Designer / Director  Pier  Luigi  Samaritani

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Pier Luigi Samaritani, designer: born 29 September 1942; died Rome 5 January 1994.

Known as the designer of many opera productions, mainly in Italy and the United States, Pier Luigi Samaritani later became an equally well-known director. A pupil of Lila de Nobili, he worked as her assistant and also as assistant to Franco Zeffirelli and Giorgio de Chirico. His traditional style, a heightened version of realism, was graphically demonstrated in the magnificent sets he designed for Semiramide, performed at the Florence Festival of 1968 with Joan Sutherland in the title-role, and later exported to Chicago.


[Sutherland and Marilyn Horne in Semiramide in Chicago]

Samaritani was greatly helped at the beginning of his career by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, whose staging of The Medium at Spoleto he designed in 1969. Other Menotti productions which he designed included Help, Help, The Globolinks, given in Geneva, Rome and Vienna; Maria Golovin, seen at Marseilles, Paris and Trieste; Don Pasquale, set in Rome of the 1930s, unveiled at the Theater am Gartnerplatz in Munich and revived in New York at the Juilliard American Opera Theater; and a much-admired staging of La Bohème for the Paris Opera. During the 1970s Samaritani also designed Carmen and Luisa Miller for La Scala; Giovanna d'Arco, Lucia di Lammermoor and Maria di Rohan for La Fenice, Venice; and productions in Rome and Naples.

In Florence, where Samaritani had achieved his first success, his sets for Mosè were found very handsome and those for Eugene Onegin utterly exquisite, while his designs for Henze's Re Cervo, and Les Vepres Siciliennes were also liked. His fame had spread to the United States: designs for Les Contes d'Hoffmann at Dallas were very successful; in Chicago his lavish settings for Orfeo ed Euridice were admired, and he scored a triumph with sets for Massenet's Don Quichotte that evoked for one critic Constable, Turner, Goya and Dore.

Meanwhile Samaritani had turned director, staging The Old Maid and the Thief at Spoleto in 1975. His production of Faust for the Chicago Lyric was considered bizarre, but a Madama Butterfly and Werther in Florence were greatly liked, as were Rigoletto at Parma, Manon in Rome and Les Pecheurs de perles at Nice. All these productions were seen in other cities. In 1983 he designed and directed Ernani for the Metropolitan, and the following year Eugene Onegin was restaged in Chicago; an admirable production but for the thick scrim that obscured the handsome sets.

Samaritani's later productions included Guillaume Tell in Cagliari; La Forza del destino at San Francisco; and Andrea Chenier in Florence. He returned to Spoleto as designer in 1987, for a most impressive Parsifal, staged by Menotti, which later travelled to Trieste and Spoleto USA, and in 1992 for an equally fine Die Meistersinger, also directed by Menotti.


met in September of 1990, when Samaritani returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago to re-stage his production of Eugene Onegin.  He was in very good humor, and though he warned me about his English, it was pretty good, so his ideas came across well.  However, to make it all read well on this webpage, I have helped him out a bit here and there, just to complete his sentences, and gather words he struggled with at the time.

Bruce Duffie:   Let us begin with Eugene Onegin.  Is there something particularly Russian about Pushkin and Tchaikovsky that you bring to your designs and your direction, or do you just let the music sweep over your creation?

Pier Luigi Samaritani:   The decision of the fundamental choice about the production comes from the music, and the music is that of Tchaikovsky.  So, it is the music of the late Nineteenth Century.  That’s why I try to keep the sense of Pushkin, but to give the atmosphere of Tchaikovsky
.  The clothes, the costumes, and the pictorial taste of the production is closer the world of Tchaikovsky than the neo-classical Pushkin, because it’s not early Romantic, it’s late Romantic.

BD:   Are you adapting to the early Romantic style, or do you bring it to the Twentieth Century for Twentieth Century audiences?

Samaritani:   No, I do everything toward the late Nineteenth Century.

BD:   How much of your inspiration then comes from the text, and how much from the music that you hear of Tchaikovsky?

Samaritani:   Fundamentally from the music
ninety per cent.  So, when I listened to the music, I knew the plot, but I helped myself for the direction with the text, the libretto.  But the basic choices for me come from the music.

BD:   Do you listen to performances or to recordings when you’re preparing?

Samaritani:   Yes, I listen.  I remembered the classic recording of Galina Vishnevskaya, the wife of Rostropovich.  I directed her also some years much later as the famous Russian Tatyana.

BD:   Did you learn from her as you were working through it with her?

Samaritani:   [Laughs]  I must say that in fact I was inspired by her.  When we met, we didn’t have a very, very good relationship because she was still into that old interpretation, and she wouldn’t change it.  For a director, that is a little bit frustrating.  She was part of my inspiration, but not of the present production.

BD:   Eventually, though, you did get along?

Samaritani:   Yes.

BD:   That’s good.  When you come to this work, or any work, do you try to mold the singers, or do you take from them and get inspired from what they bring?

Samaritani:   Both.  It depends on the singer.  Being a director of opera is a little bit of a psychoanalytical quirk.  You have to understand what is behind each singer, what kind of singer it is, whether that singer has to be molded, or if it is a singer who has something to say and has to express it.  Basically, at the first rehearsal I prefer to be like a voyeur, trying to understand what kind of a person he or she is artistically, and also learn their everyday way of life.  Then I find my way to connect my idea and his or her personality.  It’s not always well received.

BD:   It's not reciprocal?

Samaritani:   No.

BD:   Is it easier or harder if the singer has done the role before and has an idea of the piece?

Samaritani:   It’s a little bit difficult.  I must say that the great professional singers understand and respect the work of everybody working on stage, so they are available for everything that makes sense.  For example, the first time I staged Onegin here in this theater was also the first time Mirella Freni sang the role.  But I understood that she had done a lot of thinking about it.

BD:   She had done her homework?

Samaritani:   Yes, so it was a real exchange about what she felt about the role, and what I was dreaming about.  But each Tatyana has a personal way to be.  Freni expressed herself all the time as a young person, and she had some problems when she had to express to act as a lady.

BD:   To be more mature?

Samaritani:   Yes.

samaritani BD:   So, you had to work more on this aspect?

Samaritani:   Yes.

BD:   Is there, perhaps, a little bit of Tatyana in every woman?

Samaritani:   I think so.  I think that every woman, or I hope that every woman has been a Tatyana, with the possibility of hoping to take a risk only to disappointed.  I hope that people are still like this.

BD:   Is there a little bit of Onegin in every man?

Samaritani:   I think so, too.  I don’t think that every man is a charmer like Onegin, but every man has regrets, and some of this story is in the life of every man, I’m sure.

BD:   Does this make it easier or more difficult to bring these ideas from the stage to the audience?  [Vis-a-vis the photo at left, see my interviews with Fiorenza Cossotto, and José van Dam.]

Samaritani:   Great opera is something universal, but it’s not for this that it is less difficult to make the jump over these twenty meters from the stage to the audience.  Don Giovanni is a universal opera about being a man, and the life and the love, but it is not so easy to interpret visually, and directing it is quite difficult.

BD:   Are there any operas that you’ve encountered so far which cannot be directed adequately?

Samaritani:   Why?

BD:   Perhaps because they don’t lend themselves dramatically to a visual presentation.  Or, they’re all music but you can’t bring the drama out.

Samaritani:   This is something from my personal experiences.   I don’t like to direct operas like the early Verdi ones where the convention is so strong that there is no logic, no drama, no possibility for the director to bring what occurs, or to get the singer to express what you want, and why it happens or to get inside his feelings.  For example, operas like Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino are not understandable, and also not explainable.  [Both laugh]  The situations are very vague, very foggy, not very understandable, and sometimes not connected.  I don’t want to say that we mustn’t perform these operas, but the reason for these operas to exist is the convention.  The convention is the basic work, like making tea for thirst, so we base our work on the convention.  We are speaking now because we have a convention about speaking.  But at the time Verdi wrote these operas with the conventions of arias, duets, cabalettas, choruses, etc., he himself brought them to another level.  The first of his operas were connected with the convention of the first part of the Nineteenth Century.  These are operas that I love to listen to.  I love to be a spectator in the audience, but I don’t love to direct them because I don’t know what to say or what to do.  I’m just an outsider.  In fact, in operas like these, and many, many from Mozart also, I feel more in tune.

BD:   You’re more involved with them?

Samaritani:   Involved, yes.

BD:   Can you do more with Mozart than with early Verdi?

Samaritani:   Yes, of course.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But Verdi moved opera along, helping the history and the convention of opera.

Samaritani:   Yes, because he used the form of opera that he found, and he made the opera something else, mainly a step toward the modern opera, to Puccini, and so many steps to the end of the opera, maybe.  But I’m speaking about the early Verdi, because operas like Joan of Arc are very interesting for me, but your question was what operas I like to direct, and for this one I say no!  [Both laugh]


BD:   If you are asked to direct one of these, you will turn it down?

Samaritani:   Yes.  I made a couple of mistakes in my life, to accept these operas because I love these operas, but when I was inside my head trying to keep out the production and just understand the direction, I saw that it was not possible for me, because I am a kind of director that needs to be involved.  I don’t like to just create a frame for the music, even if it is an elegant frame.  I want to have something to say.  So, for an opera like the early Verdi, you can create an elegant frame, but I don’t think elegance is all there is with the performing arts.

BD:   Are the things that you say your ideas that you are bringing forth, or are you finding the ideas of the composers and librettist, and bringing forth those ideas?

Samaritani:   I try, but my approach to the opera is also humble, because I try to understand what the composer wanted to say.  I know he wanted to express living through these signs, and in the libretto too.  Then I try, for it’s my way of understanding.  It’s like when you have in a class of painting twenty students who are copying an apple.  You have twenty different apples.  So, it’s not because I want to put a filter of myself, it’s just because it’s normal that I understand something better than something else.

BD:   Are these pictures twenty different apples, or is it twenty different facets of that same apple?

Samaritani:   It’s twenty different apples, yes really.  In the audience, depending on the capacity of the situation, there can be 2,000 different apples.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You work with opera.  Do you also work with dance and with straight theater?

Samaritani:   No.  I worked a few times with the ballet because I’m considered a painter-scenographer, a painter as a designer.  I was a painter before, so I had a possibility to have painted the set.  I directed plays two or three times without music, but I put music in them.

BD:   So, music is very special for you?

Samaritani:   Yes, it’s a source of all my inspiration.  Without it, I cannot work.  I start to think about a production, and I listen to a piece of music.  Then, when I am fulfilled by the music, I try to co-ordinate this.  So, that’s my way to it.

BD:   Do you put music to the apple?

Samaritani:   [Laughs]  No, the music is the apple!  [More laughter]

BD:   When you’re painting the apple, do you have music going on so that you can paint better?

Samaritani:   No.  When I painted some time ago, I put music on because it was a richer sensation.  But afterwards, I understood that I mixed my sensation from the music with what I was doing, so it was a little bit tricky.  No, I don’t have to paint with music on.

BD:   When you direct, do you always have your own sets and costumes?

Samaritani:   Yes, always.  The steps of my career are from being a painter, to a painter-scenographer, to a set designer, to a set designer who directs his sets.

BD:   Is it more unified because then you have the idea from the picture and the movement together, rather than from a different person?

Samaritani:   Yes, but it doesn’t change anything, because when I design a set for other directors, I imagine all the direction, all the movement.  Say I put in a door.  While we’re speaking about a door, this is just traffic.  But it’s not just traffic, because you put a certain door in a certain moment and a certain point of the set, and it becomes a dramatic choice.

BD:   It's a focus?

Samaritani:   It’s a focus, and also speaks about the atmosphere and everything else.  So, that’s why, in a certain moment of my life twelve years ago, I decided to direct myself.  It was a challenge because it was the first time that I tried to work on people, and it worked.

BD:   As you’re designing your sets and painting the drawings, and then having the sets built, do you visualize all of the action, or just some of the action?

Samaritani:   Some of the action.  The level of the acting, and many details of the direction come the day of the first rehearsal.  I never write anything down.  I don’t make a plan, or project, or design of a direction.  Never.  I like to be intellectually excited by the people
the principals, and the chorus, too.  All the people on stage give me ideas, and I have my own ideas that I put forward.

BD:   You designed and directed this Onegin several years ago.  Now when you come back to it, do you use the same ideas, or different ideas, or do you come with a clean slate?

Samaritani:   No, I change some movements.  One singer is better in a certain way with many things, so I change details, but not the general structure or ensemble.

BD:   Are there ever occasions where Samaritani, the director, gets mad at Samaritani, the designer?

Samaritani:   This is a private story, but it happens when Samaritani the designer, or Samaritani the director is creating.  Creating is as big world.  It involves thinking about the production.  One personality goes to the aesthetic, and another personality goes to the skeleton of the drama.  So, one calls the other.  [Laughs]  It’s sort of like two rooms in the brain.  It’s normal, and I must say the job of director will exist longer, because otherwise we go back to the tradition where one person thought about the production itself.

BD:   We’re not going to have it separate for much longer?

Samaritani:   The modern opera director was invented by [Luchino] Visconti.  Many different persons or things in the story meet together, something new appears as a role of the opera director – the colors.  At La Scala, after the War he started to consider the role of the opera director, which didn’t exist before.

BD:   The person with that title was a mere traffic cop?

Samaritani:   Yes.  I don’t think it is a bad thing, because Luchino made the theater grow so much.  But how could you make the progress without Maria Callas, for example?

BD:   She was a moving force?

Samaritani:   Yes.

BD:   But now we have to still have opera without Maria Callas.

Samaritani:   Yes, without Callas, but with the new proficiency of the singers.  At the time of Maria Callas, she was the only singer able to act in a certain way.  The other big sopranos or big tenors used the old traditions, but together they broke with tradition and found an expressive way to perform opera.  Nevertheless, some people went to the theater only to go out and show off a beautiful dress or a beautiful car, but not really because they really participated in the opera.  I was not there, but I know that at that time people were still going in and out of the boxes, and had conversations, and they ate and drank.  Then they listened to the aria, and after the aria they went away.

visconti & callas

Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo
(Italian: [luˈkiːno visˈkonti di moˈdroːne]; 2 November 1906 – 17 March 1976), was an Italian theatre, opera and cinema director, as well as a screenwriter. Visconti was one of the fathers of Italian neorealism in film, but later moved towards luxurious-looking films obsessed with beauty, death and European history – especially the decay of aristocracy.

Visconti's love of opera is evident in the 1954 Senso, where the beginning of the film shows scenes from the fourth act of Il trovatore, which were filmed at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Beginning when he directed a production at Milan's Teatro alla Scala of La vestale in December 1954, and La Sonnambula the following season conducted by Leonard Bernstein, his career included a famous revival of La traviata at La Scala in 1955 conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, an equally famous Anna Bolena in 1957, and Iphigénie en Tauride all at La Scala, and all with Maria Callas.  [Visconti and Callas are shown together in the photo at right.]

A significant 1958 Royal Opera House (London) production of Verdi's five-act Italian version of Don Carlos with Jon Vickers, Tito Gobbi and Boris Christoff followed, along with a Macbeth in Spoleto in 1958, and a famous black-and-white Il trovatore with Gwyneth Jones and Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Bruno Prevedi, and Peter Glossop, which had scenery and costumes by Filippo Sanjust at the Royal Opera House in 1964. In 1966 Visconti's luscious Falstaff for the Vienna State Opera with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Rolando Panerai, Ilva Ligabue and Regina Resnik, conducted by Leonard Bernstein was critically acclaimed.

There was also a Trovatore in Moscow with Gabriella Tucci, Simionato, Carlo Bergonzi, and Piero Cappuccilli in 1964, and a Rosenkavalier in 1966 with Sena Jurinac, Josephine Veasey, and Michael Langdon, led by Sir Georg Solti.

BD:   Either then or now, how much of opera is art, and how much is entertainment?

Samaritani:   [Smiles]  Art is a very dangerous word!  [Both laugh]  There is an art to making good shoes so they look beautiful and you can walk very well.  Art is made by artisans, and we all are artisans.  We know that in the theater, everywhere there are artists, or maestri.  If you are a maestro, you can teach something.  I have the same admiration for a good artisan that I have for a good singer, or even for myself.  I don’t mean I have special admiration for myself, but I think what I do well, I am right with myself.  That’s all.  But art is Mozart, art is Verdi, art is the musician that gives to us the blood for our life line.

BD:   Is art also Scribe and Cammarano and other librettists?

Samaritani:   No, I don’t think so.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  No???

Samaritani:   I don’t think so.  Maybe with some exceptions... maybe Da Ponte was art.

BD:   Boito?

Samaritani:   Yes, but it’s not good to establish a scale of values.  I think that when Da Ponte went to see an opera of his with music of Mozart, he was going to see HIS (Da Ponte
s) opera!  [Both laugh]  That’s a personality.  But, in fact, we must agree with him, and give very much credit to the other people.  There are good collaborators, good suppliers of words, of verse, but I don’t think that they are the main food of the opera.

BD:   Then let me ask a great big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of opera?

Samaritani:   [Thinks a moment]  Philosophical, you say?  Why philosophical?  What is opera for?

BD:   Yes.  Why opera?

Samaritani:   Why opera?  [Pauses]  Now, I’m asking myself!  I think that opera is another apple.  For me, it is the expression of so many of the arts together, and that makes it sublimation of everything that is sentimental.  An opera is something that happens.  It doesn’t exist before the curtain goes up.  We speak about opera when it happens.  When the opera happens, it can happen just for a while, so when it is well done with the soul of many people contributing to create this dream, it is sublime.  The main contribution is the gift of themselves
visual, structural, architectural, technical, musical, acting, everything.  When it goes together, it’s just wonderful.

BD:   Does it always go together?

Samaritani:   Yes, and when it happens, it’s wonderful.

BD:   How often does it happen?  Every night, once a week, once every month, once a year?

Samaritani:   To a certain degree, every night something happens because the basic quality is there, and what happens, more or less, is the interpretation.  [Pauses to ponder a moment]  I regret that now the curtains are electrical. I know that I’m very happy when I am in a theater with manual curtains...

BD:   ... and someone pulls them?


The photo above is from a non-operatic event at the Civic Opera House in Chicago.  The image shows the delicate
curtains opened in a similar way as the heavy red main drape was during performances for many years.
The photo below shows the regular main curtain after the fire curtain has been raised.


Samaritani:   Yes.  This someone is an interpreter, and sometimes is a wonderful interpreter who judges speed, and stop, and slow, and speed.  So this is an interpreter.  He’s an artist.  The one who moves the curtain can also have a good evening or a bad evening.  [Both laugh]  I promise, I believe deeply in this.  We have, unfortunately, electrical curtains here.  You have to pre-set the speed, so fast, medium, slow.  That’s why I told you when a certain quality is supplied at the base of the performance, certain little details can change.

BD:   The Lyric used to open the curtain like this [demonstrates, as seen in the photo above] rather than just straight up or across from the center.  They used to do that many years ago, and I miss that.

Samaritani:   I miss it too.  It’s the best curtain.  If you saw this, you can remember when, for example, the curtain went down slowly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is opera for everyone?

Samaritani:   It’s not for someone who is never interested in going.  There is this famous idea of the convention we spoke about.  The main path is having the right approach to the opera.  One can be just flushed by the opera once, but for understanding and appreciating an opera, you have to know a little bit.  I have many friends who just listen to arias sung by Maria Callas, or by Mario Del Monaco, and that’s not so bad.  That was their first step to the opera.

BD:   Each person must build their own tradition?

Samaritani:   Yes.

BD:   Should we try to go out and get more people to build their traditions?

Samaritani:   I don’t know what the situation is in this country, but do you think we need to collect people for the opera?  I think there is a big interest in the opera.

Pier Luigi Samaritani at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1971 - [Opening Night] Semiramide (designer), with Sutherland, Horne, Bottazzo, Malas, Ferrin, Estes; Bonynge, Sequi
1974 - Don Quichotte (designer), with Ghiaurov, Foldi, Cortez, Paige; Fournet, Tajo
1975 - Orfeo (designer), with Stilwell, Cotrubas, Zilio; Fournet, Sequi, Tallchief
1977 - Orfeo (designer), with Stilwell, Shade, Zilio; Fournet, Sequi, Tallchief
1978 - Werther (deisgner & director), with Kraus, Minton, Nolen, Voketaitis; Giovaninetti
1979 - [Opening Night] Faust (designer), with Kraus, Freni, Ghiaurov, Stilwell, Ciesinski, Decker; Prêtre, Fassini, Tallchief
           Andrea Chenier (designer), with Domingo, Marton, Bruson, Sharon Graham/Wendy White, Kuhlmann, Gordon; Bartoletti, Gobbi, Schuler
1981 - Don Quichotte (designer & director), with Ghiaurov, Gramm, Valentini-Terrini, Gordon; Fournet, Tallchief, Schuler
1984 - [Opening Night] Eugene Onegin (designer & director), with Brendel, Freni, Dvorsky, Ghiaurov, Walker, Kraft; Bartoletti, Tallchief, Schuler
                                  (This production was also televised, and later issued on video, as shown below)


1987-88 - Faust (designer), with Shicoff, Gustafson/Soviero, Ramey, Raftery, Wendy White, Vozza; Fournet, Diaz, Tallchief, Schuler
1990-91 - Eugene Onegin (designer & director), with Brendel, Tomowa-Sintow/Hartilep, Polozov, Kavrakos, Walker, Kraft; Bartoletti, Tallchief
1993-94 - Don Quichotte (designer), with Ramey, Lafont, Mentzer/Pancella, Perkins; Nelson, Koenig, Schuler, Dufford

BD:   Yes, but should we try to get more?

Samaritani:   More?  Why?

BD:   Why not?

Samaritani:   There is a very big interest in the music. and behind that there is a financial interest for the recording.  I don’t like the idea of 20,000 seeing the opera.  I like a small theater.

BD:   We have 3,600 seats here in Chicago.  Is that too many?

Samaritani:   It’s not too many.  It’s a big size, and it’s okay, but I hate to see seats empty.

BD:   Would you rather have 1,200?

Samaritani:   Yes.  The only way to increase the popularity with knowledge of the opera is to do it well, and if you’re an opera-lover, bring a friend.  Unfortunately, if you see one of those nights where the soprano just arrived from another city, and she doesn’t know anything about the scenery, it will show the ridiculous side of the opera, and your friend will not be a new friend of opera.  [Both laugh]  They’ll just hate it, and be confirmed in the idea that the opera is a performance where the sick young girl is very fat!  But that’s why I spoke about being sublime, because when everything is well-done, including the speed of the curtain, maybe a soprano is a little bit round, but together they all can make everything believable.  So, the best way to make the opera grow is to do it well, but with special care every night in every situation.

samaritani BD:   Talking about a long run of performances, where you work every day until the opera opens, how can you make sure that the second, and the fifth, and the ninth performances are still going to be at that top level?

Samaritani:   The top level is insured by the first performance, because it’s on a high technical level.  There is also the tension of everybody that is created when you have the right people, and it pushes enough energy in it.  What can change is just the human level of interpretation, or a mistake, but a mistake is a mistake.  It’s human.

BD:   Is each performance going to have that intensity when it starts to become more familiar to the performers?

Samaritani:   No.  When there is a series of performances, there’s not this danger of familiarity.  This danger comes when you have the German Opera system of repertory.

BD:   Why?

Samaritani:   Because when they perform, they don’t perform with the right feeling inside and outside.  They just bring the opera there.  They don’t have the tension of the rehearsal.  I am a hundred per cent against this.  Many theaters are very happy to do this, but I rarely saw a production that has been beautiful
including some of my productions, which were not so bad.  But in others, I saw the light had been completely lost, and the direction was completely forgotten.  I am the most flexible man when I’m there.  I create with the people.  I like to make it with everybody, but when it is made, then it must stay the same.

BD:   Is this because they change the cast?

Samaritani:   Yes, they change the cast.  They telephone people two days before, and they do one performance.  Then tomorrow, it is another opera which is so badly prepared.

BD:   You prefer the stagione system [where each opera is prepared and runs its performances with the same cast], as opposed to the repertory system [which plays several operas throughout the season with rotating casts]?

Samaritani:   Yes. It’s a guarantee of the quality.  There are some Italian theaters that push this concept too far in that they close the theater, and they don’t produce enough operas.  Some theaters are producing too much, but everything is bad, and some theaters in Italy don’t produce enough.  I’m not for either situation!  [Both laugh]

BD:   You just want to be just right?

Samaritani:   Yes.

BD:   Is there ever a possibility that a production can be rehearsed too much?

Samaritani:   Over-rehearsed?  Yes, it could be.  It depends... if you have a singer you don’t know, and behind him is the reserve of possibility of intention enough to fulfill this rehearsal, it could be a little or a big lemon to squeeze.  [Both laugh]  I remember a good experience I had in Berlin years ago.  I was doing a new production of Madama Butterfly.  It’s an opera I do all the time, and because there was Sinopoli conducting, he gave me something like one month of rehearsals with everybody.  It looked to me very much, but I went because I’m all the time complaining about the lack of rehearsals, and if someone gives me a month of rehearsals, I go.  I was very curious about meeting Malfitano, whom I admired very much when she sang Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann in Florence.  I liked the idea of doing a Butterfly with her.  Working with her was a good experience because we worked every day without getting bored at all.

BD:   [Somewhat amazed]  For the whole month???

Samaritani:   For the whole month, yes, she was there.  We worked many hours every day in a gray concrete rehearsal room, and then on the stage.  I made it in two acts.  I remember my assistant and I were all crying during the rehearsal.  It was really a fascinating experience.

BD:   Now if you do, for instance, Eugene Onegin in Berlin, or in another opera house, could you take this design we are seeing in Chicago, and move it there, or do you redesign it?

Samaritani:   This design was made for Florence in 1974, which is sixteen years ago.

BD:   Is Florence similar to our house here?

Samaritani:   It’s similar.  That’s why it’s not only the technique that can change.  It can be difficult to move a production from one theater to another.  Hopefully sixteen years of experience is something that will help.  But if I had the chance to design another production of Onegin, probably it would be different.  It’s not a technical problem because we might go into a super theater like La Bastille.  Productions in our current theaters don’t work, really, because, we continue to perform opera for the theater like Chicago, or like Florence, or like La Scala.  These theaters are perfectly adapted to this old kind of production.  Maybe if we have a genius of the Twenty-first Century, a new kind of dramaturg with a new way to see, and to listen, and to think about opera, we will generate new buildings.  But just making new buildings for old opera is nonsense, and a waste of energy.  It is something superficial.

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BD:   Let me ask you about Massenet.  You’ve done a couple of his operas...

Samaritani:   I love the music of Massenet... Werther, Manon, Don Quichotte, Thaïs.  When I do Massenet, I feel like a fish in the water.  It’s very easy for me to put myself into this kind of music because my cultural background is based on the French culture.  I spent the years during my 20s and the 30s in Paris.  I’m very much influenced by the French culture, and I love all this kind of taste.  It’s an affinity of culture, and the Italians have it from Piemonte, the region just next to France, so the language we speak in Piemonte is very similar to the French.

BD:   It’s just the other side of the mountains?
Samaritani:   Yes.

BD:   Will you be doing other operas of Massenet?

Samaritani:   It’s quite difficult to increase the repertory of Massenet in great opera houses because the singers don’t want to work on this repertoire.  It needs a major recording, and then we could make a new production.  Almost all Massenet is recorded by little opera groups, and some of these operas make me very curious and interested.  But it almost never happens that a suggestion of a director is accepted by an opera house.  I can accept or refuse their offers, but it’s difficult to just drop an idea into their laps, and have this idea accepted, because many other problems surround producing a new opera.

BD:   You’ve also done some Wagner?

Samaritani:   Yes, I designed for Wagner.  One of my first productions in 1968 was my debut in Spoleto.  I designed Tristan, and five years ago, I designed Parsifal.  I love it very much, and I wanted to direct it, but I would have to work a lot.

BD:   You would have to work to learn it?

Samaritani:   Yes.  I gave my personal vision of this, but for approaching the direction of Wagnerian singers, I would do it only with a month and a half of rehearsal.  [Laughs]

BD:   What advice do you have for younger people who would like to direct opera?

Samaritani:   [Thinks a moment]  My advice is that they have to imagine the whole opera visually.  This is my way to the opera, and they need to be able to translate their thinking to the paper.  They must have the precise knowledge of what they want visually on the stage, what they represent, what they feel.  It’s not only a problem of conception.  It’s visual work that you make in your brain, and everything afterwards must correspond.  If something is wrong, it will be refused.  I am against the intellectual vision of direction.  Not intellectual because it isn’t intellectual, but the super-interpretated is something that was fashionable a few years ago.  I must say it is too bad for the people who love this.  For me, it is over-interpretation.  [Ponders a moment]  No, it’s not over-interpretation, it is just stupidity... [laughs] but it can work sometimes.  You find people who think that it is genius.

BD:   Do we need this kind of stupidity to recognize the genius of tradition?

Samaritani:   I don’t think so.  I think that the attention the public and the critics bestow on the director is stupid vanity.  It is the wrong way to see the art work because it is based on himself.  The director doesn’t exist.  He’s just there to help the art of the musicians to be brought to the public.  That’s all.  When you speak about the director too much, then there’s something wrong.

BD:   You don’t draw attention to yourself?

Samaritani:   I don’t, no!  I love this work.  I don’t know what to call it, because if I say it
s art’, most people think its boring.  But I love to do it, and I have fun with it.  I am very lucky to make something that I love.  I have emotion, but I don’t want to betray people I admire.  I cannot imagine if you think really honestly that by making a certain kind of production you understand.  You either love the composer, or you don’t.

BD:   When you get an assignment to design a new production, how long do you need before the work has to be delivered?

Samaritani:   I work about three months on a design, then work on making renderings.  But for me to produce the design, it’s at least three months.

BD:   I assume you have plenty of work ahead of you so that you’re booked up for several years?

Samaritani:   Yes, but not mainly new productions.  It’s very difficult to produce in every part of the world, because they don’t have enough money, or they come too late.  So, I prefer to make one or two new productions in a year, and then do restagings of my productions for the rest of the time.


BD:   Will you back in Chicago?

Samaritani:   I hope so.  I don’t have anything on my schedule with this theater, but I’ve been here several times.  I love the city.  I love Chicago, so I hope so.

BD:   Thank you for returning to Chicago.  I look forward to seeing the Onegin again.  It was beautiful last time [1984], and I enjoyed it very much.

Samaritani:   We’re working very hard trying to mask the wrinkles that show the age of this production.  They sent it to Barcelona, and maybe in the container, many things were broken.

BD:   Thank you for spending the time with me today.  I appreciate it.  Mille grazie!

Samaritani:   E piacere!  My pleasure!


© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on September 19, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB a few days later.  This transcription was made in 2021, 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.