On the eve of his 80th birthday on 28 July, Riccardo Muti gave an exceptionally long interview to the Corriere della Sera’s Aldo Cazzullo. Here are some highlights.
I’m tired of life, because this is a world that I no longer recognise and since I can’t expect the world to adapt to me, it would be better if I got out of the way. As Falstaff sings: “Tutto declina”. [From the third act of Verdi’s opera: “All is declining”, finishing with the words, “Walk until you die”.]
I had the good fortune to grow up in the 1950s and to attend the high school in Molfetta [near Bari, southern Italy]… with teachers who were not just strict; very strict! I remember a Latin test in secondary school when the teacher asked me, “’Pluit aqua’; what is aqua?” Instead of the ablative, I answered, nominative. He grabbed me by the ears and shook me like a bell rope. Thanks to that teacher, I never made a mistake in Latin again. Today he would be arrested.
I regret the lack of seriousness today, the spirit with which Frederick II had the motto carved on the Capua town gate: Intrent securi qui quaerunt vivere puri (Let those who intend to live honestly enter safely) – this is the immigration and integration policy that is needed.
I don’t even recognise my own profession. Conducting has often become a profession of convenience and young people often get into conducting without long and serious study. They tackle monumental works at the beginning of their career, relying on the effectiveness of gestures.
Toscanini said that the arms are the extension of the mind. Today, many conductors use the podium for excessive gesticulation, for show, trying to make an impression with an audience more interested in what they see than what they hear.
I don’t want to be polemical… but my maestro, Antonino Votto, used to say that the conductor must have breathed the dust of the stage. Instead, orchestras, choruses and singers complain of an increasing lack of musical and dramaturgical information from conductors. There are not even serious rehearsals anymore.
Rehearsals with the conductor at the piano preparing the ensemble are becoming less and less frequent, in favour of weeks and weeks of stage rehearsals, often with directors who don’t know music, who can’t read a score, and who increasingly invent stories that go against the musical intent. In his correspondence with Kandinsky, Schoenberg emphasised that if the stage direction and set design disturbed the music, then they were wrong. And Schoenberg certainly wasn’t a reactionary.
I don’t think I am either. I am the conductor who has done the most productions, nine since the 1970s, with [the director, Luca] Ronconi, another who wasn’t a reactionary, especially in those days. I am still under the influence of [Giorgio] Strehler, who not only knew music and was able to read a score, but also pursued ‘beauty’, though not only for aesthetics, but as an essential component of true art. My productions with Strehler – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Falstaff – have accompanied me and will accompany me throughout my life and have taught me a great deal. That is why I sometimes say, perhaps exaggerating, that I am tired of life. I think I no longer belong to a world that is completely overturning those principles of culture and ethics in art that I grew up with and that my teachers at high school and at the conservatoire conveyed to me.
I’ve just finished conducting Aida in concert at the Arena, and my regret is that I couldn’t do Aida with Strehler, as we had planned. It would have been without elephants. Giorgio believed in an Aida where the ‘triumph’ was only in the music, not in that pharaonic spectacle that has characterised productions of Aida the world over, to the point of becoming the very symbol of Aida and damaging the true essence of the opera, which is built on one of Verdi’s most refined and delicate scores.
It does not only apply to Aida. I don’t want to be the bird of ill omen, but the exorbitant cost of sets and costumes, together with the lack of competence and influence of the conductors who – with some exceptions – leave the singers without guidance, worry me about the future of opera. Italy is full of 18th and 19th century theatres that are still closed. I told Franceschini [the culture minister] to reopen them and give them to young people and to set up new orchestras – there are regions that do not have one. Help the hundreds of struggling ensembles that have been silenced for the last year and a half, with the consequent economic disaster for their families. We must do many things if we want to preserve our opera heritage, the most performed in the world, and for it to be considered not as a pleasant entertainment but as a source of education and culture, like the works of Mozart, Wagner, and Strauss. Verdi is not oom-pah-pah!
I’m not afraid of death. As a boy we used to go to the cemetery in the evenings to watch the wills-o’-the-wisp. I met the last professional mourner, Giustina, who told me about the rewards of the dead, lying on the bed in the only room in the house, the door open to the street, with a photo of the soldier brother on the wall as well as the heroic uncle… It was a simple and amazing world, which I miss very much. That’s why I belong to another era. Today the world goes so fast, it overwhelms everything, even these simple things, which have a deep humanity.
I don’t fear the end in itself, though I would be sorry to leave my loved ones: my wife, my children Francesco, Chiara and Domenico, my grandchildren. And the animals: my dog Cooper, a Maltese, and in the countryside, we have doves, rabbits, chickens, roosters, and two Sardinian donkeys, Gaetano and Lampo, who are very intelligent. They get very attached; they look at you quizzically with their pink eyes…. and we use the words ‘dogs’ and ‘donkeys’ as if they were insults.
I joke that I will leave the instructions for the pieces of music to be heard in the church for my funeral, which will be all recordings conducted by me! Not because I think they are the best, but I want people to remember how I conducted Mozart, Schubert, Brahms. If it’s not me conducting, I’ll know immediately, and there’s a strong chance the lid of the coffin will open…!
There’s one thing I’m very serious about, though: I don’t want applause at my funeral. I grew up in a world where there was a terrifying silence at funerals. Everyone was locked in their real or false grief. For the more affluent there was a band playing Rossini’s Stabat Mater or the Molfettesi funeral marches, famous in Puglia. I remember hearing applause for the first time at the funerals of Totò and Anna Magnani, but it was in recognition of their ability to interpret the soul of Naples, Rome and Italy itself. When it’s my turn, I’d like there to be absolute silence. If someone applauds, I swear I’ll come back to haunt them at night, during the most intimate moments.
I don’t know if I’ll find myself in a better world, certainly not in the Elysian Fields, though I hope there is a lot of light. As long as there is not a metempsychosis as I have no desire to be reborn, much less as a spider or a mouse, but not even as a lion. One life is more than enough.
I had a Catholic education… though I don’t believe in the blonde Jesus of the prayer cards. Inside us there is a cosmic energy that survives us because it is divine. I remember the death of my mother Gilda where I had the distinct sensation that her body became as heavy as marble, while a vital flow of energy was released. I feel that the universe is criss-crossed by sound rays that reach us, and that is the reason we have music. The sound rays that went through Mozart are infinite.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.