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It’s two years until he takes Lyric Opera reins, but Enrique Mazzola already feels like family

Submitted by on Oct 11, 2019 – 3:15 pm

Enrique Mazzola, music director-designate at Lyric Opera of Chicago, takes the orchestra for a spin at the dress rehearsal of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller.” (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

Interview: Back to lead Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” the music director-designate says he’s been at home with Lyric since first visit in 2016.
By Nancy Malitz

The year 2019 has been for Enrique Mazzola an intense and rewarding breakthrough year he says he’ll remember for the rest of his life.

The 51-year-old Spanish-born Italian conductor, who is instantly recognizable by his trademark red glasses, enjoyed a highly successful international season of return engagements capped by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, followed by his debut at the Salzburg Festival with the renowned Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, and finally the announcement in September that he will become the next music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago starting with the 2021-22 season.

Mazzola becomes music director in 2021-22. (Jean-Baptiste Millot)

Indeed, Mazzola’s recent history bears the stamp of a conductor on the rise. From the looks of it, the maestro was booked for return visits almost immediately after appearing for the first time in front of a number of opera pits, an accomplishment followed by invitations from ever larger ensembles of international renown.

Backstage at Lyric Opera, where he was between rehearsals for the company’s imminent run of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” the conductor pronounced his forthcoming Lyric music directorship as “a life event for me.” To be the music director designate at the Lyric Opera links Mazzola with what he described as “one of my most beloved opera houses. I have always felt that the Lyric along with (England’s) Glyndebourne Festival in the summer are the two places in the world where an artist has the best chance to develop.”

Lyric president and CEO Anthony Freud and current music director Andrew Davis have made it clear to Mazzola that he is already part of the family, welcoming him into conversations affecting future plans as a means of preparing for a smooth transition. When it happens, Mazzola will be only the third music director in Lyric’s history. Bruno Bartoletti held the reins from 1964-1999. Davis took over in 2000 and is still going strong. He will undertake Wagner’s four-part, 17-hour “Ring” cycle in the spring and continue on for yet another season.

“The Lyric is the only opera house in the world where from Day One in 2016 I felt at home,” Mazzola said. “I mean, you open the stage door and walk through and immediately you see through the glass window to a company office and they are always waving, and a few meters more, this is Sir Andrew’s room and Anthony Freud’s room, and often they are there, so they wave also. In many opera companies this does not happen, and nobody says hello.”

The vibe is critical for artists who live everywhere and nowhere in the world, Mazzola said:  “Plus, the Lyric gives more rehearsal time – almost a month – to work with orchestral readings and staging. So the artists really have the possibility to work deeply into the character, the scene, and the whole vision of the opera from the director and the conductor. And the audience is warm and welcoming, too. I can feel the energy behind me as I conduct.”

Mazzola sharpened his leadership skills in seven years as music director of the Orchestre national d’Île de France, which performs in Paris and the immediate outlying areas. During that time, Mazzola planned programs, chose guest artists, opened a new concert hall and had the first experience of settling into a place that felt like home to him.

“Most important, that time helped me to develop high-level management experience,” he said. “I was in charge of orchestral strategy. I was in charge of commissioning new pieces. I was in charge of an educational department. I was in charge of a young composer competition that I created. That is experience which will be helpful here. And now that I am music director designate, I will be able to spend two seasons sitting next to our music director and general director, which means two years of listening, covering, understanding, and exploring the city of Chicago itself.”

Freud designed the long transition, for which Mazzola said he is grateful. “This allows me to spend two years near Sir Andrew, who I may say is a genius. So often I hear that these changes are dramatic, difficult, messy, starting with a first year of nobody knowing anything and nothing happening. Everything is being done really in the Lyric Opera style.”

Mazzola is principal guest conductor with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. He was artistic and music director of the Orchestre national d’Île de France from 2012-19. (Eric Garault)

In the leading opera houses of the world, planning typically begins five years ahead in order to get the best artists. Right now there is thinking going on about 2024-25. Thus, works are being chosen that Mazzola may be conducting, although he does not yet have direct responsibility for choosing them. All the more reason for him to be in the loop, however.

Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” which opens Oct. 12 with Mazzola leading the orchestra, is one of the last “early” Verdi operas. It was written just a few years before the golden trilogy of “Rigoletto,” “Trovatore” and “Traviata” that made the composer world-famous in the mid-19th century. “Luisa Miller” is often considered a bridge out of the earlier “bel canto” style of florid singing that Verdi inherited from Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, as Verdi was turning toward bolder, convention-busting dramas of harrowing psychological insight.

Coincidentally, Mazzoli is a bel canto specialist, but he’s also chomping at the bit to move into Verdi’s world and beyond. Mazzola recently led an extravagant summer festival version of “Rigoletto” at Bregenz, Austria, with gigantic puppets on a floating stage in the middle of an Alpine lake. (The production repeats in the summer of 2020; see a video clip below.)

Mazzola has also conducted Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, where he is a permanent guest. And he is curious about the newest music, having conducted works by the American composer Nico Muhly (whose Hitchockian opera “Marnie” was recently done at the Met under a different conductor), and by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s former composer-in-residence Anna Clyne, among others.

“So this is good moment to gather all this experience and to bring it energetically to the Lyric,” Mazzola said. “I think that the Lyric Opera can be a central point of reference in Chicago life. It can be a big music home for everybody.”

Mazzola’s interested in opera’s cutting edge, too: “When we walk in Chicago, we walk in one of the great contemporary art cities of the world, with some most interesting examples of 20th- and 21st-century architecture along with the beautiful old buildings.

“So we raise our eyes and we admire the possibilities of the human mind, and at the same time we judge. Because we have our favorite buildings, and there are some that we like more than others. It’s the same with new music. We can listen, and we can choose what we like. But we always benefit from having it around.”

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