Tanya Traboulsi

Gianluca Marcianò in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Gianluca Marcianò, internationally renowned Italian conductor, lives in London, and speaks several languages fluently.  He conducted the sublime production of Samson et Dalila by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns and a much talked-about performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera, where we met.

RJ: What are the challenges a young conductor like yourself faces in attracting young people to listen to opera?

GM: It’s particularly important to transmit the excitement that we have when we work on a new opera, whether a new production or a revival. We should make it possible to understand that opera is actually evergreen.  This works very well for any kind of public, because opera is extremely emotional, it goes directly to the soul of people through the music that is a universal language, and has the story to support it: the libretto. Everybody can find the way of reading this story. I think that our job as conductors is to give all the possible power in support of this story, through the music, in the pit. Because of all the new visions of stage directors, and DVDs and cinema, which give young, people the chance to go to the opera for minimal cost. Our mission is to attract a young public. No dying art form, opera is a form of art that, thank God, regenerates, and finds new challenges and new perspectives.

RJ: Are the challenges for the directors, or the conductors?

GM: For both. An opera score is made of a libretto and score. When you study a score, you cannot avoid the libretto. So, the conductor and the stage director are a team, and we have to work together. You have to be present during the entire rehearsal process so you can discuss the entire process with the stage director how the work should be performed. I don’t make decisions without him, and he shouldn’t without me. The composer gives us all the signs, but there is much more that is not written, leaving it to us to interpret the work.

RJ: You’ve conducted in Georgia and in other countries in the East and in the West. Do audiences in different parts of the world respond differently to opera?

GM: In many countries of the former Eastern bloc, I have found that there is a much young public that attends performances than in the West. They are very much into it, and are prepared very well by conservatoires and the academies. In the last decade, a lot of incredibly famous singers and conductors have come from the East, and they are incredibly well trained, with beautiful voices and great musicality. We should never think that because the opera was born in Italy before spreading to other Western countries – France, Austria, Germany, etc. – that our public and our knowledge is in some way different or better. It all depends on how we educate our children. Music has to be easily and directly accessible, and the result of accessing it is joy.

RJ: You’re both conductor and artistic director – do these two hats sit comfortably together?

GM: Yes! As an artistic director you choose, with your board, which repertoire you will have, and which invited soloists, other conductors, and orchestras you will invite to your festival. You make decisions that have a musical influence – so the two roles are not separated for me. I’m artistic director of the Al Bustan Festival, in Beirut, in Lebanon; which is a long festival, because it lasts five weeks from around mid-February till nearly the end of March. It’s chamber in scale. It’s an international arts festival offering plays, ballet, jazz, chamber music, symphonic music, and opera. The festival is already 22 years old. It passed through everything. It has a very solid public.

RJ: Is the audience local, or international?

GM: It’s mainly local, because Mrs Myrna Bustani, who founded this festival, wanted to give the Lebanese the best possible offer of classical music. All the famous soloists, instrumentalists and opera singers were afraid at the beginning, saying: Ah maybe going to Lebanon would be a dangerous. Now, they leave the festival happy and they all want to come back.  It takes the entire year to prepare for the festival. It’s entirely sponsored by private donors. There are no funds coming from the government, at all.

RJ: Is it mainly the Christian Lebanese, or is it Muslims and Christians?

GM: It’s not based on the religions. That’s the beauty of Lebanon, there are so many different religions coexisting. Yes, there are problems, but in general the history of Lebanon is a history of understanding, and of being able to speak three national languages – Arabic, English, and French, fluently. They mix, actually, those three languages into one.

RJ: Do you most enjoy being a conductor or an artistic director?

GM: A conductor is not a job. I consider it my life. The artistic director is part of the job, but when I conduct I feel involved in the music process directly.

RJ: How long, as a conductor, does it take to bring a particular orchestra up to speed with the way you want the music.

GM: I am very lucky at Grange Park Opera because I had the English Chamber Orchestra, then the BBC Concert Orchestra, and now Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. UK musicians are famous for their incredible sight-reading. From the first rehearsal, the music text is incredibly clear with almost no mistakes, and you can already start to work on the details. The musicians’ professionalism and amazing skills are probably the main reason I moved to London.

RJ: How would you compare it with an orchestra in Georgia, for instance?

GM: They have an incredible musicality in Georgia and Armenia too. In Georgia, you need more time to prepare a programme than in England – they have passed through a completely different historical process. After the Soviet Union collapsed it was a very difficult time, there were civil wars. Many teachers left, the conservatoires and schools were not reorganized well. They compensate for this with their incredible talent, and with the wish to do well. They are very emotionally connected to the process.

RJ: At Grange Park, you are presenting two operas: Samson et Dalila and Eugene Onegin. Does the storyline affect your mood when conducting?

GM: Their one common trait is passion. But this passion is described differently because the music scores them differently. Saint-Saëns has a very clear and beautiful way of writing, much more square in some ways than you would find in Tchaikovsky, where there are waves of music, of sound, and huge structures in the chords. The harmonic structure is very thick. But in Saint-Saëns, there is this purity, and clarity, and a rather Impressionist way of writing.

RJ: Do you find Saint-Saëns or Tchaikovsky more challenging, and in what ways?

GM: Tchaikovsky’s score is more complex. The challenge in Saint-Saëns is to achieve and sustain clarity. In Tchaikovsky, we have incredibly difficult rhythmical moments, which is technically more demanding for the dialogue between the orchestra and the singers. It’s also easier to cast Eugene Onegin than it is to cast Samson et Dalila. It’s extremely difficult to find a dramatic tenor that can sing Samson and the mezzo (soprano) for Dalila. We were very lucky to have Carl Tanner singing Samson:  you need a huge voice, with very good high notes and a healthy centre that can pass through the orchestra and can survive through long lines of singing. I always start the rehearsal process with ideas reached through studying the score. I was very lucky with Patrick Mason, because we had the chance to talk even before starting rehearsals about his concept. And through the rehearsal process as well, to analyse together this beautiful score. Sometimes we were on the same path, and sometimes when we had some differences; sometimes his ideas convinced me, and sometimes my ideas convinced him. So what came at the end was our work. And that’s the beauty – I always like to work this way.  I like to be convinced if the idea is powerful and convincing – I like to say that my idea was different but yours was better.

RJ: What is the difference between conducting for an outdoor festival or opera venue compared to a traditional indoor opera house?

GM: Country opera festivals are very peculiar to England.  And you have this long interval – where you have to try to find a way to keep the tension, and deliver a second part that is connected with the first: a nice challenge. The main problem is trying not to succumb to a routine. Pure conducting, or making music, is exactly the same. Opera is in an outdoor arena brings issues connected with the balance between orchestra and stage, such as the use of microphones for acoustic problems. But, this environment can be beautiful, take Arena di Verona for instance.

RJ: How much tougher is it to conduct an opera compared to a symphony?

GM: When you conduct an opera, you have to deal with an orchestra, a chorus, and singers, who also have to act on stage. They have to remember everything by heart, movement, words, and musical lines. In opera, you need to have more control.  You give to your musicians, and your singers, and your chorus, a lot of energy, and this energy leaves your body, and you are tired at the end.  A singer might forget one line and you have to bring her back in – this happens regularly! So it’s very interesting. Exciting.

RJ: What are the techniques for learning a score?

GM: My approach is very simple: first I look at the score just as I would look at a painting, to see its architecture. The black and white sign create figures, which communicate with my subconscious. Then, I start to analyse the score, harmony and form, shape, the form, structure. Then, I start to mark the score with blue and red pencils – blue and red are very different, so they make it clear.

RJ: Growing up in Italy, did you find that the attitude of ordinary people to opera is different to, let’s say, to those in London, or Beirut or Zagreb?

GM: The Italian public is extremely warm. If they love you, they really love you, if they don’t like you they can boo – it’s almost like being in a stadium, for a sports’ match. But recently, there are fewer Italian people interested in opera. The public in Zagreb is very conservative, knowledgeable, probably less warm In London, you find a very polite public, which rarely complains during a performance.

RJ: Do you come from a family of musicians?

GM: Nobody is a musician in my family. The teacher at my school suggested to my parents that all this energy that I had could be used to do some other activities after school. So I started studying the piano when I was six. I entered many competitions, won first prizes, a lot of them, and so I started a career as a solo pianist.  My parents bought me an upright piano first, then a grand piano when I was ten.  I started to perform chamber music first; it was nice but I liked to communicate in this way and so, at a certain point, when I started to work with singers, my interest for opera grew deeper and deeper. I began to approach opera theatres, and opera festivals, so I was a pianist at the Verdi Festival in Parma, Teatro Reggio, during the 2001 celebration marking 100 years of Verdi’s death. As répétiteur and assistant conductor, of the Slovenia National Opera in Ljubljana, I did all my training as a conductor under the supervision of my mentor, Loris Voltolini. Then,  I went to many places like, for instance, Georgia. It ended after five years – they decided to take a completely different approach with the opera house, and I didn’t like it as it meant going back a little more to the Soviet style.  And the artistic director and I don’t have the same vision. Tomorrow I’ll fly to Armenia, to Yerevan to work as the principal guest conductor in the opera house in Armenia, in the National Opera House.

RJ: Which composer inspired you most?

GM: It’s difficult to say, but – in opera, it’s definitely Puccini. In the symphonic repertoire, Mahler and Beethoven are the two titans for me. I love Verdi, especially the last Verdi; and I love Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, but Puccini is in my blood. It’s something that – it comes very close to me, and I really love all of his operas. I feel natural.

RJ: Quite a lot of people feel close to Puccini. What advice would you give young students aspiring to hold the baton?

GM: First of all, study composition, harmony, analysis. Read a lot of books about what was happening in the period the work was written in. Never think we know a score completely. On the podium, we are not teachers, but we are part of a team with the entire orchestra, and we can learn a lot from all those musicians. We have to inspire them, and to understand when we should be very precise and when we should leave them free to play.

RJ: How much notice do you take of music critics?

GM: I usually read all the reviews. If there are a lot of very good reviews, but I didn’t feel incredibly satisfied myself, I mean I am not one that will say, ahh then it is good. When there are bad reviews, I will try, first of all, to analyse my performance and to see if I could do something better, or I don’t agree. It doesn’t have to influence my way of work in music, in the sense I need to have my ideas, of course that is very important. But it can help me to develop in a certain way, or to understand mistakes I didn’t see, or I didn’t think about. What matters for me always is that I would like a review where the essential points of a production, of a concert, are well explained, instead of “I like it” or “I don’t.”