Staying the Course

Fabio Luisi, the Met's new principal conductor, leads a new Manon for the company this month. Luisi has taken over some high-profile Met assignments this season — including Don Giovanni, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. What's it like to lead James Levine's orchestra in some of James Levine's signature operas? LISA MERCURIO reports.

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Portrait photographed at the Metropolitan Opera by James Salzano
© James Salzano 2012
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The maestro in rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera
© Beth Bergman 2012
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© Beth Bergman 2012

As James Levine's physical problems increased over the past several seasons, there was growing concern regarding the inevitable question: how would the Met handle the transition to a post-Levine conducting future? The answer, for the moment, is Fabio Luisi, who was given the title of principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra last September. It seems a glorious post, one that any conductor in the world would envy. It also goes without saying that the Metropolitan Opera is the Rolls Royce among orchestras — a musical nirvana for singers, musicians, conductors and audiences in the cultural mecca of the universe, prestigious New York City. But what exactly is the role of the principal conductor, or in this case, the designated driver of this particular musical powerhouse, and what exactly is the unusual set of circumstances that this maestro faces as he looks toward an unspecified future?

Before examining the challenges, it is essential to look at the man chosen for the task. A bit of a musical/cultural hybrid, Luisi is an Italian who, by his own account, was "forced to emigrate" to Austria, or in this case, "forced" by choice. He is careful to point out that he left Italy not for another country, not for a particular school, but for a particular teacher. The young pianist with conducting aspirations abandoned his native Genoa for study with the Austrian-based Croatian conductor Milan Horvat. The chosen career path of the Italian-born, Austrian-educated Luisi has since landed him posts in Graz, Leipzig, Dresden and Vienna. Since 2005, Luisi has been chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony. He takes over the music directorship of Zurich Opera in 2012–13 and is scheduled to step down from his Vienna post at the end of that season.

OPERA NEWS met with Luisi in the fall at the Metropolitan Opera House, during alternating rehearsals of Don Giovanni and Siegfried, both of which were entrusted to him following the Met's very late announcement that Levine would not be able to honor his fall 2011 conducting commitments. (Luisi was long ago contracted to conduct the company's new Manon this month.) The cadence of Luisi's speech is measured, soft-spoken English tinged with an Austrian inflection more than an Italian one. Sporting a pair of round, wire-rimmed 1920s-style spectacles, he projects a demeanor of graceful yet eminent control.

When questioned about his musical conducting influences or role models, Luisi does not speak of other esteemed conductors, composers or even singers. Instead, he steadfastly identifies this emigration period and the role it has played in his development, both musically and culturally. "I was connected with a musical world I didn't know before — big symphonic music. Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner and Brahms. As a pianist, you never come to this symphonic world, but it is necessary to know this language. If not, it makes no sense to conduct Wagner without knowing the German language. And so this opened a new world to me, going to Austria. For me, this was the most revolutionary happening in my musical life and still now has a huge influence." 

Similarly, when questioned about outside role models, Luisi stands firm on his own personal style and lack of influence from others. "Of course, there are many conductors whom I admire, but I always try not to imitate, not to be too close, not only in terms of listening, but in terms of looking at them. If you are sensitive, if you have a sensibility, it is quite dangerous that you assimilate their language, and you can do like they do, but it will never be your language. And so I try not to get too involved in their language. I try not to touch their language — just watching them and trying to take not only the 'package' gesture but the meaning behind the gesture. And everybody says, 'You're not conducting like any conductor we know. Why?' That's good.... They cannot say what corner I come from."

With the announcement of his appointment as principal conductor still relatively fresh, this is a man living a conductor's dream. One might anticipate a more ecstatic energy from someone who has just received the keys to the kingdom, but Luisi is careful and thoughtful as he discusses the work ahead, and with respect to his new appointment and stepping out officially as principal conductor, he continuously clarifies the limits of his job. "The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra has an artistic director, and that is James Levine." By default, this confines Luisi's role to that of conductor and conductor only. On a practical level, it means that decisions of repertoire, directorial decisions and artistic considerations of any major consequence are all controlled by other hands. 

However, as the musical seasons roll forward and Levine's health issues continue, more highly anticipated productions continue to fall into Luisi's lap. In addition to Don Giovanni and Siegfried, the January premiere of the Met's new Götterdämmerung also became Luisi's engagement. Finally, the reluctant decision by the Met came in December stating that, due to Levine's physical problems, he will be sitting out the entirety of next season, and Luisi will replace him for the first complete presentations of the new Ring cycle next month. How does a principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra go about making his mark when the music director is still omnipresent — when this orchestra has learned these works from James Levine, and when it can be argued that the musicians themselves may possibly know the score better than any conductor? 

"First of all," says Luisi, "taking over hisproductions — and we are talking about productions that are historically connected with the name James Levine, like last year, for example, Lulu and Rheingold, Don Giovanni now — it is something you can identify. Metropolitan Opera and James Levine. It is a huge heritage and challenge — it is a huge thing." But he is quick to add, "It is also the chance for me to do something which is probably new for many, also for the orchestra, and what I hope is also exciting — showing new ways. It's not in terms of being better or worse but of being another sensibility, being different. This is the part I like. The part I don't like so much is that, of course, comparison is inevitable."

When asked about his interaction with James Levine, Luisi indicates that he does not have much contact at all, either of a personal nature or with regard to musical interpretation in these Levine productions. This is surprising, because Levine's desire to be involved in every aspect of musical preparation is well known; that he lives for the detail, nuances and interaction with colleagues is legendary. Perhaps this is the strongest indication to date of the serious nature of Levine's disabilities. Given these circumstances, perhaps the job of principal conductor is also one for a consummate politician. Standing pat about most matters, Luisi makes it clear that the orchestra has the capacity to evaluate him, so he works with respect and admiration for the musicians in front of him. After all, he is the one entering their musical world at a time when their reputation is at its apex. 

"I have to say the attitude of the orchestra and the chorus — because they are the ones most involved in such thoughts — is very open, and nobody is telling me, 'Why are you changing this?' And I see that somehow and sometimes they are surprised at choices I make in order to make the music understandable, but I never had the feeling that they dislike it. I had a feeling it's surprising, but they try to go my way. They are fantastic, and such a joy to work with." 

Clearly, carrying forward the legacy of Levine is a priority, and it is from this foothold that Luisi counterbalances his work with the orchestra, relying heavily on his own musical pedigree and in some cases on nuanced differences with Levine. It is his task to keep things moving forward; but because Luisi is not charged with teaching the orchestra any new repertory, his main focus is to remain a stabilizing force.

Not surprisingly, Luisi is upbeat when describing his impressions of musical life in the U.S., from the orchestral side as well as the audience side. In each case, he has had nothing but positive, "open" experiences. Unlike their European colleagues, Luisi believes that American players are more musically "available," displaying a willingness to try new things. "They are very open. They don't judge you because of your musical choices, even if they are different. If they see it's a choice that you have thought about, not improvising, and it makes sense, and you can communicate it, they are willing to come with you. This is an experience I rarely had in Europe. In Europe, they are more closed and more judgmental about choices, because the attitude of the musicians in Europe is that we have a tradition and this tradition is the only way."

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Luisi acknowledges the Met Orchestra after the dress rehearsal of Don Giovanni, 2011
© Beth Bergman 2012

So what, if anything, are the things about the orchestra he would like to change? "It's very difficult for me to answer this, as it implies that I have plans. I don't. I can say only what I think. The orchestra is in wonderful shape, and the work of Jimmy in the last forty years is so good, and now you have the results of this. It would not be loyal for me to say that I want to make the orchestra better, because they are already fantastic. Philosophically speaking, I would have my ideas in terms of repertoire, but that is it, and it's not my goal to open this up to you now. My role is not artistic planning. I am helping the Met in terms of auditions and opinions about singers, which is all normal and O.K., but I'm not making long-term decisions. As I said, there is a musical director, and that's not me."

As for other elements of his craft, namely stage directors and stage productions, Luisi did reveal that while he works with professionals on the highest level, it is not always a match made in heaven. "I won't give names," he says. "Maybe it's not a great experience for me, but I respect their work — sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. After so many years, I know many directors, and I know with whom I like to and with whom I prefer not to work." The Met's own emphasis on non-musical values, such as HD broadcasts of their operas and the hiring of famous directors from non-musical disciplines, does nothing to correct what many perceive as a somewhat lopsided aspect of today's operatic culture. "Sometimes I read, mainly in Germany or Europe, a review of a new production — three columns about the staging, and three lines about the music, and this hurts. It doesn't hurt me personally, but it shows that for many reviewers, the priorities are not with the music. They forget the musical work. It's not because of the staging that it exists today! For me, it's very depressing. They put an accent on the visual instead of considering the whole thing. It's important, sure, but it's how the singers sing, the orchestras play, how they think of the conductor. We live in a visual world, and music is considered a soundtrack or servant of it." 

Despite his lack of input into artistic planning, surely Luisi must dream about performing certain works. He momentarily seems willing to say, but he quickly lapses into his more politic safety zone, stating, "In some ways, I am living some portion of my dream right now with Siegfried." As for contemporary operas, he cites interest in works of Ligeti, Penderecki or Hindemith but does not mention any specific twenty-first-century commissions or American composers for the Metropolitan Opera that might interest him. These he cites as important but also a bit risky, as one "can never be sure what the composer will write until you have played it."

This month, Luisi presents Massenet's Manon, a work he speaks about during this interview with more ebullience than anything else — perhaps fittingly, given that this particular Metropolitan Opera assignment belonged to him even before Levine's ailing health. At least Luisi finally reveals himself with a musical explanation that demonstrates some personal affection. In order to make his case for Massenet, the maestro launches into a comparison with Charles Gounod. "I would like to share that Massenet is one of the composers I love the most. He is so elegant, so essential — never cheap, always on a high aesthetical level. He is one of the composers I often compare to Gounod. Gounod makes it happen. Massenet lets it happen. Gounod, for instance, compositionally, he knows exactly after the scene, we need twelve minutes, and then we need a trio, and then we need a big finale. Every opera of Gounod works this way. It's astonishing. 

"Massenet, however, is something that is a human, emotional development. It's not made. It's just a development — more natural, and that's what I like in Massenet. And he doesn't use the big choruses and a huge orchestra, very noisy. He just tries to translate feelings into music — quite important. They are both French from the same period, but so completely different. I cannot say I hate Gounod. I respect and like both Faust and Romeo and Juliet, but I know exactly what is going to come next from Gounod — never in Massenet. It is always a surprise — so quietly, so true. It's very warm-hearted, and I like it very much."

It can take a decade or more for a music director, let alone a principal conductor, to leave his mark on an orchestra — especially if the organization is as completely developed as the Met is. For now, Luisi seems content to leave his mark with the Met orchestra and audiences one production at a time. spacer 

LISA MERCURIO is a former Sr. Vice President of Universal Classics Group and presently co-CEO and founder of The Bedtime Network. She is married to conductor/composer Steven Mercurio. She received her degree in piano performance from Oberlin Conservatory.  

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