An interview with
Antonello Manacorda is an Italian violinist and conductor. He has conducted in various famous opera houses and symphony halls around the world including the Metropolitan Opera, and the Dutch National Opera. He has been the artistic director of the Kammerakademie Potsdam since 2010, and has recorded works by numerous composers with the orchestra. He was appointed concertmaster of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester by Claudo Abbado in 1994, and has said that he considers Abbado an inspiration.
Interview by Alkis Karmpaliotis
Jun 16, 2020
I still remember your performance of Figaro at the MET last year; it was excellent! You conduct Mozart quite often; Would you say that his operas come more naturally to you?
I would say more than that. I would say that those operas should be the base for every opera conductor. Every conductor who wants to conduct opera should conduct Mozart. This is the base for all the rest. It is very different than what you do with Verdi, Wagner, and all the rest, because Mozart is the base for everything.
Although you conduct a lot of opera, you are certainly not limited to opera alone. You have recorded all the Schubert symphonies with your own orchestra, the Kammerakademie Potsdam; as well as all the Mendelssohn symphonies. Would you say that your conducting style is different for orchestral music than it is for opera?
No. Conducting is conducting. Conducting opera is in some ways more difficult because there is so much more to combine than in symphonic music. The fact that there is a story to tell while you conduct opera sometimes makes it easier, even though it is technically more difficult. With symphonic music, you don’t have a story; there are other difficulties. Conducting is conducting. There is no opera conductor; there is no symphonic conductor — at least, I don’t think that I am either or.
You have recorded many works by many composers. What do you see yourself recording next? I know that your fans are eagerly awaiting a Beethoven cycle!
I am planning a Beethoven cycle to start next season. It will go very slow though; I will take all my time for Beethoven, so I will probably do only one CD per year.
Among other things, I had to cancel, because of Coronavirus, the live recordings of two concerts here at the Boulez Saal in Berlin. They were two concerts with the last three Mozart symphonies that I was planning to record with my orchestra, but they were cancelled.
You do Schubert, you do Mendelssohn; you do Beethoven [laughs]! I see myself doing Brahms at some point, although the Potsdam orchestra is too small for that. Beethoven is certainly the next big project, though.
Let’s go back a bit. When did you become interested in classical music, and how?
Probably when I was 6, because of my family bringing me to a music teacher to learn a little bit of flute, a little piano, just to get me some experience with that form of art. Then I got crazy about it. It all started there; I was a really small kid when I started playing the piano; then I played the violin — I was a violinist for a long time —, and then I started conducting. It’s my whole life; I wouldn’t know what else to do!
How has playing an instrument as important in orchestras as the violin helped you as a conductor?
It helped me immensely because I was not just a soloist, I was a concertmaster, so I had big responsibilities towards my colleagues in the orchestra. Not only did I play under conductors, but I had a leadership role in the orchestra. What I like to say is that I learn more from bad conductors than from good ones! When working with a bad conductor, the concertmaster (excuse my french) has to save his as* [laughs] because a bad conductor is not able to bring it all together. The concertmaster, then, becomes the focus for the orchestra. Even in opera sometimes, I practically led the orchestra from the concertmaster chair simply because the conductor was not able to do it. There I learned a lot, so it helped me immensely.
Interview by Alkis Karmpaliotis
In 1994, you were appointed concertmaster, as you said, of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester by Claudio Abbado. Would you say that he was an inspiration to you as a conductor?
He was an enormous inspiration to me as a musician more than as a conductor. There are two things that I really got from him: one is that the conductor is really just there to help, not to disturb. Musicians are able to play together a lot, and the conductor is just there to help them to do it even better. This was Claudio Abbado. There was never a tyrannical figure in front of me. He was always somebody I was making music with, very simply. Even when I was in a youth orchestra, as you mentioned, and I had no experience, and I was a concertmaster for one of the greatest conductors of the century, he still involved me, in a way, so that I felt like I was at his level. This made a huge difference.
Mostly, though, I learned repertoire. Apart from Mozart, my repertoire is very much German repertoire. Mahler, Schoenberg, the Wiener Schule, and all the things that I did with [Abbado]; he taught me music more than just conducting.
You were supposed to conduct Cosi fan Tutte at the Opera de Paris next week, but the performances were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How difficult do you think it will be for opera houses and symphony halls to bounce back after this difficult period?
It’s going to be very hard. I already have a few things scheduled for the fall that are likely going to be cancelled. I think that many houses will have big problems, particularly financially.
I’ve worked already this week, actually. I’ve done two projects already and I’m working on a third project next week with radio orchestras here in Germany. I worked with Hamburg, Stuttgart, and next week I will work with the radio orchestra in Berlin. These are all projects without an audience. The worst thing about all this is the fact that there is no live audience in the hall.
I think that opera houses will have the biggest problem because: in the pit, there is no way for musicians to distance themselves; and there are often choruses, which is a big problem. Opera houses will likely open last, which is very sad to say.
One of the most important things is to inspire young people to become interested in opera and classical music. What are some tips or suggestions you can offer to get more young people interested?
I think — and you can correct me because you are very young — that if you go into opera or classical music without parents who are bringing you to do it and helping you to learn to listen to it, then you are just going in blank.
Opera is just a portrayal of life. Take Erwartung by Schoenberg, or Cosi fan Tutte, Fidelio, or even some bel canto operas where the most important thing is the singing, and the story doesn’t have as much focus; all of these operas tell a story about life. It’s not about when it was written, or what costume the singers wear; it’s not about what instruments you use; it’s not about whether it’s dodecaphonic or baroque. The opera tells us things about our lives. I know that young people are very open to this idea. In fact, I did a performance of Zauberflöte in Amsterdam, and two weeks before the premiere, the opera house called me and told me that they were thinking about selling tickets only to people under twenty years old for the premiere! We agreed that it was a marvelous idea. So they opened the ticket office for the performance, and they only sold tickets to people under twenty years old. Within two hours, it was sold out. The whole hall was filled with teenagers, basically, and they loved it! It was the best audience I ever had!