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.