Luisi v. Opera

Fabio Luisi is not happy about the state of the opera industry, as he told me recently when we sat down in Copenhagen to talk about…Carl Nielsen

For the new (May) edition of Gramophone, I interviewed Fabio Luisi – Chief Conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra since 2016. When we met here in Copenhagen two months ago, we talked mostly of Carl Nielsen. That was the hook for Gramophone’s article. Luisi is back in town right now, conducting six all-Nielsen concerts across nine days starting on 20 April, coinciding with Deutsche Grammophon’s release of the composer’s complete symphonies recorded with the same orchestra.

But we also talked opera – specifically, the Italian conductor’s apparent partial withdrawl from the opera world since he resigned the general music directorship of Zurich Opera in 2021. And Luisi isn’t happy about the state of the industry…

I refer briefly to Luisi’s comments in the Gramophone article, but there wasn’t room to quote him in full. So here’s what he said, from the tape. The conversation grew from talking about the conductor’s concert Ring Cycle with his Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the first enterprise of its kind presented by a major American orchestra (Luisi conducted the Met’s last Ring, in the production by Robert Lepage). Fingers crossed it will end up on the DSO’s enterprising own label.

AM: Talk of your Ring Cycle in Dallas reminds me that you don’t have an opera house at the moment.

FL: No, I stopped Zurich two seasons ago. And I didn’t want…I wanted to reduce my opera commitment.


I was a little bit tired of the opera business. I still am, because it has changed a lot in the last 20-25 years. I started in opera in the 80s, and I was involved a lot with European opera houses and then the Met, and…the business has changed and has not changed in a good direction in my opinion. The focus is going into the visual aspect of presenting opera, which is important. But neglecting the musical aspect is not a good development in my opinion, and most opera houses are neglecting the musical aspect.

In terms of singers?

Singers, conductors.

Is that connected to the current notion that the ‘fach’ no longer exists – that singers should be more versatile?

It’s wrong. Not every voice is fit for everything.

Is this one of the reasons for your dissatisfaction?

Of course. It is very hard to find, these days, real Verdi voices, for example. Most opera houses…it’s a question of competence. If you are focused on the visual aspect, the voice becomes secondary. So you hire excellent-looking singers but if their voice doesn’t fit Don Carlo or Othello, or Lohengrin, it doesn’t have such importance anymore and I don’t want to be part of this.

Are the voices available? There are probably a dozen productions of Lohengrin happening in Europe at the moment. That suggests we have to have twelve singers doing the role just in Europe, or the opera can’t be staged.

It depends on which level. I tend to think on the highest level. Maybe we have one or two real voices for Lohengrin right now. Maybe we have a couple of voice for Ortrud, but not so many, and so in reality Ortrud is being sung by singers who are too little for this role. Elsa is fine, we have voices for Elsa. It’s a different thing for Verdi. A real Verdi voice, soprano, I can think of two or three. A real Verdi tenor? This gets very difficult. Bass? This gets enormously difficult.


A real baritone for Verdi, I mean if I hear Leonard Warren or [inaudible] or [Piero] Cappuccilli, okay. But now? We had [Željko] Lučić, who was very good, but he doesn’t sing anymore at that level.


Tezier is excellent, very good. But I wouldn’t do Iago with Tezier, he is not Iago.

In Zurich did you have full control over casting?

I had most control over casting of my productions and I was responsible for the conductors of the other productions. Somehow but not necessarily for the singers of the other productions.

So you must be casting your Dallas Ring with care?

Yes and it is not easy.


Luisi was adamant – even shaken beyond his usual demure demeanour – when talking of the quality of Copenhagen’s music life, describing it as ‘underrated’ and his orchestra here as ‘a treasure’. He talked also of Marie Jacquot, designated to the music directorship of the Royal Danish Opera from August 2024. ‘I know Marie because I taught at the academy in Vienna for a semester, and she was one of my students. So I have known her for several years, and she has developed beautifully. She was already at that time a very interesting student. I am very happy about her position here at the opera.’

The best bits, of course, were saved for Gramophone. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Fabio Luisi is gentility personified. He has a fondness for fine tailoring and bow ties. He speaks softly and sensitively, like a surgeon imparting difficult news. His musical DNA is unmistakeably operatic. So how has this bespectacled theatre musician from Italy come to cut what one Gramophone critic has already touted as the superlative cycle of symphonies by Carl Nielsen – music that has mud on its boots, that sticks out tongues, hollers in the vernacular and trades in brusque northern European confrontation?”