The Lyric’s incoming maestro brings with him impressive credentials and a towering passion for his repertoire, his fellow artists, his new audience and his new home.
When Anthony Freud stepped onto the Civic Opera House stage before the second act of “Luisa Miller” on Oct. 20, the audience gave a cry of dismay. They knew what announcement was to come from the general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago: Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja was ill, and could not continue singing. After American soprano Toni Marie Palmertree stepped in to replace ailing star Krassimira Stoyanova as Luisa at the top of the opera, the packed house would witness yet another Lyric debut. But when newly announced Music Director Designate Enrique Mazzola took to the pit, he seemed as calmly exuberant as he was at the overture, and tenor Jon Burton received a riotous ovation for his aria “Quando le sere al placido.” According to Mazzola, it’s all part of live performance, and a testament to the quality of the company.
“One of the distinctive things of the Lyric of Chicago is that there is always a big, important rehearsal period, so all artists — from principals, to conductor, to understudy, to chorus member, to orchestra members — they have really the possibility to prepare themselves,” Mazzola told Fra Noi in an exclusive interview. “And you can feel the strength, the force of all this, when you have emergencies like two of our principals are sick and two understudies have to go on stage. You see the costume department re-preparing all the costumes, and the coaches giving the last vocal notes, and the conductor in the pit showing to the orchestra that we will need to change the dynamic in the certain moment to match with the singer, and the orchestra reacts in a fraction of seconds. You can feel the professionality, the top level of an opera house when you see these kinds of things happen.”
Mazzola brings his own level of professionalism to the table, with 20 years of conducting and 80 titles in his operatic repertoire. “Being a conductor is the result of accumulation of experience,” he says. “Every show is unique, and in every show the conductor learns something, which helps you for the next show. So it’s a mix of this that lets me be very calm, smiling in the pit.”
Born in Barcelona and raised in Milan, Mazzola grew up surrounded by music, and had several generations of musicians to guide him. His grandmother in Spain played harp and would encourage him to conduct along with vinyl records with a full score in front of him. His father led the opera chorus at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and by the time he was 7, Mazzola was taking his regular primary school classes in the morning, studying violin in the afternoon, and singing in the children’s chorus of La Scala in the evening. “I grew up with music in a very natural, beautiful way. Recently I found on Facebook some members of this children’s chorus of La Scala when I was there, and we are connecting with each other. We were like brothers and sisters in a way because we were meeting every day. I have very beautiful, sweet memories of this part of my life.”
Mazzola completed his studies at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi of Milan, earning diplomas in composition and orchestral conducting. He began conducting professionally with the chamber orchestra i Pomeriggi Musicali. After seven years conducting exclusively in Italy, his career expanded internationally in the early 2000s. Now widely recognized as one of today’s foremost interpreters and champions of bel canto opera, Mazzola is in high demand worldwide as both an operatic and symphonic conductor. Most recently, he served as artistic and music director for the Orchestre National d’Île-de-France.
After making his own Lyric debut in the 2016/17 season conducting Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Mazzola is excited to return to the city, not only for the music, but also for the people. “Chicago is a wonderful city, very warm, very welcoming. I feel that when you need help, you always find a Chicagoan ready to help you.
“Being a Chicagoan means being a dynamic person, a positive person, a person who enjoys life. I see that Chicagoans LOVE going to theater, going to opera, going to have a cocktail, going to chat with a friend outside. I fit very well, I think, into Chicago, especially because I’m a little bit this kind of person. I’m very active, I’m very passionate, I’m full of ideas. I really have a dream, and when I finish my dream I have another dream, you know? And at the same time I work a lot, at the same time I like good food and good wine. In a way there is a sort of magic match with Chicago.”
Mazzola will assume the full appointment of music director for the Lyric in the 2021/22 season. With “Luisa Miller,” he launched a series of early Verdi operas that will span five seasons. “When I was proposed to conduct ‘Luisa Miller’ it was just to come here to be a guest conductor. For me it was very interesting because it is a title which comes exactly before La Trilogia Popolare di Giuseppe Verdi, which is ‘Trovatore,’ ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Rigoletto.’ This is just a couple of operas before this trilogy.”
“Luisa Miller” offers the perfect introduction to the early Verdi series because it represents a transitional period, straddling the florid traditions of bel canto and the drama, emotion, freedom and grandeur of his later works.
Mazzola is also passionate about contemporary music, or as he refers to it, “today music.” “As future music director, I want to conduct when possible the contemporary opera,” he says. “I have been very involved in it all my life, so I’m not going to abandon contemporary opera today. Especially in a city like Chicago, which is a representation of a contemporary opera. You walk in the Loop, you walk on Michigan Avenue, you walk in Streeterville, and it’s a contemporary city. So a contemporary city needs contemporary opera.”
Above all else, Mazzola believes in the duty of the conductor to inspire and connect. “The conductor has the responsibility to motivate and reassure, also in the difficult moments. We are all humans, we all have our private life, family life, working ambitions, and there’s nothing more difficult than working arts because we are asked to perform something in a perfect way regardless of our mood of the day, our health of the day, so many different aspects of life. I respect very much the musician’s life, but it’s our life to perform, to make people dream for two, three hours. To let the others put outside of the walls of the Lyric their own problems, their own daily schedules and meetings. They come here, they enjoy, they see passion, death, treason, poison, love, naïveté, they see jealousy, they see everything.
“The live performing arts have a strong connection between the audience and performer,” he adds, “and I have to say Chicago audiences, they are really fantastic. They are warm, they are friends, they are family, they stay with us, they support us.”
Mazzola will return to Chicago next season to conduct the second title in the early Verdi series, which will be announced in February 2020.
The above appears in the January 2020 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.