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?”


Love / Ambition

The John Fulljames era at the Royal Danish Opera ended this summer. Here are some thoughts on his parting gesture, a new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, whose messages of optimism came with their own bitter aftertaste.

This review was commissioned by and written for Opera News in New York. But a glitch meant it was never published. So here it is. Better late than never…

Wagner: Die Walküre Royal Danish Opera / 6.3.22

Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan in Die Walküre at the Royal Danish Opera (Camilla Winther)

After an absence of 16 years, Wagner’s Ring returned to the Copenhagen Opera House in March. The audience had waited long enough. Early performances of this Die Walküre sold out and there was rapt attention in the auditorium for the duration of the opening night’s 5 hours. Artistic Director John Fulljames took charge of the staging, the last he will pilot while still in post. Conducting was Thomas Søndergård, who played timpani in the pit the last time the Ring was seen at this address, in the production by Kasper Holten that opened the new opera house and put the Royal Danish Opera on the world map.

Fulljames’s intelligent production couldn’t help but bring to mind the sorry administrative mess that will see him depart this summer, and his projected complete Ring apparently aborted after he was allegedly deemed insufficiently Scandinavian to run Denmark’s national company. Here was further evidence that the boss bows out with his head held high, his staging focusing hard on the hopelessness of Wotan’s quest for power and the sort of short-term schemes that are doomed to fail in the face of true vision and genuine humanity. 

Wotan was on stage from the start, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur fixated on architectural models and spreadsheets, who assumed the status of a guru for his MacBook-wielding posse of office-bound Valkyries. When it all came tumbling down, he clasped to his chest a model of a broad staircase punctured by a giant spear, devastated that he – like Fulljames perhaps – would never get to see his plans come to fruition.

That model was the set we saw at full-scale on stage. Beneath the staircase, the under-class of Hunding and Sieglinde struggled in dirt and grime. Above it, Wotan’s elite workforce distributed Frappuccinos as they high-fived their corporation’s latest successes. It formed a strong image of the world in which we find ourselves, but proved even more resonant as a landscape of heartless ambition against which Siegmund and Brünnhilde’s visions of love and empathy proved so instantly transformative.  

The dramatic power in Act II was severe, Brünnhilde’s initial exchange with Siegmund riven with a line of tension drawn from a combination of sadness and complete stasis, the Valkyrie rooted to a single spot on stage until the pivotal moment at which she could resist the power of human love no more. After a caricature of a meek, abused partner in Act I, the Sieglinde of Act II, debilitated by a deep sense of shock, proved strikingly moving to watch.

That role was taken by Ann Petersen, her apparently ageless voice clearer than ever and offering in tone color what it can sometimes lack in agility. Her characteristic ability to rise to the occasion, even in the middle of a phrase, gave her portrayal a vital dramatic edge. Bryan Register’s Siegmund proved his heldentenor credentials, its lyricism mingled with a sense of over-excitement adumbrating a potentially fine Siegfried. Morten Staugaard found unexpected depth and growl as Hunding and his laconic acting oozed malice. Hanne Fischer’s portrayal of Fricka was deeply satisfying. Only the assembled Valkyries underwhelmed, a fragile ensemble stocked with too many promising but inexperienced singers from the Opera Academy.

There was real quality where it mattered. Both Tomasz Konieczny’s Wotan and Trine Møller’s Brünnhilde were defined by their superior approach to text. Konieczny’s bright, gleaming, legato-infused baritone does so much with words and can apparently color a note even when his mouth is closed; his ‘Abschied’ was most moving at its quietest. Møller focused on meaning and diction, drawing attention away from the size of a voice that, in the end, seemed big enough anyway.

Søndergård paced everything to the text and with ample elasticity. Strings were occasionally lost in the orchestral balance – not normally a problem with the Royal Danish Orchestra – and detail in the prelude to Act II was frustratingly low. But grandeur and scintillating rapture were kept in good balance. Ultimately, ambition and power were trumped by love and beauty, realized as effectively via the notes we heard as by the tenderness we saw.