Mastodon The MET's Fabio Luisi - exactly who does he think he is? - The Wagnerian

The MET's Fabio Luisi - exactly who does he think he is?

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday 27 September 2011 | 7:09:00 pm

Or at least who is he? A little background from the Wall Street Journal. As always, media added by the TW


On Sept. 15, Fabio Luisi, 52, newly appointed principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, had his first meeting with the orchestra to read through a new work by John Harbison for their Oct. 16 Carnegie Hall concert. Wearing a polo shirt and jeans, Mr. Luisi, slim and bespectacled, politely prefaced corrections with "I suggest" and "May I ask a favor, please?" But he made sure to get the changes that he wanted, even if they required several repetitions. After 90 minutes of efficient but painstaking rehearsal, he let the musicians go—an hour early.

James Levine, the Met's music director, was originally scheduled to conduct, but his new back injury, sustained two weeks earlier, had the Met scrambling to replace him for the concert and, even more critically, for the new productions of "Don Giovanni" (opening Oct. 13) and "Siegfried" (Oct. 27). Mr. Luisi, already principal guest conductor, who stepped in for Mr. Levine several times in the past two seasons, was the obvious solution for "musical continuity going forward," says Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met. "Having Fabio available to do these productions provides a good and strong hand with the orchestra at a time when we need one."

Mr. Gelb characterizes the appointment as long term, with the new title symbolic of Mr. Luisi's more constant role in the house. He will also be sitting in on auditions and consulting on casting, guest conductors and repertoire. "He is very interested in everything that goes on here, and eager to be a bigger part of it," Mr. Gelb says. The conductor was already slated for several productions in each of the next few seasons (including "Manon" and "La Traviata" this spring); the Met is now trying to find still more time in his schedule. And should Mr. Levine be ultimately unable to continue in his role as music director, Mr. Gelb says, "we would be happy to have Fabio as the leading musician at the Met, with whatever title is appropriate at that time."

Mr. Luisi is used to packed opera-house schedules: He was general music director of the Dresden State Opera and its orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle, from 2007 to 2010, and assumes that post at the Zurich Opera next fall. In Dresden, he relished the role, developing the profile of that German house through the setting of musical standards, repertoire choice, the introduction of contemporary music and the appointment of a composer in residence to help "establish a relationship between a composer and the audience." Mr. Luisi's standard repertoire interests are wide—Mozart, Strauss, Verdi and Wagner (he has conducted half a dozen "Ring" cycles); he also loves Massenet ("so warm-hearted"), Bellini and Handel. He doesn't conduct operas in languages that he does not understand, such as Russian, "because the words are as important as the music, and if I don't understand the words, it's like not being able to read notes. It's just sound without any meaning." With some Janáček projects on the horizon, he is now learning Czech
Overture The Marriage of Figaro Fabio Luisi Wiener Symphoniker

Mr. Luisi cares deeply about what happens on the stage as well as in the pit. His first week at the Met included staging rehearsals for "Don Giovanni" with director Michael Grandage. "The work together with the director that I am doing now is so beautiful, because you can really see it happening from tabula rasa, from nothing," he says. Together is the key word. "I can say, 'here the music says something differently,' or 'here the music gives you time to do something, and we have to see it, not only to hear it.' Like Strauss, Mozart gives a microcosm of life—joy, drama, reflection, anger, tragedy—in the music and the words, and these should be connected from the first bar. It's about going through the piece, bar by bar, scene by scene, and doing it together, helping each other to find the right character."

With his long career in Austrian and German opera houses, Mr. Luisi is experienced in the ways of director-driven theater. In his view, "a story needs to be told. You can tell a story in many different ways, but it should be that story, not a completely different one." When he found out that Hans Neunfels, a director whose aesthetic is antithetical to his, would be directing the 2010 "Lohengrin" in Bayreuth, he withdrew from the production.

Born in Genoa, Italy, and trained as a pianist, Mr. Luisi was at first oriented toward French repertoire. While studying in Paris, he began to work with singers, and decided to become a conductor. At 21, he went to Graz, Austria, to study with the conductor Milan Horvat. Mr. Luisi had scant knowledge of Mahler, Strauss, Bruckner and Wagner, since those great Austrian and German symphonists and opera composers wrote little or nothing for piano, and he spoke no German. He learned. "I could not have conducted such composers without living there and speaking the language." Mr. Luisi has held top posts at various European orchestras; he is currently chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony, with which he will tour the U.S. in November.

The clarity and vigor of Mr. Luisi's conducting were much in evidence in a fierce "Tosca" and an eloquent "Ariadne auf Naxos" in recent seasons at the Met. "I want to show the structure of the composition," he says. "Even if the score is complicated, like Strauss or Wagner, every line is a thought of the composer, and it's my job to make these thoughts understandable. Of course, everything comes together, and the result is structure, sound, and power sometimes, but what some people call 'the German Romantic sound,' because it is full and heavy, for me, this is just very bad tradition."

He also stresses the importance of being "a partner of the singers." "They have really a very hard job—standing there, singing everything by heart, in front of 3,000 people. I'm happy I don't see the people when I conduct. I think they need and deserve all the help we can give them." Leadership is not dictating, "but making them comfortable with my ideas."

Mr. Luisi has moved with his Bavarian wife and youngest son, 13, from Vienna to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and is delighted with the energy he feels in New York. "You can really smell and breathe it all the time, even when I take our dogs to the park at midnight. There's a feeling of wanting to be alive and be productive for oneself, family, neighbors and society. In Europe, the growing tendency is, 'I don't care, someone will provide.' Here, I feel the taking of responsibility. It's quite amazing for me—as an Italian, especially."