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The Real Deal
Maestro Riccardo Frizza
by Lisa Houston
Frizza with Joyce DiDonato at the Richard Tucker Gala, 2013ďThat is the instrument I want to play!Ē
That was the thought that came to young Riccardo Frizza listening to the orchestra on a family visit to Vienna. The man on the podium was Herbert von Karajan. Already a devoted student of piano, Frizza soon took up his orchestral studies seriously, buying and studying scores and eventually progressing with the help of renowned teachers in Milan, Pescara, and Siena.
An important figure in his hometown of Brescia, Italy, Maestro Frizza began his career serving as music director of the symphony orchestra there from 1994 to 2000. During this time he became a popular guest artist at festivals and major Italian opera houses, and from there it did not take long for his career to become international.
These days his childhood dream is reality as he leads the worldís best orchestras, particularly those in the great opera houses. No longer a wunderkind, Frizza at 45 is still young for the level of prominence he has achieved, being much in demand at the Met and Milanís Teatro alla Scala, while his growing compendium of acclaimed recordings shows his penchant for the Italian repertoire. The maestro is married to the Spanish soprano Davinia Rodriguez who, like her husband, is enjoying an international career with major houses. The couple has one daughter.
An important moment in the conductorís career was his association with Gian Carlo Menotti. Our discussion, via Skype while the maestro was in Paris, began on that topic.
What was it like being mentored by Menotti?
Working with Menotti was an amazing experience. When they asked me to go to Spoleto in 2002 to do Verdiís Macbeth, at the time I was almost an unknown conductoróa nobody. I was a young talent some people were talking about, but nobody gave me a real opportunity. I was doing Favorite in the Canary Islands at Teatro Pťrez Galdůs, and he sent his son Francis, who was in charge of the festival, along with the artistic administration at that time. They came to the performance and afterwards they asked me, ďAre you interested in coming to Spoleto to do Macbeth?Ē I said, ďOf course!Ē Who could say no? If the train is going in front of you, you have to jump on, and I did.
I met Gian Carlo there in Spoleto for the first time. He had never met me before so he didnít know what my attitude towards the music was, and it was there during the festival we started to talk a lot. He always invited me every day to have lunch with him in his house, so we started this kind of relationship, talking about music, talking about him as a composer, as a musician, his relationship with Toscanini, life in the í40s and í50s as a composer. It was amazing to be with him.
ďUnfortunately,Ē he told me, ďI am too old now to help you, but Iíll give you this opportunity.Ē Years ago, he was more famous and better known in the United States, but around the í90s it was difficult for him. But I really appreciated that, because he came to listen to the performance, and he told me that in some way I reminded him of Thomas Schippers in my attitude towards the music, the vitality of Verdi. So that was my experience with him. He mentored me in this way, trying to help in the beginning in Italyóand the next year in the festival I came back to do a symphonic concert with the Juilliard Orchestra in the festival, so I am blessed for that.
How do you feel about Menottiís operas? Would you like to see them come back into the repertoire and be done more often?
Yes, of course. I donít know why he is not produced nowadays. Some performances are done, but I think he deserves more than we are doing now, but itís not easy. Also, in Europe heís not considered an Italian composer, because many of his operas are in English. But heís not an American composer. Maybe this is the problem. I donít know.
When you were young you went to Vienna and heard Karajan. What was that like?
I didnít know Karajan; for me, he was nobody. Whoís Karajan? I was a good pianist. I was learning to play and had talent on the piano. I remember it was Easter, 1984 or 1985. And I went as a tourist with my family to visit the city. Easter day we went to the cathedral and it was this huge concert, big mass with orchestra and chorus, and I was in the front row.
When I heard the orchestra and the chorus for the first time, it was like discovering a new instrument. Because until that time, it was just piano. Nothing but piano. It opened my mind. I thought, ďI like this!Ē I saw the power of the man on the podium, and I was affected by the music and the orchestra, and it was very emotional.
Youíve said youíd like to do all of Verdiís works. Singers often specializeófor example, in Italian repertoire or in Wagner. Do you think conductors should specialize more?
No, I donít think so. I think an open-minded conductor should explore the whole repertoire. But I understand itís not easy, because often the Italian conductors are hired just to do the Italian repertoire. Thatís not happening with the non-Italian conductors. They can do Italian, English, German, Mozart, everything. But for the Italian conductor, itís more complicated. Donít ask me why. This is the market. If you have your own theater, you can decide what you would like to do or explore; this is much easier. But usually, for Italians, itís just Italian repertoire.
That happened somewhat here in San Francisco with Maestro Luisotti.
But maybe for Nicola [Luisotti] it was his own choice to do that. Maybe he wanted, in that theater, to do Verdi and Italian repertoire. But he did do other things also; he explored German repertoire. I think thatís the way if you have your own theater. But if youíre Italian, they offer you Italian repertoire, and Iím so happy to do thatóthatís not a problem for me. I love the Italian repertoire.
How much say do you have about casting? Do you have some input about singers?
At this point in my career, of course, I can give some opinions. But in any theater, the casting director has his own opinion. Where you have more of a relationship, you can call and say, ďI think this singer or that singer.Ē You share opinions and maybe you can find a solution, because sometimes you agree on a singer that is not available, and then you have to discuss other options and choose who you canóa matter of dates or agenda. Years ago, it was different, because when youíre a young conductoróI donít think Iím oldóbut at the beginning of the career, you are blessed to do operas and you are in the hands of the artistic director of the theater. Now, I can give opinions. I cannot decide on a singeróbut I can share opinions and find the right singer.
Iíd like us to play a game. Iím going to say a composerís name, and Iíd like you to say whatever you want to say about that composer. Would you be willing to try that?
Donizetti, this is more complicated . . . a good plate of ravioli. Itís very consistent and very tasty. Donizetti is a special composer. Heís not easy to understand but, for me, he is a genius. Thereís no Verdi without Donizetti. Thatís for sure. And, usually, many conductors and colleagues of mine who play Donizetti, they look back when they want to interpret him. And for me, this is a mistake. He is a great innovator. There is no Trovatore without [Roberto] Devereux.
What was the music during the Donizetti period? Of course, Rossinióbut the Rossini aesthetic is different, itís very unique. But, for example, [Giovanni] Simone Mayr, [Giovanni] Pacini, all these composers of the time who were looking to the Viennese composers, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. Donizetti is opening the world of Italian opera. Bellini, too, in a different way. You have to be able to look forward when you conduct Donizetti.
Verdi is the drama. Verdi is like a strong red wine, with consistency and importance and body. Verdi is everything for me in Italian opera. He is so great that sometimes we donít even understand how great it is.
One more. You could probably guess: Puccini.
Puccini is like a long dessert. If you are in a restaurant and ask for dessert, and it comes and it is very sweet, if you like it, you can finish it. If you donít like it, well maybe itís too sweet. Maybe [Puccini] is too romantic, itís coming too directly to your heart, to your soul, and itís bringing out your soul. It is very touching, Puccini. The music is different than Verdi. Of course if you consider an opera like Macbeth, thereís a lot of drama, but you can also see from the outside. With Puccini, you are inside the pathos of the music and melodies.
Youíre going to Chicago to do Norma.
Callas was so important to Chicago and the history of that company. What are your thoughts about Callas? And also, for young singers reading this magazine, how much should young singers listen to Callas? Because youíve also said that Callas would have trouble in todayís market.
I want to explain what I meant by that. Not that Callas today isnít the market, but she was so unique, so different, so deep as an interpreter, like nobody before. She changed totally the way to be on the stage. Before her it wasnít like that. They were coming in, singing, showing the dress, and going out. Maybe itís a ridiculous way to say it, but after Callas, the opera was totally changed, because of her level of interpretation, the words, the phrasing. Today many sopranos are able to do that because it is after Callas, because it was a school. But the voice was so unique, so particular, that the young soprano today that sings like Callas wouldnít go so far, because only Callas could do that. Because she was Callas.
Youíve said about Traviata, that youíre happy to be performing it at La Fenice, because that is the theater it was written for. So what is it like to do something like Capuleti [e i Montecchi] here in San Francisco, which is a much bigger house? Do you try to squeeze more sound out of the orchestra or is it not about volume?
I can try to explain. The relationship between the singing and the orchestra does not change. Itís the same orchestra in San Francisco as at La Fenice. The same orchestration. Same volume. It depends on the acoustics of the theater. For example, at the Met, the acoustic is so perfect that you have no trouble even doing Handel or Mozart. The problem is the acoustic of the theater, not the dimensions of the theater.
But of course, playing Traviata at La Fenice was important for me, because the dimensions of the theater and the acoustic of the theater go exactly with the power of the voice. It was such a perfect balance between the dimensions of theater, the dimensions of the pit, the stage, the power of the voice, it was not necessary to ask the orchestra to play less. That usually happens when you go to the big houses. You have to ask the orchestra to play less. Also, you can find many different nuances and colors in the orchestration that maybe in the biggest house you cannot.
Actually, after Paris, I go to do Attila in Venice, another opera that has been written for La Fenice, but itís a totally different opera. Itís very powerful, very energetic. Itís the most risorgimento opera of the Italian repertoire. Iím curious to see if I have to ask the orchestra to play less. Thatís something I can tell you in a month.
What advice would you have for a singer singing Violetta?
I think for a soprano singing Violetta, itís like a soprano singing Lady Macbeth. Itís so, so deep. If you are not a great interpreter, itís not enough to sing the notes or sing the notes well. To be Violetta, you have to be the character. You have to forget yourself and go into the character and try to be a real person onstage, a real character. This is really complicated.
They should, of course, sing well. But for me, itís not enough. You have to be a great actress. You have to be magnetic with the audience, because they have to share your pain, your problems, your illness. You need to be really in touch with them. If youíre not able to create a good connection with the audience, youíre just a good singer, but youíre not a good Violetta.
What advice do you have for singers about ornamentation? It seemed for a while the fashion was more, more, more, but is that changing now?
Talking about the Italian repertoire, many things have changed from the í80s, for example, to today. Usually in the í90s, for Rossini, there was the attitude to do the ornamentations, and this is a repetition and so now we must do something different. It was fine. Because before that, nobody was considering that during Rossiniís time, or Donizettiís time, the singers were doing ornamentation. But at that time, they were spontaneous ornamentations, they were not something built on the table [acts out writing on the table].
Now, thanks to the fact that in the í80s and í90s we went through this way of doing it, we are finally achieving this, so that the singers can be more spontaneous. It was an obligation that we went through that way of doing itóall written outóto dry it out a bit, to clean it up. And now I think we are in the right way of interpreting this.
Letís play our game again, but this time Iíll say the name of an aria: ďUna voce poco fa.Ē
ďUna voce poco fa,Ē you have to have a connection with the audience. You are telling a story to the audience. Youíre telling them your plans.
ďIl mio tesoro.Ē
Thatís more complicated. Wow, difficult. Well, with Mozart, you have to be a great singer, you have to be able to sing a clean line, clean phrasing. You have to be perfect vocally. Crossing over the lines between the registers, you need to be really precise, no difference between registers. Because in the arias of Mozart, not that much is happening. Itís just an expression of the mood or feeling, so you just have to be clean and perfect in that way.
Well, usually ďCaro nomeĒ is performed slower than the tempo is written. And it changes the character a lot. Itís like ďUna furtiva lagrima.Ē The two arias for me are interpreted very differently today. ďCaro nome,Ē she is young. It is her first love. Sheís discovering something new, so the hormones are so high.
There needs to be something happening, some kind of sparkle. But usually, [sings slowly] Caro no-me che il mio cor . . . itís very boring, like a bored girl, which I think is a great mistake. Actually, there is the tempo indication allegro moderato, but everybody plays just andante, or a bit more than andante. I understand that it is difficult technically to sing, but if you connect with the tempo, you have to try to connect with this joy in some way. That for me is the key to the aria. Otherwise, it is a boring aria.
OK. Last one: ďMi chiamano Mimž.Ē
In some ways the same as ďCaro nome,Ē because it is a presentation of Mimž. In my way of understanding BohŤme, she is not an innocent girl, but she knows what she wants from the first time that she meets Rodolfo, so sheís leading the situation, sheís leading the flirting, in some way. So for me, she should introduce herself in the nicest way possible.
Usually, when people meet for the first time, they try to show themselves as more than what they are. For example, for me the key of the text is when she says, ďSola, mi fo il pranzo da me stessa. Non vado sempre a messa, ma prego assai il Signor.Ē For me itís a message, itís a way of saying, ďIím living alone, but I canít be explicit, so Iíll say also, I pray to God.Ē Usually, the soprano would be very langoureuse. For me thatís not the right way to interpret the aria.
Singers get so nervous when we have to sing for the first time for the conductor. What can you say to help us relax and to make that first meeting go well?
Iíll talk about myself. When I do the first rehearsal with the singers, I would like them to show me what they are able to do. Give me your idea of interpretation. Because for me, doing opera is the biggest compromise in music. I am the conductor, but of course my idea is going through another person. Itís not like symphonic concert, which is me and the orchestra. Your own idea is going through voices in other people, so itís always a great mix between you and them.
If you ask a singer to do something that is not in their vocal cords or is not in their mood, they will never do their best. So I try always to mix the ideas. They should just sing what they think is the best for them. Usually, if it is the first time and Iíve never met the singer, I will just listen to the possibility of the voice and consider if there is some suggestion I can give to them, but usually I would just like that they give me something. I can tell them later what I can politely say to helpóbut in the beginning, Iíd like to listen to what they have to show me.
What would you tell singers not to do?
The ďdivaĒ today is not a good attitude in the theater. The theater does not accept it any more, this kind of attitude. For a young singer, it is important to show the theater the ability to sing, to be a great artistóbut also it is very important, the professionalism. Because next time, when they have to think about another opera, they could think of you or one of another two, three, or four people. The casting person is not just thinking of one person. Usually itís three or four, and if you have bad behavior before, they will go in another direction.
If you want people to respect you, you have to respect people. Music, opera is teamwork. It is not just you. Of course when you are on stage, you are alone, you have to save yourself if something is going on. But usually . . . the person at the podium can help you in some way. For a conductor it is very easy to put a singer in trouble. If you choose a different tempo, [for example]. Itís easy.
Also the conductor will do the best for himself, not just the best for the production, because maybe there is a situation where in order to save the tenor, Iíll lose the chorus, and somebody will think, ďOh the conductor has lost the chorus,Ē but maybe itís not true. Maybe there was another problem behind that. Itís always a big compromise, and having good relationships with people is always the best way.
Is there one performing experience that has been the most powerful or satisfying personally? The greatest night of your life?
There have been many, many great moments in my career. Usually, when you do a run of performances, it happens that one night is the special night. Everybody is having a good night. Maybe youíve done a few performances, . . . you have a special night when everything works, and you remember this performance. In the 50 or 60 performances that you can do in a season, maybe one night, or maybe one night in two seasons, is the special night.
Maybe the special night for me in the last season was the BohŤme at the Met with [Sonya] Yoncheva. For me it was a real pleasure because she, as well as being a great singer, is a great musician. Itís very easy to connect with her onstageóshe connects very well with the conductor, so the music seems so natural, so easy to do. For me it was one of the most impressive performances, because everything I was thinking was going on. Maybe when youíre on the podium you try to do something, but itís not happening because the singers donít do it or the orchestra is not going with you exactly as you would like. [That] one night was so special.
Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagnerís Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.