A Chat With Italian Conductor Riccardo Frizza

He also tells us why some of Donizetti’s masterworks are better known than others, although a number of his lesser known works are of equal merit.
Q: Where did you grow up?
RF: I was born in Brescia, in the Lombard region of Italy, and grew up in a countryside village about ten kilometers from the city. Although I wouldn’t call my family musical, I started piano lessons when I was five years old after playing a small toy, one that my parents had bought me for Christmas. After high school, I studied at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan and at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. Later, I did graduate work in harmony, counterpoint and fugue in Milan, and conducting in Siena.
Q: Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?
RF: When I discovered the orchestra as an instrument, I was totally mesmerized and in love with Leonard Bernstein. Several masters of the Italian school, including Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti, subsequently influenced me. My most significant teachers were: composer Elisabetta Brusa, who taught me to be able to understand music, and conductor Gilberto Serembe, who taught me the basics and the necessities of conducting technique. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from them is that conducting is not just getting the orchestra to play together. It is the conductor’s responsibility to have musical ideas to present to the musicians, as well as to the listener. If you don’t have anything inside of yourself to express, nothing will pour forth from your conducting.
Q: What did you learn from your teachers that you especially want to pass on to the instrumentalists and singers with whom you work?
RF: Often, young conductors are afraid to be clear in conducting or are only focused on the beauty of the gesture. Thus, they forget the reason why they are on the podium: the music.
Q: Do you ever teach?
RF: I don’t teach anywhere on a regular basis because my activity as a performer doesn’t allow me to have a permanent position. It is also something I don’t want to do, at least at this point of my career. Perhaps I’ll change my mind in the future. I have to say that I love teaching conducting and I teach whenever my calendar gives me the time needed. Actually one of my ‘fellows’ was the recipient of the first prize at the Tokyo International Conducting Competition in 2015.
Q: What level of musicianship do you see in young American singers?
RF: Their level of musicianship is very high! You have such great universities, and the best music schools on the globe. Also, now it is much easier for the students to get information and knowledge. They can also travel to take master classes with the most important figures of the opera world. I think anyone with talent can emerge into the profession. Obviously, if you have a good income you can study in the best academies, but there are many public institutions where you can attend classes with superb teachers. There are examples of great artists, “stars,” such as Juan Diego Florez, Pretty Yende, and Lawrence Brownlee who advanced and became famous even though they did not have easy economic conditions.
Q: Please tell us something about your forthcoming performances:
RF: I love Chicago. I made my Lyric Opera debut in Kevin Newbury’s production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and it was a memorable experience for me to be at this major music center. Lyric’s Norma was a co-production between Lyric, the Canadian Opera Company, the San Francisco Opera, and the Liceu in Barcelona. Norma is Bellini’s greatest opera and it is best known for the purity of the singing it requires.
I am conducting Rigoletto in Spain and it is one of my favorite scores. I call it Verdi’s perfect opera. It was the very first of the masterful operas Verdi composed. Dutch director Monique Wagemakers will stage Rigoletto at the Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona. She did a wonderful job when she staged the same opera in Madrid a few years ago. Her production was minimal and had a modern set but her direction followed Verdi’s wishes exactly. Thoroughly introspective, this production permits all the psychological aspects of the characters to come through.
Q: Of equally great masterworks, why do you think some are better known than others?
RF: I think the fortune of some operas is related to the fame of the artists who interpret them. This is also one of the reasons why some titles are not famous. Try to think what Norma would be without Callas or Attila without Ramey. Those operas were not famous until opera companies staged them with stars in their leading roles. I hope to convince some modern stars to do more unusual repertoire.
Gaetano Donizetti’s works are not well enough understood. As an interpreter, I would like to present more of the rare titles of his catalogue. He is a genius too often forgotten and there is so much yet to be discovered. In the last two or three decades we have become familiar with some of Donizetti’s operas, particularly La Favorita and the Tudor trilogy: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux. However, I consider operas such as Maria di Rohan, Maria de Rudenz, Poliuto, and Dom Sebastien to be equally valuable masterpieces and they are not staged at all. In the future, I certainly hope major opera houses will stage them.
I have a special relationship with Venice’s Teatro La Fenice where I will be conducting Lucia di Lammermoor. The city of Venice is magical and the Fenice or Phoenix is one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world. The fact that there are no cars in the city and that people have to walk over the bridges and through the narrow streets makes the ambience more relaxed. One begins to understand how much less frenetic life was two centuries ago.
Francesco Micheli, who will stage a new production of Lucia at the Fenice, is one of the most interesting Italian directors of the new generation. Despite his youth, he is the artistic director of the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo. Francesco knows the Donizetti world very well and I’m really looking forward to working on this masterpiece beside him. The second reason I’m looking forward to Lucia is that Nadine Sierra will sing the title role. In my opinion, she is one of the most interesting sopranos of her generation.
During this summer, I will be at the Macerata Opera Festival in Italy conducting Aida. My last performances of Aida were in Seattle in 2010. I can’t wait to do this opera again because, after seven years, I can really prepare the score ex-novo. I consider myself a better musician than I was seven years ago. At least I have more experience and I have led many of Verdi’s operas in the meantime. The Arena Sferisterio in Macerata is a unique space unlike any other auditorium in the world. Seating over three thousand people, it is an open-air theater with a specific shape that provides a perfect acoustic.
About Aida, you should know that an overture exists. Verdi prepared it for the first night at La Scala, but withdrew it after a private performance that Franco Faccio conducted shortly before the Italian premiere.
Q: Who are some of the most valued singers of the past and why are their interpretations important?
RF: There are so many major figures who made the history of opera that I will limit my comments to just four: Callas, Pavarotti, Domingo, Sutherland. Each is an icon and we remember each for something special. Callas is considered to be the first modern singer because she was not only the greatest in vocal matters but she achieved the heights in acting. Her Norma is still thought to be without peer. Pavarotti is important because he was the master of the Italian school, which, unfortunately, is disappearing.
Placido Domingo has been the supreme Otello in my opinion. The way he went deeply into the interpretation both musically and dramatically is simply stunning. Dame Joan Sutherland was the first of her era to rediscover the bel canto repertoire, including the works of Donizetti, which I feel have been neglected.
Q: What recordings do you have out currently?
RF: I have so many. ITunes recently released Puccini’s La bohËme, which we taped live at the Met two years ago with Kristine Opolais and Jean-Francois Borras.
Here’s an anecdote from my first studio recording. In Milan in 2003, we made Don Pasquale, which was Juan Diego Florez’s first bel canto recording. As you might know, this opera has a big introduction with a tremendously difficult trumpet solo. The producer told us to do an orchestra reading and prepare it for the take. We played it, and afterward, when I said we were ready to tape it, he answered they had gotten it already! They recorded the rehearsal and it was perfect. Very smart action: he removed the tension and the pressure of the difficult solo from the trumpet player.
Q: What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
RF: Exactly what I’m doing right now. I expect to be making music, traveling around the world and maybe starting to add some Wagner to my repertoire. It is time to discover scores such as Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger.
Q: Do you have any interesting hobbies like cooking, painting, or reading in three alphabets?
RF: I love cooking. It is my passion. My favorite is creating various types of risotto. I also like to discover the local cuisine of the countries where I’m working.
Q: Do you ever have time for a private life?
RF: I’m married to Spanish soprano Davinia Rodriguez and we have a five-year-old daughter. Since my wife is an opera singer, we are very often apart and it does not make our life easy. Sometimes it happens that we don’t see each other for more than two months. Doing the same job, however, gives us both an understanding of this lifestyle. We met during a production of L’elisir d’amore in 2005 and we have been a family since then. She’s a great artist and after her pregnancy her voice grew tremendously. She had to change the repertoire moving from coloratura to full lirico spinto. Recently, she had a huge success singing her first Lady Macbeth alongside Placido Domingo in a new production at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien.
Sofia, our daughter, went to the opera for the first time when she was seven months old. In 2012, she attended the final dress rehearsal of L’elisir d’amore in Dresden at the Semperoper, but we had to take her out during the finale because she began to sing. She loves opera and she’s actually able to sing many arias.
I do suggest that kids be introduced to classical music even before they are born. During their pregnancies mothers should listen to classical music. It is very helpful for babies because they later recognize the music listened to in utero. We have had this experience with our daughter. For children, classical music should be as available as the food they eat, the toys they play with, and their mother’s smell. Then they will grow up with it as a part of their daily lives.

image_description=Riccardo Frizza [Photo by J Henry Fair]
product_title=A Chat With Italian Conductor Riccardo Frizza
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Riccardo Frizza [Photo by J Henry Fair]