‘Music is an Exchange of Effort and Energy’

Riccardo Frizza © Joan Tomás)

Riccardo Frizza grew up in Brescia, a town in Northern Lombardy, close to the city of Milan. He got interested in music when he was only five years old and began playing a little keyboard at home. Although neither one of his parents was a musician, they soon recognised the talent of the young Riccardo and sent him for piano lessons. He later continued his studies at the Milan Conservatoire. During that period he greatly admired Leonard Bernstein and later was influenced and looked up to such luminaries as Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti. Frizza also studied with composer Elisabetta Brusa and conductor Gilberto Serembe who both contributed to his artistry and to whom he feels indebted.Although our conversation was via e-mail and not in person, I found Maestro Frizza an approachable, kind, open and interesting personality. His insight into music, the composers and the art of conducting is fascinating and his humility shown through the moving tributes he pays to his teachers and great conductors who influenced him is commendable. Maestro Frizza is an outstanding conductor with an impeccable technique, as well as an artist who can involve the audience, expressing all the emotions and feelings of a piece of music. I had great pleasure in learning his answers to my questions. As one reads through the interview, not only the captivating portrait of a musically gifted musician emerges but also that of a charming human being. Enjoy.

MMB: Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in music and conducting?

RF: I grew up in Brescia, a city in northern Lombardy not far from Milan. I got interested in music at the age of five when I began to play a little keyboard in my house. I started to reproduce the church song I was listening to at the Sunday morning kids’ dedicated mass. Even though neither of my parents is a musician, they soon sent me for piano lessons. My father loves classical music and my mother began later to discover it while I was growing up as a young musician and now she’s an opera lover.

MMB: Are there are any artists, musicians, other conductors that were a great influence for you or that you look up to as a role model? Please tell us a little whether yes or no.

RF: When I was a student and attending classes at the Milan Conservatoire I was influenced by Leonard Bernstein. I remember that when he passed away I was truly touched, and it took days for me to be comforted. Sometimes we think that certain figures are immortals and the day you realize that they are as human as you are, it is difficult to understand. Later, in my twenties, I considered Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti as the musicians to follow – not just because they were Italian but because they were (and Muti still is) at the top level in both the symphonic and operatic sectors. Abbado in Berlin and Muti at La Scala: the best orchestra in the world and the greatest temple of opera.

MMB: I believe this coming September you will be conducting Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux for the first time at the San Francisco Opera. How excited are you about debuting a work? And how do you prepare for a piece you have not conducted before as opposed to one you did?

RF: Yes, it is the first time I’ll conduct Devereux and I’m happy to do it in San Francisco with this cast and this orchestra. It is my fourth appearance with this company and my relationship with them has been always at the best level of musical rendition. We did other bel canto operas and they know my expectations and I know perfectly well what they are able to give me. Music is always an exchange of effort and energy. As I always do, I prepare the score beginning with a deep knowledge of the libretto and all the aspects of the composition. We know a lot about Donizetti’s life and the events around the time his works were being composed. Afterwards I start to look into the notes. This process is universal in my point of view. If you don’t know the dramaturgy of the opera you can’t understand the composer’s choices.

MMB: What do you see as your main challenge in Roberto Devereux?

RF: The main thing is to give the right pacing to the opera, with the right tempos. If you take a wrong tempo you can really cause trouble for the singers on stage. Devereux is very difficult to sing and performing it without cuts can be really hard to tackle, especially for Elisabeth and Roberto.

MMB: And, in musical terms, where would you place Roberto Devereux in relation to other, perhaps more popular Donizetti operas (for e.g. L’elisir d’amore or Lucia di Lammermoor)? Why?

RF: Donizetti, as many other composers, wrote good and less good works. Roberto is a very modern opera relative to the time when it was written (1837). I do consider they have something in common. Roberto and Lucia have the great scene for the prima donna and a great scene for the tenor. The difference is that in Lucia the tenor closes the drama (even if the title refers to her) and in Roberto it is Elizabeth who ends the work with a tremendous scene (even though the drama is called Roberto Devereux). Roberto is even more musically interesting than Lucia because it opens a new way in the architecture of the composition. For instance, the end of the first act is without the great choral scene, or for example, Roberto’s first appearance on stage is not presented with a ‘cavatina’ as happens in Lucia but because his appearance on stage is propelled by the events of the drama. This was something new in Italian opera. L’elisir d’amore is a masterpiece. For the first time the comic and the pathetic are combined. All three operas are masterpieces and they brought many innovations to the history of Italian opera.

MMB: Donizetti composed a vast number of operas. Some have been largely forgotten and are seldom performed (and when at all is usually in concert) and never staged. One of these is Dom Sébastien. Musically I think it is a masterpiece (historically it is very inaccurate but that is not the point here), however I can only remember two concert performances, several years ago, at the Royal Opera House in London, conducted by Mark Elder, which were recorded live. Do you agree with my view of this opera? Why or why not? And why do you think such a masterful work is never staged and so rarely performed?

RF: Dom Sébastien, Il duca d’Alba, La favorite, Maria di Rohan. There are so many fantastic operas by Gaetano Donizetti which unfortunately are not performed very often. The Donizetti Foundation of Bergamo and its Festival Donizetti are committed to stage rare works the way that Opera Rara, in London, does. Often, if not always, the fame of a specific bel canto opera is linked to a great singer. In our times operas such as Norma, Medea, Lucia, Bolena and many others are famous because Callas, Caballé, Sutherland or Gruberova sang them during their careers. Today opera houses such as the Met, San Francisco Opera or La Scala are staging the Tudor cycle or Bellini’s operas because we have great new divas such as Radvanovsky, Netrebko, DiDonato or Yoncheva who are committed to singing them.

MMB: Your repertoire is predominantly Italian, with frequent performances of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Although these composers are referred to as the bel canto composers of the 19th Century they are very different in essence and there are features that are more common in a certain composer than in another. For example, Bellini has to my mind a more pronounced legato line than Rossini while Rossini displays more fireworks, generally speaking of course. As a conductor what differences do you feel there are between Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini? And how do you approach the score of each composer’s operas?

RF: The composer I have performed the most is actually Verdi. I have conducted twenty-one of his twenty-seven operas. Nevertheless, I’m very familiar with bel canto composers. As you said Bellini’s works have more legato lines but that is partially untrue. Rossini needs to be considered the ‘father’ of Bellini and Donizetti. We can’t say that Rossini didn’t compose beautiful legato lines. If we think about the comic operas probably yes, but if we think about the serious titles as Semiramide or Maometto or Guillaume Tell we discover that Bellini took great inspiration from them. And more if we open all the cuts that usually are done in Bellini, we see that there is much more virtuosity than expected. I conducted Il Pirata in Milan last June without cuts and it was very interesting to see how close the relationship was with Rossini. As a conductor, the difference is the style. Rossini is classical and that’s the way to treat him. Bellini is the romantic and the sinuosity of his lines has to be played as we interpret Chopin’s Nocturnes. Donizetti in my opinion is very different. His music is more consistent, less evanescent. The use of the ‘declamato’ in the recitatives is prominent and this fact gives a lot of strength to the drama.

MMB: You also conduct many of Verdi’s works. In relation to Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini what challenges do you face when conducting Verdi? Do you approach Verdi in a different manner?

RF: Verdi created a revolution in Italian Opera but my way to approach him is not any different from other composers when I study his scores. Verdi’s music is more closed to the psychological aspects of the characters he writes for. This is the essence of his music and theatre.

MMB: I have seen that Mozart is also part of your repertoire. Mozart is the classical composer par excellence so presumably the approach to his work is different than that to Verdi’s, Rossini’s or Puccini’s work for example. Do you agree? And if so, in what way would your approach be different? And what in your opinion are the main challenges in conducting an opera by Mozart like Figaro or Così?

RF: Paradoxically I find Mozart closer to Verdi than Rossini, even though Mozart’s and Rossini’s ages are less far apart. This is because the theatre is more sincere than Rossini’s or Bellini’s. Così or Don Giovanni treat subjects which were close to the society of his time, as Verdi did in Rigoletto or Traviata. Verdi wanted a true theatre as Mozart did before him.

MMB: I know you have conducted orchestral/symphonic works but you appear to do mostly opera. Did you specialise in opera and is it your preference? Why?

RF: Being a conductor means being a musician. I don’t believe in specializations. I do both things because I love music. I love Verdi as I love Mahler. Opera is an important part of my life because I come from the country where this genre was born and as an artist, I feel I want to be an ambassador for the culture of my country. If you ask me if I do prefer opera I say Yes! First of all because I love theatre in general and because is more difficult and challenging to be in the pit than on a stage.

MMB: From your perspective as a conductor what do you do differently when preparing to conduct an opera or preparing to conduct a symphonic work?

RF: No differences. You have to look deeply between the notes to understand why the composer wrote it that way rather than another.

MMB: Whenever I’ve listened to your recordings or seen you perform I always thought that your technical execution is impeccable but you also manage (and many conductors don’t however brilliant they are technically) to achieve great expression and communicate all types of emotions to the audience. Is this a natural skill? And if not, how do you achieve it?

RF: Honestly, I don’t know. What is certain is that as Bernstein was in life, I’m a free musician. I do not listen to recordings when I study a new score. I want to be a ‘virgin’ learning a new piece and I’m not afraid to do a rubato or accelerando when I feel it.

MMB: When you conducted Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans at the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata, critic David Oliver from GBOPERA web magazine, described your style as, and I quote: ‘Riccardo Frizza impeccably directed l’Orchestra regionale delle Marche, from a baroque direction (although with a decidedly neo-classical style)…’ – would you agree with the neo-classical style? Why or why not?

RF: I do not understand what ‘neo-classical’ style means here. I did not have a baroque orchestra, it was a modern orchestra. In my knowledge, ‘neo-classical style’ is the tonal music of the XXI century.

MMB: I know you’ve studied with composer Elisabetta Brusa and conductor Gilberto Serembe for example. What do you feel was the most important thing they taught you and why?

RF: Elisabetta Brusa is a great composer. Gilberto a great pedagogue in addition to being a great conductor. He put the baton in my right hand and gave me the basis of the authentic Italian school of conducting. He was a student of Mario Gusella and Franco Ferrara. Both of them were the heirs of the Toscanini and Antonio Guarnieri’s school. I’m so grateful to have met Gilberto and had him in my life. He introduced me to his wife Elisabetta and I moved to Milan Conservatoire from my hometown of Brescia for her to become my teacher. It was the best thing I did in my life when I was a student. She taught me harmony and counterpoint and music analysis with the classic method while other teachers were doing the experimental courses. Even today I still feel the impact of having had her as my teacher. She is an extremely talented composer and a master in orchestration.

MMB: If you could only give one piece of advice to a new, young conductor what would you say?

RF: Be yourself and believe in your skills. Be persistent with your ideas and avoid being the bad copy of someone else.

MMB: When you conducted Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 2017 at the Teatro La Fenice, in Venice, critic Alan Neilson from Opera Wire was quite complimentary of your choice of using the glass harmonica rather than the flute during Lucia’s mad scene. Why did you take this decision and what do you think it brought to the scene?

RF: With the agreement of the artistic director of La Fenice I decided it was the right time to introduce it to the Venetian audience and let them understand how truly modern this outdated instrument was in the ‘mad scene’ context. Using the glass harmonica in this scene is essential because the glacial sound it produces makes the scene more spectral (‘Ohimè! Sorge il tremendo fantasma’) but at the same time it is sweet (‘Il dolce suono’). This was the first Donizetti idea which he took directly from the libretto. He also approved of the use of flute because it wasn’t easy to have that instrument but in my opinion the first idea was the right one.

MMB: You have worked extensively with Juan Diego Flórez, in the bel canto repertoire, especially years ago when he was not yet as famous as he is now. How important was this collaboration for your career if at all? Why?

RF: I worked often with him in the early years of our careers and I’m so grateful; it provided me with the possibility to begin experiencing opera. I had never conducted an opera before I met him. I was a young music director at the Brescia Symphony at that time.

MMB: I find you are a very ‘sympathetic’ conductor to singers. Personally I think it is a great skill and the best approach to conducting opera. Would you agree? Why?

RF: I have great respect for singers because I’m married to the soprano Davinia Rodriguez and I know perfectly well how hard it is to do this job. I would say much harder than being a conductor. The singer on stage is alone and the vocal health depends on too many things. I try to be respectful of their voices because each one is different and as a conductor I have to understand where the limit of each voice is. I can’t push them; I must help them to bring out, to take out the best of their instruments. I’m a passionate voice lover. I think it is the most beautiful instrument.

MMB: Is there a singer or an orchestra or both that you have not yet worked with and would really like to?

RF: I would love to work with Elīna Garanča and Jonas Kaufmann. They are the only two artists whom I have never had the opportunity to meet. I would love to do my debut at ROH Covent Garden one day.

MMB: You were appointed musical director for the 2018 Donizetti Festival in Bergamo. How important was this position for you? Why? And what do you think you can bring to the festival?

RF: I think it is very important because I have the opportunity to discover rarities and be part of the Donizetti Renaissance. Our mission is to give Donizetti the Festival he deserves as Rossini has in Pesaro and Verdi in Parma.

MMB: What are your plans for the future? What are you looking forward to besides your debut in Roberto Devereux and why?

RF: For the future, I’m committed to the Festival but I’m really looking forward to being the musical director of an opera company. I have had many opportunities in the past but postponed them because I was intent on gaining experience and making an international career. Now I feel ready to broaden my accumulated experience.

MMB: As a performer you must spend a lot of time travelling and staying in different countries. How do you balance your career and all the travel with your personal/family life?

RF: It is difficult but I’m lucky to be married to a performer and even if it is very complicated to be apart, we love our job and we’re bringing up a happy and whimsical seven year-old daughter.

MMB: What do you enjoy doing to relax during your free time? Do you have any hobbies? If so what?

RF: Free time? I do not know what it means…but I love to cook.

MMB: And finally, do you listen to music just for the pleasure of it or do you rather not, as music is your profession?

RF: Music fills my time. When I do not rehearse or perform, I study. Rarely do I go to concerts.

MMB: Maestro Frizza, it has been a pleasure to exchange this e-mail conversation with you and thank you very much for your time.

Margarida Mota-Bull

For more about Riccardo Frizza click here.

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