Currently music director of the New York Philharmonic, ex of the Cleveland Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel has been a fixture on the American concert scene for so long that we are apt to forget his lifelong devotion to opera. In the coming months, however, New Yorkers are due for two forceful reminders of his prowess in that department, and both will be broadcast. After a hiatus of forty-four years, the Met has won him back for this month's strongly cast revival of Die Walküre. In June, the New York Philharmonic offers Tosca in concert form under his baton, starring principals of staged performances Maazel led at La Scala in 2006 — Hui He as Tosca, Walter Fraccaro as Cavaradossi and George Gagnidze as Scarpia.
"I happen to be a theater fan," Maazel said, sitting in the music director's nook in Avery Fisher Hall as the fall season at the Philharmonic was getting underway. Without the Steinway M Model medium grand, the room might seem spartan; as things are, it feels claustrophobic. "I love the theater — the professional theater. I love music. So opera is the ideal fusion of the two. I'm extremely happy in the orchestra pit, psychologically as well as artistically and emotionally. Everything that goes with opera doesn't worry me."
No one in opera has "done it all" — the genre is too vast for that — but Maazel comes close. Okay, so he has set no mark on Monteverdi, Handel or Janáček. Consider, however, a not-so-short list of compensating accomplishments: his Bayreuth Ring in 1968 was the first conducted by a non-German; his was the first uncut recording of Porgy and Bess (1975); two of the perhaps half-dozen most convincing movies of operas ever filmed were to soundtracks recorded under his baton (Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni, 1979; Francesco Rosi's Carmen, 1984). Last year, on his 550-acre farm (complete with zoo) in Castleton, Virginia, he launched a comprehensive young-artists program, which included a fully staged production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia.
Moreover, Maazel has held top musical, artistic and administrative positions at Deutsche Oper Berlin and Vienna State Opera. Though declining a formal title, he has also served, in his phrase, as "de facto artistic director" of Teatro alla Scala, Milan; he is currently the music director of the new opera house in Valencia, conducting three of six productions per season. When no replacement could be found for a cancellation, Maazel has also proved capable of directing (Eugene Onegin, Rome, 1965) — a successful experience, he says, but one he never cared to repeat. "I was spending sixteen-hour days — eight on the music, eight on the production," he says. "I take a dim view of people who haven't been trained as conductors and expect the orchestra to get them through, or directors who haven't done opera. Being a conscientious professional, I felt that, though I might or might not have some talent for directing, I'd leave it to others. I've been very tempted as years have gone by, but I've resisted. I remember Karajan's production of the Ring. It was rather naïve."
At the Met, Maazel's tally stands at a mere sixteen performances of Don Giovanni and Der Rosenkavalier over a two-and-a-half-month period beginning in November 1962, with golden-age casts led by the likes of Cesare Siepi, Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, Régine Crespin, Lisa Della Casa and Anneliese Rothenberger. (Sándor Kónya and George Shirley alternated as Strauss's Italian Tenor.) But at La Scala, he has presided over three opening nights and ten new productions. In 1970, in Berlin, he conducted eleven different operas in fourteen days and at the Salzburg Festival, he has been on the podium for 109 performances and eight new productions. Maazel is a demon with stats.
World premieres? Well, there was Dallapiccola's Ulisse (1968) and, more recently, Maazel's own 1984, after the George Orwell novel, spectacularly directed by Robert Lepage, with Simon Keenlyside as Winston Smith, the antiauthoritarian crushed by Big Brother. The initial press from London, where the Royal Opera gave the premiere under his baton in 2005, was hostile — largely because reporters had heard that the production had been financed at the composer's personal expense. Actually, Maazel explains, a coproducer dropped out late in the game, and he, out of consideration for the other artists involved, floated the company a half-million-dollar loan repayable from future performance fees.
"It turned out to be a boon for the reputation of the opera," he says. "The mass of violent criticism fits right into the tradition of press reaction to masterpieces like Carmen. Just read Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective. 1984 will make its way or it won't. I can't make the response. Word got around, and at the last performance I saw nothing but young faces." Premieres in Valencia and Milan (at the companies' invitation, Maazel insists, rather than at his urging) are on the schedule this season; inquiries are being fielded from American companies as well, though any contracts have yet to be signed. A DVD from London, directed for video by Brian Large, has won exceptional advance notice and will be released shortly.
Like Maazel's music or hate it, his technical competency is not in doubt. As a student of one Professor O'Brien at the University of Pittsburgh, Maazel wrote a fugue a day for 300 days, getting to the point where he could dash one off on the subway in half an hour. "Professor O'Brien's first name? I wouldn't know," he says. "I wouldn't have dreamed of calling him anything but Professor O'Brien. And as it happens, O'Brien is the villain of 1984 — not that there's any connection." More recently, the late Mstislav Rostropovich talked Maazel into composing instrumental music "after fifty conversations and a bottle of vodka." But for Maazel, hearing what he has written is no treat.
"No composer worth his salt likes his own music," he says. "Hearing 1984, I was horrified from the first note. If you're introverted, as I am, it's embarrassing. The music has personal overtones you can't avoid. I come across as an anchored, together human being, and I'm none of these things. My wife put it very well. 'Hearing one's music performed is like hearing your diaries read out over the radio.'" But did what he heard surprise him? "It sounded exactly as I expected," Maazel says. "I haven't changed a note."
Born to American parents in the Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine, on March 6, 1930, Maazel began studying violin at five and conducting at seven. He first bestrode the podium of a university orchestra at eight years old, soon winning the approval of Arturo Toscanini, no easy man to impress. (He made his New York Philharmonic debut at twelve.) But for the double pneumonia that struck two days before the Glazunov Violin Competition, held in New York, the multitalented prodigy might have gone the path of a twentieth-century Paganini. (He made his debut with the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the Everest of the literature.) "I was lucky," Maazel says brightly. "The pneumonia kept me from a violin career, and I've been happy ever since."
Reminiscence brings out a note of gentle self-mockery. "It amuses me to say, 'Sixty years ago I did such and such,'" Maazel says. "It knocks me flat. It sounds unreal. I was always the youngest. None of us thinks he will ever die. The doctor says, 'You're a walking wonder.' It's no credit to me. It's genes. My father is 104 and still very much alive, and my mother was nearly 100 when she died."
Maazel is old enough to remember the days when conductors who would later distinguish themselves in the concert hall learned their craft backstage at the opera house, coaching singers. Is the music world a poorer place now that such grounding is no longer the norm?
"I do think the music world is a poorer place," Maazel says. "In Berlin, in the early '30s, there were four opera houses, and their music directors were Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber and Otto Klemperer, all of whom came up as coaches. But there have been fantastic conductors of opera who were not coaches. Toscanini was a cellist. He took over Aida in Rio de Janeiro at nineteen, never having conducted it, and did it from memory. But coaching was certainly a spawning ground. It's very unfortunate that it has been lost. There are so many mediocrities floating about. It's like the symphonic world, where there are too many orchestras and too few good conductors, so orchestras out of sheer desperation engage people who fifty years ago wouldn't have been scrubbing the floor. It's a phenomenon of our age."
While Maazel himself missed the house-coach phase, he can point to what he calls "a slight advantage" over other aspiring opera conductors, thanks to his father. "He sang and taught singing. I grew up listening to hundreds of students coming to the house and being taught. And sometimes I accompanied them just for fun. I knew La Bohème by heart at the piano before I ever thought about conducting it. Just listening in, I learned a lot about breath control, body language, getting poised for high notes, when a singer has to get off. All these things became part of my nervous system. Our job is to anticipate. We work with the artist under fire."
Few maestros acknowledge the instruction of a diva, but Maazel does not mind crediting Birgit Nilsson, whom he first encountered when he brought his friend Wieland Wagner's production of Tristan und Isolde to La Scala. "I was still in my thirties and very deferential, very respectful of the greats of the day," Maazel says. "And during a rehearsal she stopped and said, 'Young man, I want to be led. I don't want to be followed. My job is to sing. Your job is to lead. Now, go!' That was very helpful.
"I find the opera world fascinating," comments Maazel, "but only at the highest level. If you've heard Sayão sing Mimì, that's setting the bar very high. But at the highest level, we have people who are historically competitive." In his opinion, Diana Damrau, who created the role of the Gym Instructress and the Drunken Woman in 1984, meets the standard of any great coloratura soprano of the past. By Maazel's estimate, there are twenty or twenty-five singers in Damrau's class, keeping opera alive, including Natalie Dessay and Carlos Alvarez.
A common complaint is that top-level maestros today have no time for intensive work one-on-one, and that singers are thrown back on private coaches who simply do not have the same authority. What is Maazel's practice? "It depends on the cast," he said. "Today's singers are so well prepared. Groundwork that used to have to be done at the piano has already been done when they arrive for rehearsals. Of course you hope to fit a singer's conception of a role into the larger line the conductor is allegedly responsible for. They call it architectonics, or something. Sometimes you spend two hours with a singer on one aria. With another singer, you go through the whole opera in that time.
"Much is said about preparation. We all respect it. But there's also something called intuition — advanced musicality. In Berlin, Pilar Lorengar fell out of Traviata one time, and someone called Beverly Sills stepped in. I'd never heard her. I'd never even met her. And we were friends from the second note. She was a great artist, very streetwise. There were emotions that came from her that astonished me, and if I may say immodestly, the other way around. I didn't have my head in the score. I was leaning against the balustrade and beaming at her. Others you can work with for months and not get to that level. If collaborating artists are on the same wavelength and have the true ability to bring dead marks on the page to life, then it's an entirely different world. I play it by ear, no pun intended."
Of the directors Maazel has especially enjoyed working with, apart from Wieland, he singles out Harold Prince for a Vienna Turandot in 1983 ("absolutely stunning") and Herbert Wernicke, his partner on Salzburg productions of Der Rosenkavalier and Don Carlo. Maazel's collaboration with Franco Zeffirelli on a film of Otello (1986), however, ended on a very sour note. In violation of Maazel's contract but apparently with Zeffirelli's approval, cuts had been made in the score in order to shave the running time. The entire willow song wound up on the cutting-room floor, which at least helped meet that objective. Other gains were microscopic — a bar here and a bar there — but the momentary musical effect was barbaric. "I was very upset with Franco," Maazel says. "He said, 'I know more about theater than you do.' And I said, 'Yes, but I know more about music than you do, and the score is perfect.'" According to Maazel, it was ten years before the two men were back on speaking terms.
As much as Maazel loves the smell of the greasepaint, he is finding opera in concert very exciting these days. "Semi-staging works more or less, I suppose," he says. "But a pure concert performance can be a revelation." The June Tosca at the New York Philharmonic will follow the pattern of Maazel's recent Aida with the Rome-based Symphonica Toscanini on tour in South America. A performance in Rio was a tribute to Toscanini on the centennial of his conducting debut in that very city, in that very opera.
"It was a very experienced cast," Maazel says. "Maria Guleghina, Anna Smirnova, Walter Fraccaro, Juan Pons. And they were absolutely stunning. The performances in Rio and São Paulo were mind-boggling. They had a theatrical punch you rarely get when the opera is staged — because they were purely visceral. All I did was make a space about six feet deep and ten feet wide, put down some chairs and leave it to the singers to work it out. I didn't even say, 'Act it out.' They had to."
Of Wagner, Maazel takes an unapologetically critical view. "Imagine how much greater his operas would have been if someone else had written the libretti. He was a second-class poet and a first-class musician. I speak German. His couplets are watered-down Goethe. With a real librettist, how much more concise and how much more theatrical the works would have been! Because of his musical genius, he could turn a negative into a positive." He refers to the symphonic synthesis of Wagner's Ring cycle that Telarc had proposed. "I'm not afraid of the long line — even though I'm responsible for putting together a Ring Without Words."
In fact, at first Maazel resisted the idea. "I said no!" the maestro reports. "I'm a Ring conductor. It would be desecrating a unique masterpiece. But they kept after me. I made an attempt and thought it was awful. I told them to try someone else. And they got back to me with the usual flattery. No one else can do it, blah, blah, blah."
In the end, Maazel capitulated. "I had several criteria. The piece had to be chronological and seamless, flowing together harmonically with no abrupt transitions. There couldn't be one note by Lorin Maazel. And it should be able to stand on its own as a concert piece, with proper dynamic contrasts — fast/slow, highs/lows. Those are all vital parts of the theatrical aspect of a concert piece of which every composer is aware." When an instrumentalist shuddered at an abrupt transition, Maazel told him, "Sorry! That's the composer."
Maazel and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded Ring Without Words in late 1987. By then, it had been performed dozens of times around the world, and is scheduled for June 2008 at Carnegie Hall with Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic. According to Maazel, the album has sold half a million copies. "It increased interest in the Ring exponentially, and people who heard it decided to explore the real thing. So I felt I'd made a small contribution in increasing interest in the Ring."