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OPERA express – Exclusive Interview with Maestro Andrea Battistoni

OPERA express – Exclusive Interview with Maestro Andrea Battistoni

Q: Congratulations on being appointed as Principal Guest Conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. I’m very excited about seeing your next concert style opera “Turandot” which I will report on. It is my understanding that your parents had a large influence on your decision to become a musician. Your mother is a pianist and your father is a doctor who loves opera, I was wondering how they introduced you to the world of music?
A: I, myself, sometimes wonder how it came to be. I may not be able to recommend someone else the way I approached music because it was really strange (Laughs). My mother is a pianist and she thought “Music is mandatory education” from the beginning. In the very early stage of my childhood, I was studying music. Firstly I learned piano, but I didn’t like it, so then I learned the cello. My mother might have asked me which musical instrument I liked, but there was no choice whether I’d like to learn music or not. Since I had talent, my performance improved, but I didn’t specially care for music. Still now I sometimes ask myself how I felt at that time. I don’t have children, so it’s hard for me to imagine the mechanism of a young child’s brain. Perhaps children don’t like to get into something very seriously. Sometimes my mother was rather strict to make me study. I appreciate her now, but never thanked her at that time nor did I ever feel happy in the lessons (Laughs).

However, when I found the existence of orchestras, it brought about a change inside me. It was an orchestra tune at that time. Opera hadn’t made a connection to music in me yet. Since I was from Verona, Opera was a thing to go to at the Arena and to see music festivals outside in the summer to enjoy the gorgeous stages. When I joined the orchestra of the conservatory and began to play, I really found one world. I was 14. Until then, I played music because I had to do it as study. But when I started to play with other people, I thought that this was the purpose of my long study till then. I understood why I had been studying, it was not for playing alone but to play with other people! I found out what the meaning of playing together was, what an orchestra was, and that an orchestra wasn’t only a bunch of people playing music together. They could turn into a musical instrument which could express anything. It could express any feelings, senses or colors…

Q: Then, from that time, did you have any favorite composers?

A: Yes. I began to listen to various kinds of music. Before that, I hadn’t listened to music in particular. I just played music. Since then, however, I came to listen to music a lot, and also came to read biographies of composers whichever I came across. Then it occurred to me that I’d like to conduct, because I love orchestras. It was a conductor who could “play” the whole orchestra. Cellists can only play the cello.

Q: Did you start to study conducting immediately?

A: Almost, yes. I started to read orchestra scores from 15 or 16 or so. At first, I didn’t know how to read them but I tried to find my own unique way of reading them. Everyone said, “it’s too early to conduct, you should do it after getting older”. I, however, wanted to conduct sooner than later. I bought a full score, began to read it and struggled to understand it. I didn’t know anything about it but I tried to understand the construction. I studied the gestures of conductors while watching videos. I tried to understand what the conductors were doing. Then I asked the professor of the conservatory to let me conduct a rehearsal and I started to conduct the wind orchestra of the conservatory. Besides, I conducted at the recital of the music composed by the students of the department of composition, these were the first stages in my conducting career. For that reason, I came to like conducting more and more, I decided to study conducting after I got my cello diploma. I guess that my choice wasn’t a mistake (Laughs).

Q: As for Opera, even in Italy, it seems that there are not as many chances for young people to see opera as there used to be. I’ve heard that recently during your career you have always tried to passionately introduce opera to young people. Could you tell me about that?

A: I’m always seeking a better way. I use the internet which is familiar to young people, for instance. To give them chances to come to the theaters and be exposed to operas. Opera is not only a rigid culture but also a very fascinating world. It can be a thing which young people are absorbed in and which appeals to their feelings. Now Italian Opera Houses make many attempts to engage the youth. Many operas are performed and the tickets for youth are set at considerably low prices. After that, we should let them feel closer to Opera than they ever thought. That’s what I’m making an effort to do now.

Q: At Teatro Carlo Felice of Genova which you have been a Principal Guest Conductor, what kind of activities are you doing, for instance?

A: I have many chances to talk with young people. Also there is a tour to observe rehearsals. I think, it is not sufficient that we let them come to the theater and show them an opera without any explanation. We should give them tools to discover it. In Italy, teachers don’t teach the knowledge to understand music anymore, that’s why it is difficult for them. Even if they had a chance, they usually don’t understand the rules of opera. At school, they study a lot of classic poems like Dante and so on, but they can appreciate them because they have learned the rules. Therefore, if they don’t study how to listen to music, we have to teach them.

Q: Do you talk about the history of the opera?

A: For instance, recently I had a chance to talk about Giuseppe Verdi to some senior high school students. The school requested me to introduce some titles of Verdi’s operas to the students. I could have chosen the popular ones like “Triumphal March from Aida”, “Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore”, or “La Traviata” which they surely had heard somewhere, but instead I introduced them to a duet of the third act from “Otello”. It was the scene where Otello got mad at Desdemona about the handkerchief. That is not music that you can easily get familiar with in regards to the melody. It is possible, however, that the things which are more profound and complicated can give a deeper impression than the things which are more basic and simple.

The way of writing opera music is different from the music which they’re usually listening to, as for the scripts, especially since Boito was a great poet, the Italian words which he used were really exquisite, sometimes archaic or even coined by him. For example, “Otello” and “Falstaff” were written with the words which I have to search the meanings of in a dictionary which are hard to find. But I explained the story and what they were talking about, in a casual way. For example, the line, which Otello said to Desdemona, “non sei forse una vil cortigiana? (Aren’t you maybe a vile courtesan?)” “Cortigiana” is a very poetic term in Italian, but Boito used that word in the sense of “a prostitute”. Translating such kinds of poetic expressions into simple words makes them change and think “Ah, then this was not a castle in the air!” At first they laughed, though (Laughs). Verdi’s music at that moment is really dramatic so everyone listened quietly and got it, “Ah, that’s it.” They should be trained like this at school, but we should do it, if schools don’t do it. This is hardly the time for just complaining that young people don’t come to see operas. We should try to give them tools to come and see operas.
Q: This time you’re going to perform “Turandot” with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Why did you choose this title?

A: The reason I chose this opera is that I want to conduct the opera which I love most in Tokyo. Also, Turandot is the fateful title for the Italian opera. From a certain point of view, this is also the opera which killed the Italian opera. After Turandot, it was impossible to write an opera in the way they used to. Verismo operas, or nostalgic Italian operas which succeeded with the Romanticism of song, might be the style for Puccini even more than Verdi, in contrast to the Turandot which is a 20th century opera. In that opera, there are also very beautiful melodies but we are deceived by that.

Puccini tried to create a completely new thing to the opera world and to himself. Puccini’s operas before this were all realistic dramas. “La Bohème”, “Madama Butterfly”, “La Fanciulla del West”, etc…”Tosca” is also a verismo opera by any stretch of the imagination. “Turandot” is the first and only opera he tried to write with a new idea. That means it is “the symbolic opera”.

Q: Certainly, “20th century music” is remarkable in Turandot.

A: Yes, it certainly is. Originally, there is a very delicate phase to perform opera in a concert style. Not all operas are suited for it. For instance, I think that only 2 or 3 of Verdi’s operas are suited for it. Even Puccini’s opera, “Madama Butterfly” for instance, can it be successfully performed without a stage? The music is intense but should it be listened to independently? Turandot is the perfect title for music only. It is very sophisticated and the orchestra part is well written and symphonic. In that opera, we can listen to a lot of influence of 20th century music, Ravel and Stravinsky and so on. Also, let’s not forget about Bartók. Puccini knew about these composers and studied them.

Besides, the story is not realistic. I think that you would make a mistake if you try to interpret this opera in the same way you do of other Puccini operas. Turandot created a big revolution. This is a symbolic title and it has no element of verismo. I assume that Puccini drove himself into a corner. It is not the reason why he couldn’t finish “Turandot” that he died of disease. He had enough time to finish this opera.

The reason he couldn’t finish writing this opera was that he had tried to do something which was impossible. He tried to make the character of Turandot human. Turandot, however, shouldn’t be human. She was not an ordinary person. There is no realistic aspect in this story like how Prince Calaf saw Turandot appear on the top of a very high tower in the middle of night and fell madly in love. This is a fairy tale. It is not the real world that Turandot killed her suiters one after another.

Puccini had set the target a bit like a “Wagnerian-world” like in which Turandot was lost in love because of Calaf’s passion, but that was not the correct choice. That’s why he couldn’t finish this opera. In other words, Puccini was going back to his own sentimental world. That, however, didn’t work for this opera. Therefore, destiny made this an unfinished opera.

Q: It’s very persuasive. This time will the end of the performance be by Alfano which is played often?

A: The 2nd edition of Alfano’s finale is what I like most now. The 1st edition of Alfano’s finale was too long and it had too much of Alfano’s tastes. The ratio of the composer Alfano is too strong and the elements of Puccini is too small (Laugh). It’s like an Italian Mahler. It was very beautiful but that was Alfano’s own music. I totally agree with the opinion to play Alfano’s music more often. I think “Cyrano de Bergerac” or “The legend of Shakuntala (Sakuntala)” and so on are very nice pieces.

The finale of “Turandot” has another version written by Luciano Berio. The problem with Berio’s version is that he made the story that Puccini wanted to do. That means, he tried to describe the characters realistically as human. There is no such mistake like this. I can’t find a good reason to be human suddenly in the end of such a symbolic and unrealistic story. I am not convinced with the mercy given to Liu, and the finale which ends by fading out.

I prefer Alfano’s 2nd edition which was edited by Toscanini. It was the closest version to the sketch of Puccini and it is positive in the point which it doesn’t seek a profound deep meaning to the story. This is also a positive point to emphasize the happy ending. It is oriental as a concept of the theatre. We shouldn’t ask questions. It’s the story which needs a happy ending.

Puccini, perhaps, began to feel sympathy with Liu. That’s the problem of “Turandot”. We can’t stop asking questions as to why Liu died and so on. Liu is a symbol of “human sacrifice”. It is not because Calaf is a bad guy or any other reason, it is that he doesn’t have an interest in Liu. This is because this story is a fairy tale. “Turandot” is a great opera which has a symbolic way of painting a picture with words. I think it is rather an Eastern type world.
Q: You are known as an avid reader, what kind of books do you like to read? Could you tell me the author or the title which you were impressed with recently?

A: I read various genres of books. I usually read a couple of books at the same time. There are different books in each room of my house (Laughs). I read a lot of books about my work, music. Biographies of composers and conductors, also. And, a lot of novels, I like American post modern novels, like Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers and so on.

Of course I read classics. I tried to read a wide range of books as much as I can. It’s fun to read thriller novels sometimes. On the plane I often read thrillers. I also like Steven King. I really like to read. I read anything. Essays, philosophy books at times. If I had to choose the best one, Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” for now.

Q: When you’re conducting, of course you prepare a lot beforehand, I see you have an extraordinary concentration on the stage. I admire that you’re so brave because you look like you’re jumping into the music. Is it natural for you to conduct?

A: It is natural to conduct for me. For me it means: to meet the orchestra members, to communicate the direction of my music which I pursue and to conduct. But there must be the premise of my posture to study all the time to pursue better things. Nothing can be completed without that. What I do should be the result of rational cogitation.

At the moment I play music, I emit my energy to the maximum and absorbed myself into the music. But at the very moment, to have inspiration and to perform which draws the people around me in, I should see the arrival point which I aim to reach. In other words, I travel from A to B led by inspiration, but I should know where B is (Laughs).

Q: Is the job of a conductor very hard?

A: No, that’s not so but, there are some elements that are hard. For example, a lot of work piles up, because I’m offered a lot of jobs. I tend to work far away from my house and so on but I can’t think other life for me. I like my job and I want to communicate the gift which if called music to as many people as I can.

Q: This is the last question. Related to your “Turandot” performance, I want you to solve my riddle (Laughs). Could you tell me three points why you would like to work with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra?

A: In Turandot, the 3 answers should be “sangue (blood)” etc….(Laughs) surely I may be able to say “blood” as the first one. They are hot-blooded, I mean, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra has a big passion. They have a power which draws people in. They are the people, like I said, who can absorbed into music daringly after they prepared for the travel from A to B at a high level as pros. At a concert, all unite to play. This is a really wonderful point which I like very much. Second point, their skills are really high. This is also important. Lastly, they are serious and concentrate during rehearsals, they are all friendly after that. So I can feel that I’m warmly welcomed by them. This is a great thing. Not only we recognize each other as pros but also we face each other as people.

Q: Thank you for your wonderful replies. I’m looking forward to Turandot, and a lot of your future concerts with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Andrea Battistoni
Andrea Battistoni

interview: Mika Inouchi / photo: Naoko Nagasawa


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