera, there’s so much rehearsal, and then the performances over several weeks.

PO:   Yes, and usually I use this time to learn scores.  From next Saturday, when my family goes back to Italy, until the end of November, I have to learn Ernani.  So, I have this month just to study, and of course it’s a little bit sad to be alone.  But being alone and having only some evenings for conducting, I can concentrate for Ernani.  I know this opera, so it will be enough.  If I was at home, though, it would not be enough because you have to be a little bit with other people.

olmi BD:   You say you’re coming back to Ernani.  Have you done it before?

PO:   No, I didn’t conduct it before, but I know this opera because it is one of the more famous operas.

BD:   In an opera that you have done before, do you restudy it with a clean score, or do you remember all the things that you did last time?

PO:   In the last couple of years, anytime I learn an opera, after the opening night I spend some time writing on the page what I did and what I was changing.  For example, at one point I conducted in four, but I realized that sometimes it is better in two.  This is very, very helpful for the next time.  But for the tempi, many times I change because I am growing up, I hope!  The next time you are a little bit older when you do it, and the situation is different.  You can have different voices, or you can reconsider your approach to the opera.  I conducted Moses in Egypt in 1988 in Rome, in 1991 in Munich, and in 1994 in Covent Garden.  The last was a little bit different from the first.  Also I had the same singer in the title role
it was Ruggero Raimondibut we agreed together it was to be different.  Sometimes you change because you have a special orchestra, or a special chorus, and it can sound better if I change it a little bit.

BD:   So you adapt, and bring out the qualities of the company?

PO:   Yes, it is simply the way in which all composers were working, not only in Italy.  For example, when Mozart was composing for Prague it was different from Vienna.  You will not change many things, but it’s the same thing for a painter.  If you are called to paint the Sistine Chapel, it’s one thing, but if you are going to paint the living room of the king, it’s different.

BD:   Do the acoustics of the house determine your tempo at all?

PO:   Ah, yes, and especially the first time when you don’t know the theater.  It’s very important that you have some people that help.  I was happy that during the rehearsal I had a couple of the musicians that were assisting me.  If the acoustic is dry, you also have to change a little bit the bowing.  You have to add a little more pressure on the string to have longer sounds, and faster tempi.  Otherwise, many things are lost.  During the summer I conducted a concert of the Mendelssohn Second Symphony, ‘Lobgesang’, in Ravenna, which is the city in which I live.  There are three or four very, very old, important churches, and the acoustic (reverberation) of a church is very long
too long.  So for this I had some slower tempi, and that was usual for me because singers simply cannot sustain.  But it was so important to have a concert in such a beautiful place, with the special atmosphere.

BD:   You have to compromise.

PO:   Yes.  In the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries, composers wanted their compositions performed, and they were ready to do all the changes that the theater and the situation required.  Simply consider the difference when Verdi goes to Paris, there is the ballet and changes to the singing, also.  There are two versions of Trovatore, and of La Forza del Destino, and several versions of Don Carlos.

BD:   When these operas have come down to us in different versions, how do you decide which version you’re going to use at any particular place?

PO:   Sometimes there’s the problem of feeling.  Conducting is many times like an exercise in which you feel what the composition has, or what, in similar compositions, are the things you like naturally.  I was asked to do Don Carlos in Strasbourg, and I said we would do the French version, because it’s very important for audience to listen to an Italian opera at least once in their language.  I trust it, and when I conducted William Tell in Paris for the first time in the original French, people were very happy just for once to listen to Rossini in French, and to understand everything.

BD:   Of course, he wrote that in French.  Would you want to take a French version of an opera that wasn’t written in French?

PO:   No!  Of course, there are situations in the middle, like Count Ory, or The Siege of Corinth.  Much of Siege is more Maometto Secondo, so in that case I must say that I prefer very, very much the French, because the orchestra is much more important.  We have fifteen minutes of dance which is very beautiful, and the parts that were originally in French have a very French sound
which the nuanceand the French language, which are very well done.  But regarding Don Carlos or Trovatore, basically I think that the Italian version is better.  Anyway, it’s the version I feel close to.  Nevertheless, why not perform Le Trouvère?  It has more dance, and just for once it may be worth doing.  One thing that they did in Italywhich I feel is completely crazyis in the same season Don Carlos in the French version, and Don Carlo in Italian version.  It is simply boring for the audience to listen to the same thing with other singers.

BD:   They are not different enough to compare?

PO:   This is something that you can do with a record, but in the theater it’s better to do a different opera.  I have to consider in my life that I so want to do Don Pasquale in La Scala, but I would never agree, because now the number of different operas that theater has is small, and the number of the opera that we like is large.  It may happen in your life that you only listen once to Gioconda, for example.  So, I think it’s better to have only one Don Carlos, and then Gioconda or another opera that is very difficult to do now, at least now in Italy and in Europe.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I assume you are in favor of expanding the repertoire?

olmi PO:   Yes, of course.  There are basically forty operas that you have to listen to at least once in your life.  Now in Italy it’s still a problem with Mozart’s operas, because even though the most important three are in the Italian language, it’s still a crazy thing.  Anytime the audience doesn’t know exactly the length, they don’t know when to clap or not.  You can imagine Die Entführung, which is in German, is worse.  Richard Strauss operas are completely unknown, so it may happen that the conductor or singer will not have any normal success with Arabella or Die Frau Ohne Schatten.  When they come for Bohème, they boo because they know the work so well, but this is crazy in our theater.  We have at least a few important theaters
La Scala, Florence, Bologna, Rome.  On the other hand, I conducted in Berlin The Girl of the Golden West, and all the reviews were about the text as being an unknown text.

BD:   What about contemporary works
brand new works or world premieres?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Ramon Vargas.]

PO:   When I was the permanent conductor of the radio orchestra in Rome from 1990 to 1993, I wanted us to have many pieces, especially of our young composers.  I said for me it’s really difficult to conduct them, so many times I had other conductors do them.  There are some conductors that conduct new works very well, but for me it’s very difficult.  I want to say this very honestly, because this music has to be performed.  For fifty years there’s been a crisis in music, but in the future
maybe in another fifty or one hundred years’ timesomething very important will happen.  I do believe that it will, and we are not going to understand the new things if we don’t know what happened in the meantime.  From Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, we hide.  It is very good that of the eight titles this season here in Chicago, there is a Janáček opera [The Makropulos Affair featuring Catherine Malfitano], and also a John Corigliano piece [The Ghosts of Versailles].  Personally, for me it’s difficult, because in my life I can’t conduct all the operas that I admire and that I know.  As I told you, if you don’t trust and don’t believe completely in a piece, it’s difficult to convince others to play it as it should be.

BD:   Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write operas now as we head into the Twenty-First Century?

PO:   Simply that they are to respect the voices, because in this century it was not always this way.  Not now, but thirty or thirty-five years ago, it was a bit of a snub to oblige make the singer to do strange things.  Another thing, you must not write opera if you’re not interested that the audience likes the opera.  If you believe that it is not necessary that the audience likes your composition, everybody will have lost time.  The problem with the theater, with the opera, with the melodrama of our century, is that many times composers didn’t like the audience in the same way as before, and the audience didn’t like the composers.

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

PO:   Especially in Italy it’s very difficult, because there is no school of conducting.  All careers are different, and I know that in the States there is better training for conductors.  The thing that I can say is that making it will be more difficult in the future.  Orchestras don’t need simply people that can cue and make them play together like policemen, because orchestras are growing up and are better and better every year.  I don’t think, as the old people will say, that fifty years ago the orchestras played better.  No, it’s not true.  You can listen to recordings.  I have a live recording of Toscanini conducting The Magic Flute at the Salzburg Festival in 1937.  Despite what you can imagine, many, many times they are completely out of sync
not togetherbecause simply the orchestras were worse, technically.  Now, the orchestras are better every year, so the thing they are asking for is musical ideas.  The conductor of the future will be someone with great culture and new ideas.  For example, I know very well a very good friend, Giuseppe Sinopoli.  His approach to the music is completely different from that of other conductors.  He’s not interested in just making the moment beautiful or not beautiful, or clear or not clear, but his ideas very, very interesting.

On April 20, 2001, Sinopoli died of a heart attack at the age of 54 while conducting Verdis Aïda at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.  The funeral in Rome on April 23 was attended by the Italian President and Prime Minister, as well as a large contingent from La Scala.

Every October since 2005, Taormina Arte has dedicated a festival to Giuseppe Sinopoli, the artistic director of the Music section of the Taormina Festival from 1989 to 1997.  The Giuseppe Sinopoli Festival celebrates the man not only as a musician and as a conductor, but also as a composer, a doctor, an archaeologist and intellectual, with a variety of events from music and literature, theater and art to conferences, exhibitions, publications and concerts.  Each Festival also welcomes important orchestras to Italy.

If we want music to surviveespecially for opera but also for the classical symphonic repertoirewe have to consider it in every generation with new ideas.  These are not against the composer, of course, but simply because music allows us to do that, because we have to many possibilities.

olmi BD:   Are you pleased with where you are in your career so far?

PO:   Yes!  Yes, because I never considered my career life like a competition.  I don’t think of it that way.  Of course, everybody likes to have greater and greater positions, and power, money, freedom, and so on, but it’s not all there is.  For some of my colleagues, especially the older ones, I see that they have their position, and they are quite happy and at peace, and are very satisfied with a good family life.  Others, with a similar position and with the same money feel they have a bad life.  This is the thing that I want to avoid.  One of the reasons I don’t work so much is that I have to have some period of rest.  I do not wish to reach fifty or fifty-five years
which, for a conductor is the middle of a careerand find that my son doesn’t know me.  I have two kids who are now six and eight, and it’s very important that they understand.  It’s difficult for themand for meto be very far away, but they understand there is a reason for that.  They know my work and appreciate it.  I know somenot many, but somevery important conductors whose kids don’t like music at all.  They hate the theater.  You lose something very valuable if you injure your family.  Of course, our job is to get results, but another thing that I don’t like is when you get results but forget other things, such as the relationship of the score to the performance.  For example, once I was in a rehearsal for Andrea Chénier, and at the end of the second act there is a change of tempo.  It doesn’t appear in all the orchestral scores, or in all the piano scores, only in some of them.  So, some conductors do observe the change, and some conductors don’t.  I do that change, and it was very unusual for them.  It was very difficult, but I think that it is very clear what the composer wanted because of the way in which it’s written.  Its not only the metronome indication.

BD:   It sounds like that’s something a conductor should feel, but the composer put it into the score make sure.

PO:   Yes, and the orchestra did make the change.  It was a first time for them, and they didn’t understand why I was doing this because they had done it lots of time without any change.  They wondered if it was my idea.  Sometimes I can say to the orchestra that I prefer something for my own reason, but this time I stopped a little bit, and spent five minutes to explain it to them.

BD:   You had to convince them?

PO:   Yes.  As I said, it’s not like in the army, where one can give orders.  [Both laugh]

BD:   [Giving a salute]  Despite that, I salute you, maestro.  [More laughter]  Thank you so very much for coming to Chicago, and for taking the time to speak with me today.

PO:   Thank you.  It was a pleasure.

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© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 30, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later, and again in 2000.  This transcription was made in 2019, 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.