The Real Deal : Maestro Riccardo Frizza

“That is the instrument I want to play!”

That was the thought that came to young Riccardo Frizza listening to the orchestra on a family visit to Vienna. The man on the podium was Herbert von Karajan. Already a devoted student of piano, Frizza soon took up his orchestral studies seriously, buying and studying scores and eventually progressing with the help of renowned teachers in Milan, Pescara, and Siena.

An important figure in his hometown of Brescia, Italy, Maestro Frizza began his career serving as music director of the symphony orchestra there from 1994 to 2000. During this time he became a popular guest artist at festivals and major Italian opera houses, and from there it did not take long for his career to become international.

These days his childhood dream is reality as he leads the world’s best orchestras, particularly those in the great opera houses. No longer a wunderkind, Frizza at 45 is still young for the level of prominence he has achieved, being much in demand at the Met and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, while his growing compendium of acclaimed recordings shows his penchant for the Italian repertoire. The maestro is married to the Spanish soprano Davinia Rodriguez who, like her husband, is enjoying an international career with major houses. The couple has one daughter.

An important moment in the conductor’s career was his association with Gian Carlo Menotti. Our discussion, via Skype while the maestro was in Paris, began on that topic.

What was it like being mentored by Menotti?
Working with Menotti was an amazing experience. When they asked me to go to Spoleto in 2002 to do Verdi’s Macbeth, at the time I was almost an unknown conductor—a nobody. I was a young talent some people were talking about, but nobody gave me a real opportunity. I was doing Favorite in the Canary Islands at Teatro Pérez Galdós, and he sent his son Francis, who was in charge of the festival, along with the artistic administration at that time. They came to the performance and afterwards they asked me, “Are you interested in coming to Spoleto to do Macbeth?” I said, “Of course!” Who could say no? If the train is going in front of you, you have to jump on, and I did.

I met Gian Carlo there in Spoleto for the first time. He had never met me before so he didn’t know what my attitude towards the music was, and it was there during the festival we started to talk a lot. He always invited me every day to have lunch with him in his house, so we started this kind of relationship, talking about music, talking about him as a composer, as a musician, his relationship with Toscanini, life in the ’40s and ’50s as a composer. It was amazing to be with him.

“Unfortunately,” he told me, “I am too old now to help you, but I’ll give you this opportunity.” Years ago, he was more famous and better known in the United States, but around the ’90s it was difficult for him. But I really appreciated that, because he came to listen to the performance, and he told me that in some way I reminded him of Thomas Schippers in my attitude towards the music, the vitality of Verdi. So that was my experience with him. He mentored me in this way, trying to help in the beginning in Italy—and the next year in the festival I came back to do a symphonic concert with the Juilliard Orchestra in the festival, so I am blessed for that.

How do you feel about Menotti’s operas? Would you like to see them come back into the repertoire and be done more often?
Yes, of course. I don’t know why he is not produced nowadays. Some performances are done, but I think he deserves more than we are doing now, but it’s not easy. Also, in Europe he’s not considered an Italian composer, because many of his operas are in English. But he’s not an American composer. Maybe this is the problem. I don’t know.

When you were young you went to Vienna and heard Karajan. What was that like?
I didn’t know Karajan; for me, he was nobody. Who’s Karajan? I was a good pianist. I was learning to play and had talent on the piano. I remember it was Easter, 1984 or 1985. And I went as a tourist with my family to visit the city. Easter day we went to the cathedral and it was this huge concert, big mass with orchestra and chorus, and I was in the front row.

When I heard the orchestra and the chorus for the first time, it was like discovering a new instrument. Because until that time, it was just piano. Nothing but piano. It opened my mind. I thought, “I like this!” I saw the power of the man on the podium, and I was affected by the music and the orchestra, and it was very emotional.

You’ve said you’d like to do all of Verdi’s works. Singers often specialize—for example, in Italian repertoire or in Wagner. Do you think conductors should specialize more?
No, I don’t think so. I think an open-minded conductor should explore the whole repertoire. But I understand it’s not easy, because often the Italian conductors are hired just to do the Italian repertoire. That’s not happening with the non-Italian conductors. They can do Italian, English, German, Mozart, everything. But for the Italian conductor, it’s more complicated. Don’t ask me why. This is the market. If you have your own theater, you can decide what you would like to do or explore; this is much easier. But usually, for Italians, it’s just Italian repertoire.

That happened somewhat here in San Francisco with Maestro Luisotti.
But maybe for Nicola [Luisotti] it was his own choice to do that. Maybe he wanted, in that theater, to do Verdi and Italian repertoire. But he did do other things also; he explored German repertoire. I think that’s the way if you have your own theater. But if you’re Italian, they offer you Italian repertoire, and I’m so happy to do that—that’s not a problem for me. I love the Italian repertoire.

How much say do you have about casting? Do you have some input about singers?
At this point in my career, of course, I can give some opinions. But in any theater, the casting director has his own opinion. Where you have more of a relationship, you can call and say, “I think this singer or that singer.” You share opinions and maybe you can find a solution, because sometimes you agree on a singer that is not available, and then you have to discuss other options and choose who you can—a matter of dates or agenda. Years ago, it was different, because when you’re a young conductor—I don’t think I’m old—but at the beginning of the career, you are blessed to do operas and you are in the hands of the artistic director of the theater. Now, I can give opinions. I cannot decide on a singer—but I can share opinions and find the right singer.

I’d like us to play a game. I’m going to say a composer’s name, and I’d like you to say whatever you want to say about that composer. Would you be willing to try that?

OK. Rossini.
Rossini? Champagne.

Donizetti, this is more complicated . . . a good plate of ravioli. It’s very consistent and very tasty. Donizetti is a special composer. He’s not easy to understand but, for me, he is a genius. There’s no Verdi without Donizetti. That’s for sure. And, usually, many conductors and colleagues of mine who play Donizetti, they look back when they want to interpret him. And for me, this is a mistake. He is a great innovator. There is no Trovatore without [Roberto] Devereux.

What was the music during the Donizetti period? Of course, Rossini—but the Rossini aesthetic is different, it’s very unique. But, for example, [Giovanni] Simone Mayr, [Giovanni] Pacini, all these composers of the time who were looking to the Viennese composers, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. Donizetti is opening the world of Italian opera. Bellini, too, in a different way. You have to be able to look forward when you conduct Donizetti.

Giuseppe Verdi.
Verdi is the drama. Verdi is like a strong red wine, with consistency and importance and body. Verdi is everything for me in Italian opera. He is so great that sometimes we don’t even understand how great it is.

One more. You could probably guess: Puccini.
Puccini is like a long dessert. If you are in a restaurant and ask for dessert, and it comes and it is very sweet, if you like it, you can finish it. If you don’t like it, well maybe it’s too sweet. Maybe [Puccini] is too romantic, it’s coming too directly to your heart, to your soul, and it’s bringing out your soul. It is very touching, Puccini. The music is different than Verdi. Of course if you consider an opera like Macbeth, there’s a lot of drama, but you can also see from the outside. With Puccini, you are inside the pathos of the music and melodies.

You’re going to Chicago to do Norma.
Callas was so important to Chicago and the history of that company. What are your thoughts about Callas? And also, for young singers reading this magazine, how much should young singers listen to Callas? Because you’ve also said that Callas would have trouble in today’s market.

I want to explain what I meant by that. Not that Callas today isn’t the market, but she was so unique, so different, so deep as an interpreter, like nobody before. She changed totally the way to be on the stage. Before her it wasn’t like that. They were coming in, singing, showing the dress, and going out. Maybe it’s a ridiculous way to say it, but after Callas, the opera was totally changed, because of her level of interpretation, the words, the phrasing. Today many sopranos are able to do that because it is after Callas, because it was a school. But the voice was so unique, so particular, that the young soprano today that sings like Callas wouldn’t go so far, because only Callas could do that. Because she was Callas.

You’ve said about Traviata, that you’re happy to be performing it at La Fenice, because that is the theater it was written for. So what is it like to do something like Capuleti [e i Montecchi] here in San Francisco, which is a much bigger house? Do you try to squeeze more sound out of the orchestra or is it not about volume?
I can try to explain. The relationship between the singing and the orchestra does not change. It’s the same orchestra in San Francisco as at La Fenice. The same orchestration. Same volume. It depends on the acoustics of the theater. For example, at the Met, the acoustic is so perfect that you have no trouble even doing Handel or Mozart. The problem is the acoustic of the theater, not the dimensions of the theater.

But of course, playing Traviata at La Fenice was important for me, because the dimensions of the theater and the acoustic of the theater go exactly with the power of the voice. It was such a perfect balance between the dimensions of theater, the dimensions of the pit, the stage, the power of the voice, it was not necessary to ask the orchestra to play less. That usually happens when you go to the big houses. You have to ask the orchestra to play less. Also, you can find many different nuances and colors in the orchestration that maybe in the biggest house you cannot.

Actually, after Paris, I go to do Attila in Venice, another opera that has been written for La Fenice, but it’s a totally different opera. It’s very powerful, very energetic. It’s the most risorgimento opera of the Italian repertoire. I’m curious to see if I have to ask the orchestra to play less. That’s something I can tell you in a month.

What advice would you have for a singer singing Violetta?
I think for a soprano singing Violetta, it’s like a soprano singing Lady Macbeth. It’s so, so deep. If you are not a great interpreter, it’s not enough to sing the notes or sing the notes well. To be Violetta, you have to be the character. You have to forget yourself and go into the character and try to be a real person onstage, a real character. This is really complicated.

They should, of course, sing well. But for me, it’s not enough. You have to be a great actress. You have to be magnetic with the audience, because they have to share your pain, your problems, your illness. You need to be really in touch with them. If you’re not able to create a good connection with the audience, you’re just a good singer, but you’re not a good Violetta.

What advice do you have for singers about ornamentation? It seemed for a while the fashion was more, more, more, but is that changing now?
Talking about the Italian repertoire, many things have changed from the ’80s, for example, to today. Usually in the ’90s, for Rossini, there was the attitude to do the ornamentations, and this is a repetition and so now we must do something different. It was fine. Because before that, nobody was considering that during Rossini’s time, or Donizetti’s time, the singers were doing ornamentation. But at that time, they were spontaneous ornamentations, they were not something built on the table [acts out writing on the table].

Now, thanks to the fact that in the ’80s and ’90s we went through this way of doing it, we are finally achieving this, so that the singers can be more spontaneous. It was an obligation that we went through that way of doing it—all written out—to dry it out a bit, to clean it up. And now I think we are in the right way of interpreting this.

Let’s play our game again, but this time I’ll say the name of an aria: “Una voce poco fa.”
“Una voce poco fa,” you have to have a connection with the audience. You are telling a story to the audience. You’re telling them your plans.

“Il mio tesoro.”
That’s more complicated. Wow, difficult. Well, with Mozart, you have to be a great singer, you have to be able to sing a clean line, clean phrasing. You have to be perfect vocally. Crossing over the lines between the registers, you need to be really precise, no difference between registers. Because in the arias of Mozart, not that much is happening. It’s just an expression of the mood or feeling, so you just have to be clean and perfect in that way.

“Caro nome.”
Well, usually “Caro nome” is performed slower than the tempo is written. And it changes the character a lot. It’s like “Una furtiva lagrima.” The two arias for me are interpreted very differently today. “Caro nome,” she is young. It is her first love. She’s discovering something new, so the hormones are so high.

There needs to be something happening, some kind of sparkle. But usually, [sings slowly] Caro no-me che il mio cor . . . it’s very boring, like a bored girl, which I think is a great mistake. Actually, there is the tempo indication allegro moderato, but everybody plays just andante, or a bit more than andante. I understand that it is difficult technically to sing, but if you connect with the tempo, you have to try to connect with this joy in some way. That for me is the key to the aria. Otherwise, it is a boring aria.

OK. Last one: “Mi chiamano Mimì.”
In some ways the same as “Caro nome,” because it is a presentation of Mimì. In my way of understanding Bohème, she is not an innocent girl, but she knows what she wants from the first time that she meets Rodolfo, so she’s leading the situation, she’s leading the flirting, in some way. So for me, she should introduce herself in the nicest way possible.

Usually, when people meet for the first time, they try to show themselves as more than what they are. For example, for me the key of the text is when she says, “Sola, mi fo il pranzo da me stessa. Non vado sempre a messa, ma prego assai il Signor.” For me it’s a message, it’s a way of saying, “I’m living alone, but I can’t be explicit, so I’ll say also, I pray to God.” Usually, the soprano would be very langoureuse. For me that’s not the right way to interpret the aria.

Singers get so nervous when we have to sing for the first time for the conductor. What can you say to help us relax and to make that first meeting go well?
I’ll talk about myself. When I do the first rehearsal with the singers, I would like them to show me what they are able to do. Give me your idea of interpretation. Because for me, doing opera is the biggest compromise in music. I am the conductor, but of course my idea is going through another person. It’s not like symphonic concert, which is me and the orchestra. Your own idea is going through voices in other people, so it’s always a great mix between you and them.

If you ask a singer to do something that is not in their vocal cords or is not in their mood, they will never do their best. So I try always to mix the ideas. They should just sing what they think is the best for them. Usually, if it is the first time and I’ve never met the singer, I will just listen to the possibility of the voice and consider if there is some suggestion I can give to them, but usually I would just like that they give me something. I can tell them later what I can politely say to help—but in the beginning, I’d like to listen to what they have to show me.

What would you tell singers not to do?
The “diva” today is not a good attitude in the theater. The theater does not accept it any more, this kind of attitude. For a young singer, it is important to show the theater the ability to sing, to be a great artist—but also it is very important, the professionalism. Because next time, when they have to think about another opera, they could think of you or one of another two, three, or four people. The casting person is not just thinking of one person. Usually it’s three or four, and if you have bad behavior before, they will go in another direction.

If you want people to respect you, you have to respect people. Music, opera is teamwork. It is not just you. Of course when you are on stage, you are alone, you have to save yourself if something is going on. But usually . . . the person at the podium can help you in some way. For a conductor it is very easy to put a singer in trouble. If you choose a different tempo, [for example]. It’s easy.
Also the conductor will do the best for himself, not just the best for the production, because maybe there is a situation where in order to save the tenor, I’ll lose the chorus, and somebody will think, “Oh the conductor has lost the chorus,” but maybe it’s not true. Maybe there was another problem behind that. It’s always a big compromise, and having good relationships with people is always the best way.

Is there one performing experience that has been the most powerful or satisfying personally? The greatest night of your life?
There have been many, many great moments in my career. Usually, when you do a run of performances, it happens that one night is the special night. Everybody is having a good night. Maybe you’ve done a few performances, . . . you have a special night when everything works, and you remember this performance. In the 50 or 60 performances that you can do in a season, maybe one night, or maybe one night in two seasons, is the special night.

Maybe the special night for me in the last season was the Bohème at the Met with [Sonya] Yoncheva. For me it was a real pleasure because she, as well as being a great singer, is a great musician. It’s very easy to connect with her onstage—she connects very well with the conductor, so the music seems so natural, so easy to do. For me it was one of the most impressive performances, because everything I was thinking was going on. Maybe when you’re on the podium you try to do something, but it’s not happening because the singers don’t do it or the orchestra is not going with you exactly as you would like. [That] one night was so special.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at