March 2006

Recreational and professional vigour


Giovanni Reggioli seems like a regular mainstream opera conductor when you look at his CV.

His repertoire focuses on the standard works by composers from his birthplace, Italy - Verdi and Puccini leading the list. His international engagements span an interesting range of companies and venues, underpinned by his longterm and high-profile association with the Washington National Opera, working with Plácido Domingo.

Then a glance at his publicity photos brings up a surprise: amongst the usual elegantly posed theatrical shots, there he is in full cycling gear, crouched over a racing bicycle. And when he turns up for his interview at the Opera Centre on a very hot Sydney day, he is wearing shorts and carrying a couple of tennis racquets, fresh from the court.

No, he is not quite as sports mad as that may suggest. He did cycle competitively until a couple of years ago, but he says it was mainly a way of keeping fit when he did so much travelling. He used to take his bicycle on conducting tours, but after it took him two hours to get out of town in Tokyo he decided it was all too hard. Now he plays tennis instead.

"Tennis has a lot of analogies with the music for me," he says. "The need of a good technique and the ability to forget that technique in favor of the game once you have it established. Technique is the means to an end to play the game. Also, the ability of doing simple things under pressure.

"When musicians perform, we do things we can do in our practice room all the time, but the performance pressure is such that the key to being a great artist, I think, is the ability to repeat those things under pressure, maybe with a little extra energy that the performance will need."

So he has been enjoying a few games of tennis in Sydney, along with the beach and some long walks. One of the highlights of his stay seems to have been the walk he did from Manly to the Spit with his wife Alizon and their daughter Camilla, who at two was young enough to ride on his shoulders.

But such recreational bursts of energy came between the professional dynamism he has given to conducting Falstaff for Opera Australia in the company's Sydney Opera House summer season. Critical and audience reactions to the production, including compliments for his contribution, have been appreciative and he has been equally delighted by the quality of the singers and orchestral players - so much so that he is already looking forward to his return visit to conduct La Traviata for OA in 2007.

The ensemble intensity of Verdi's Falstaff and of Opera Australia created a strong core at the centre of this rollicking production, originally directed by Simon Phillips and brought back to life by Sarah Carradine with Stephen Richardson in the title role. Non-stop action and knockabout comedy amongst the leading singers get a sympathetic hearing from Reggioli. He is not averse to "tweaking" the score a little if it makes the staging work and allows better communication between the singers and the audience - which happened on several occasions here. For instance, when Mistress Quickly replies in person to Falstaff's propositions to two of her friends, a couple of theatrical pauses in the music boost the comic banter in the scene to another level.

"I really believe in performing for the audience and not the musicologists," he says.

"Most of the time, I ask the orchestra to play a little louder in the soft passages to give some musical tension. As long as it doesn't cover the singers, I believe in the presence of the orchestra as an emotion-making function rather than accompaniment. In Falstaff, a lot of the time the orchestra is written with ppps and I encourage the players to play a little above that because you get more electricity and more understanding."

Knowing I would be interviewing Reggioli, I kept a closer eye than usual on the conductor when I went to the performance. One scene in particular intrigued me as he worked to hold together a lot of action on the stage, spearheaded by the feisty women and the plotting men grouped at diagonal opposites.

Reggioli obviously thought the women, downstage and close at his right, would be fine without him, I decided, because he was projecting all his energy and conducting focus on the men - who were not only upstage to his left but upstairs on the upper level of the set. He was amused by my observations and explained even more complications: the men were boxed into a "room" on the set and could only hear themselves - like singing in a telephone booth - and they were meant to be singing sotto voce ... but if they had, no one else would have been able to hear them. So the only thing he felt he could do was get them to sing out. He gave the impression that he thought Verdi would have understood the situation.

You need to be unafraid of what the purists - CD devotees as well as musicologists - might say when you do something like that. Reggioli's concern is for the live performance on hand and he concentrates on making that the best he can for music and theatre to be communicated to an audience.

This emerges in a conversation about the difference between conducting symphony orchestras, which he also does, and opera: his need to get to know the singers and attend rehearsals "to develop ideas and to make the orchestra and singers work together as a unit - to have the orchestra participate in what happens on the stage."

His approach may well come from his background in opera. He was born into it. "My father was an opera singer. My mother also studied voice. I grew up in a rehearsal room. My father always said that if I wanted to be a conductor, I should be a repetiteur first, the traditional upbringing of a conductor in the opera world. I started playing for his voice studio in Florence when I was 15. I quit school to do that ... I went to college in the States later.

"Then I started work in the theatre in Florence before going to La Scala, where I was the youngest repetiteur at 21. After that, I realised I needed to learn more about conducting the orchestra. In modern times, conductors need a very strong technique because the rehearsal times are being squeezed and you have to get to play together quickly so you can talk about ideas and make better use of your time. So I applied for a scholarship at Juilliard and spent three years there."

After that, he worked with New York City Opera as a conductor, but when a job came up for a pianist at the Met, he couldn't resist it. His first job there was playing Falstaff for James Levine. He stayed for six years, rising to prompter and then assistant conductor. "Domingo saw me conducting and said he needed a resident conductor in his company in Washington and also an opera coach for the young artists' program he was starting." So he went to the Washington National Opera, where his responsibilities include orchestral preparation and conducting rehearsals and some performances on director Plácido Domingo's behalf, as well as conducting his own productions.

Now 40, Reggioli is moving out more often from his Washington base, last year conducting Aida at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome and Madama Butterfly for l'Opéra de Québec, where he first made an appearance in 2003 on a rescue mission to replace a colleague and keeps being invited back.

"I started later than other conductors, but since I have watched so many conductors and so many productions at such a high level, I got a good grasp of what a conductor has to do. If I had been conducting only, I would only have seen my own work and grown into my own world. This way I have seen the likes of James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Plácido Domingo, Simone Young, Richard Hickox - I can relate to each of them and learn from everybody. People think I have more experience as a conductor than I do, but I have lived all my life in the rehearsal room.

"The ability to communicate complex thought in simple ways is the ability to produce something. As a conductor, my struggle is to see the piece as a large unit, and then translate it in simple forms and ideas without forgetting the unity. Everyone has a little bit of this big unit and they have to be able to keep it together. With the orchestra, there is a lot of need for clarity with the right hand, and specificity of ideas and a way of communicating those ideas. I don't think orchestras or singers want to hear my philosophical approach, they want to know whether they should sing piano or forte, fast or slow. The ability of translating the ideas you have into useful information is one of the struggles." And a parting thought from him: "I want people to love opera as much as I do."

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