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Marco Boemi: "The mission of a conductor is to lead singers"

Marco Boemi is a renowned Italian conductor who worked with a range of illustrious singers from different generations - from Luciano Pavarotti and Edita Gruberova to Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvasov. Recently he has directed Giacomo Puccini’s "La Bohème" at the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre in Moscow. We have had a conversation about his collaboration with the soloists and the orchestra, the profession of a conductor and the peculiarities of performing Puccini’s operas.

At the moment you’re directing “La Bohème” at Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre. Is it pleasant for you to work with the soloists, the orchestra and the choir of the Center? How do you feel about it?

Probably, you know, I was already here for “Rigoletto”, so I knew the orchestra before and liked them very much, because there are many young people in this orchestra. You know some conductors think it’s better to work with more experienced people but for me, I think, it’s much more interesting to work with young people. Ok, they are not experienced as older people but they have enthusiasm and passion they put in their work, and it really helps to make music, especially if you do Puccini, because Puccini is all about enthusiasm, passion and things like that. So, I’m very happy to work with them, and it’s incredible that they really have a fantastic big sound. If you think, we have only six first violins and normally you do this opera with twelve first violins. So, they can produce a really wonderful sound, but you know this is very famous in Western Europe the so-called “culture of strings” in Russia, so strings are always very-very-very good. For me, it’s a real pleasure to work with them. As for the young singers, of course, sometimes they are not so refined or so experienced like older ones but I think you cannot do “La Bohème” with, let’s say, middle-aged singers. They need to be young in their hearts, in their soul. With this group of people, it was really nice work. The big problem for them is that Puccini’s operas have a very strong relation of text and music, so if you don’t understand exactly what you’re saying then you’re in a big trouble. It’s not like Verdi, Donizetti or Bellini where words are not so important, because music and phrasing are important. Whatever you sing, it doesn’t make any difference. Ok, it’s not totally true, but when you do Puccini, very often a word gives a character to the music and the opposite way, so if you don’t understand what you say, it’s difficult. For them the main problem was that sometimes they know what they say but not in detail, so that was work we had to do. But I have to say, I’m pretty happy with them.

Is there a difference between working with Russian artists and, let’s say, Italian ones?

In terms of music knowledge, I would say it’s the same thing. The only difference I see is that if you work with Italian artists on Italian opera, of course, it’s easier. I’m also a pianist and I do a lot of chamber Lieder music with famous singers – a month ago I did a Lieder Abend with the famous tenor Giuseppe Sabbatini, we did some music of Strauss, Liszt, Ravel and other European composers. But Sabbatini doesn’t speak German, so for him it was very difficult to prepare Strauss’s music, it was a long and difficult process for him to learn exactly each word, its meaning to make the “right” interpretation. So, when you work with singers of different nationalities and cultures, the only important aspect is their understanding of the text. As far as music is concerned, there is no difference, as I’ve already said. I work with Russian singers here as if I was working with Italian ones in Italy.

You’ve mentioned some of your impressions about “La Bohe’me”. What is your favourite scene from this opera?

That’s a difficult question. First of all, “La Bohème” contains the most famous arias Puccini wrote, together “Nessun dorma” and “Vissi d’arte”. ”Che gelida manina” and “Si’, mi chiamano Mimi’” are the most performed puccianian arias ever. For me, as a conductor, the second act contains a particular interest – it could have been written by Strauss, Ravel, Stravinsky, it’s realy “European”. Puccini himself looked for a special harmony in his music and derived it from different countries. He went to Gratz for the premiere of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” and to Paris for Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”. So he did everything to know as much as possible about the musical world which surrounded him and used this knowledge in composing his own works. It’s very modern! Act two reminds me of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka”!

What recording of this opera do you find ideal?

I was in Vienna many years ago where Carlos Kleiber directed “La Bohème”. He was a God among conductors for me, together with Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. Pavarotti and Freni were the soloists – they sang fantastically but were already too mature for the roles of Rodolfo and Mimi’. There is a live recording preserved, and it is one of the best recordings of this opera. Karajan’s version is also fantastic. Moreover, there is a splendid “La Bohe’me” conducted by Leonard Bernstein from the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome with Jerry Hadley in the role of Rodolfo. I must say I always judge a recording from the conductor’s side. It is always more about how it sounds from the orchestral side. The three genius conductors I’ve mentioned could find such subtle nuances in the score that made the opera sound divine.

I’ve just spoken about the profession of a conductor. Do you think a conductor must know a lot about the vocal technique? Or it is unnecessary?

First of all, you have to be a conductor who likes opera. There are many celebrated conductors who are not interested in this genre – then, there is no point in directing it. But, loving opera, one needs to know about the vocal “needs” of a singer. I have a very good friend of mine, a famous soprano, who told me that she sang Verdi’s Requiem with Riccardo Chailly. And after that production she had absolutely no desire to work with him again. I asked her, “Why so? He is an excellent conductor!” She responded that Chailly doesn’t “breathe” with singers. What I want to say is that a conductor must know what singers feel when they sing and “breathe” with them. That’s not easy at all. You have to be able to make suggestions – technical and, above all, stylistic. Sometimes singers make mistakes when they choose their repertory. This can ruin their voices, and, being a conductor, it is important to be able to explain what difficulties they may encounter.

There were conductors who made singers choose an inappropriate repertory for them… Karajan, for example, cast Katia Ricciarelli for the role of Turandot.

It was a very famous story. When Karajan recorded “Turandot” with Ricciarelli, everyone was shocked, it was a kind of scandal. But in that recording Karajan used Barbara Hendricks for the role of Liu’, and this soprano had a very small voice, in comparison to which Ricciarelli’s lyrical instrument sounded quite voluminous. Sometimes Karajan had very weird ideas. For example, every time he conducted “La Bohème”, he wanted Musetta to have a lower voice than Mimi’! And this peculiarity is still typical in many German theatres. Muti, for example, advised Fiorenza Cossotto to sing Lady Macbeth, even though she is a mezzo-soprano. And this role has a high D flat which is written in “pianissimo”! There are big differences in how different people perceive operatic roles. In Italy, for instance, when Mozart is performed, such parts as Zerlina, Despina and Susanna are performed by soubrette sopranos. While in Germany mezzo-sopranos sing these roles!

Another question concerning singers’ voices. There are many conductors who make soloists sing in full voice during rehearsals. Do you do that yourself? How do you understand the term “vocal hygiene”?

I always ask singers I work with not to sing in full voice for a long time – just once, in order to check the acoustics of a hall or evaluate their physical state. But doing it all the time damages their instruments, making them tired and worn-out. Sometimes we, conductors, have to “fight” with singers who want to sing too much. Two years ago I was doing Tosca in Kazan with a baritone who sang Scarpia. We had rehearsals at the piano, and I warned him not to sing in full voice! He didn’t listen to my advice, and eventually by the time of the performance his voice had been half gone. Sometimes in the musical world we joke that singers are not the most intelligent musicians, especially tenors. It is not totally true, definitely, but sometimes they don’t perceive how dangerous their “vocal” behavior could be. And the mission of a conductor is to “lead” singers, show them the right path!

There were conductors, like Arturo Toscanini, who used to scream at singers, scold them etc. Do you think a conductor has the right to tell a singer off for a mistake?

Toscanini’s times were different. If a conductor throws a chair at a singer or a bandsman today, he will be immediately fired. Some things you could do in the past you can’t do today. But sometimes I might lose temper when a singer makes the same mistake for several times. Nevertheless, it is important for singers to trust their conductors and to collaborate with them in a human way. The atmosphere is then more relaxed.

Many specialists nowadays say that there is a decline in the operatic world. Do you agree with this? And – a provocative question – how many years does opera still have to live?

It is hard to give a definite answer. Opera, as we knew it 50 years ago, is already dead. The attitude is different today! Take primadonnas, for instance, Maria Callas was the absolute primadonna half a century ago, and she had the image of a goddess in the perception of her audiences. The main primadonna today is Anna Netrebko, with whom I worked six times – and she is always so nice, helpful, gentle, not capricious at all! One of the things which changed opera is that now we live in the era of TV, computers, the Internet etc. In the times of Maria Callas opera and everything connected with it was not accessible to everyone – now everyone knows everyone. If you want to know what Anna Netrebko had for breakfast, just open her Instagram page! The “mysterious” aspect of the operatic art is a relic of the past.

Marco Boemi conducting Anna Netrebko in "Andrea Chenier"

Another aspect is modern staging. Some of today’s performances are wonderful, others are unbearably stupid! There is no modern staging and traditional staging – staging can be either good or bad. Now directors have a power they didn’t use to have before! Recently in Florence, when “Carmen” was staged, the director declared that we all live in the times when there is so much violence against women… So, we must stop it! Don Jose tries to kill Carmen, but fails to do it, while the gypsy herself takes a gun and shoots her jealous ex-lover! So absurd, isn’t it?

The third problem is that voices are not as good as they were in the past. Today the only real superstar is Jonas Kaufmann who is an incredible musician! It is always a lesson of phrasing, piano technique, vocal colouring etc., but his voice is not like Vicker’s or Del Monaco’s “trombones”! The talents we had 60-80 years are sort of extinct. However, today’s singers are better musicians. If you listen to recordings of old-singers, they incredible vocally but as far as their interpretation, knowledge of the music, rhythm and solfeggio are concerned, they often do what they want, without following the score. Today we are more respectful towards what composers actually wrote. This started in the 1970s, when we had the so-called “Rossini renaissance”.

Marco Boemi conducting "Attila" prelude

Of course, there are singers who were adored by composers themselves but did not sing exactly as it is written… But back then there were strong relationships between singers and composers which we clearly don’t have anymore. When “Aida” was performed for the first time in Cairo in 1871, the tenor sang the final B flat in “Celeste Aida” as it was written. But for the second round of performances in Milano a new tenor was supposed to sing who went up to Verdi and said that he couldn’t make a pianissimo sound on the top B flat. Verdi then made a second version. Nowadays such “contacts” are impossible, we perform operas written more than a hundred years ago!

Opera has also become a very “visual” art. Today singers must look like their characters! I remember a famous story which happened in London 10-15 years ago, when Debora Voigt was chosen to sing Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos”. A few weeks before the beginning of rehearsal she received a letter from the Royal Opera House in which the contract was declined because of the soprano’s physical form! Ariadne should have appeared like Marilyn Monroe in a very voluptuous dress, and Debora Voigt would have hardly been impressive… It was a huge scandal! Nowadays it is important for audiences to “believe” in what they see on stage!

Marco Boemi conducting Ildar Abdrazakov in "Don Giovanni"


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