“For these concerts in Salzburg,” explains Riccardo Muti, “I am the only conductor who has three performances. And they put extra chairs at the side of the stage.” He leans forward, conspiratorially. “I have an explanation for this. They say, ‘Let’s go to hear Muti, because maybe it’s the last chance!’” Cue raucous laughter. 

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Riccardo Muti
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The 82-year old conductor, who recently stepped down as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director after 13 years at the helm, is in ebullient form, reminiscing about Queen Elizabeth II visiting his dressing room at La Scala and staying – longer than protocol permitted – for 23 minutes, then railing against the opera world where “stage directors have now become the gods”. He’s self-deprecating, amusing anecdotes tripping off his tongue as he tosses back his silvery mane. 

Muti is at the Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra he first conducted in 1971 and which has invited him back every season since. What qualities does he value in this famed orchestra? “They’ve been very careful to keep their traditions. What is tradition? A certain way of phrasing, a certain way they cultivate their sound. You recognise immediately the Vienna Philharmonic on the radio. One time, years ago, you could say ‘This is the Berlin Philharmonic. This is the Vienna Philharmonic. This is an Italian orchestra. This is a French orchestra.’” A shrug. “This is disappearing. One of the faults was the beginning of the modern recording industry. CD recordings had an idealised sound – all orchestras started sounding the same. The great orchestras lost something, the poorer orchestras gained something. There was an equalisation, a globalisation. 

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Riccardo Muti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic
© SF | Marco Borelli

“But the Vienna Philharmonic is still very attentive to keep their sound. Some people think they play this way because they all have fantastic instruments – but if you put a Stradivarius in my hands, it sounds horrible! 

“I started to learn from them certain ways of phrasing that are typically Austrian, very different from the Germans. Little by little, I absorbed this. I have seen different generations. In 1971, there were still members who had played under Wilhelm Furtwängler, under Bruno Walter et cetera, et cetera; little by little, this generation died, then came another generation, and now the next one, some of whom already have white hair! But always I was learning from them, because a good conductor – and I don’t know if I am a good conductor – but a conductor who is wise knows that he can learn from an orchestra.

“From the Vienna Philharmonic I learned Schubert and Mozart. They said to me ‘Schubert, Maestro’ – no they didn’t say ‘Maestro’ at the time, they said ‘Herr Muti’, because they call you Maestro when you deserve the title. When I was 60 years old – 60!  – Werner Resel, who was chairman of the Philharmoniker, said to me, ‘Today, you are 60. Now, we can call you Maestro.’ It's another world. Now you have conductors at 25 or 26 conducting the Missa solemnis. Capito? 

Riccardo Muti conducts the Missa solemnis at Salzburg Festival

“So, they taught me how to play Schubert, which led to appointments to conduct the New Year’s Day concert. I learnt all this and now they love me because I can bring back what I learnt from them. Karajan and Böhm don’t exist any more, so the young musicians that come in don’t have the experience of playing under these giants, they learn from me.” Muti returns to the Vienna Philharmonic next May, where he conducts Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on the work’s 200th anniversary. 

Muti may be stepping back from Chicago, but it’s hardly “addio”. He’s already been made Conductor Emeritus, opens their new season and brings them on a European tour next January. “I had 13 fantastic years with the Chicago Symphony, I adore that orchestra. They loved me. There was not one second of friction.” 

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Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

How has the Chicago sound changed during his tenure? “Chicago has always been a great orchestra,” he begins. “Under Fritz Reiner, it was a miracle. Barenboim made the orchestra more lyrical, less about the famous Chicago brass. I couldn't stand any more hearing about the famous Chicago brass! What about the strings? What about the woodwinds? 

“Today, the brass are still very famous, because they are very good, very strong. But I also have a fantastic group of woodwinds – all chosen by me – and the strings now sing. I don’t mean they didn’t sing before, but I have changed the sound of the strings by doing more opera in concert – cantare, but cantare doesn’t mean the stupid Italian tenor – and more Schubert symphonies, which are not enough performed. So many orchestras just play the Unfinished and the C major.” 

Riccardo Muti conducts Philip Glass' Symphony no. 11

On the European tour, Muti will bring Florence Price’s Third Symphony – “a fantastic piece, well-written, well-orchestrated” – and a premiere by Philip Glass, which came about after Muti had conducted the composer’s Eleventh Symphony. “Philip Glass came to Chicago – there is a lovely photo of us hugging – and he was so impressed. He came to my office and, of course, there are many pictures of Italy because I like to feel at home, and he saw a photo of the Castel del Monte in Andria. This is the last castle that Frederick II had built. It is octagonal in design – the number eight in certain philosophies has the meaning of infinity. Glass saw this castle and I explained that I first saw it when I was five years old. It’s a mysterious castle, you feel some strange presence there, so he decided to write a short piece, called The Triumph of the Octagon.”

But why step back now? “I decided that I wanted to give more time to the young students at my Italian Opera Academy, to teach something – not because I know anything special, but I know something that my teachers taught me that I can pass on. Just think, my teacher was Antonino Votto,” Muti says, thumping his hand on table. “Votto was the assistant of Toscanini. Toscanini knew Verdi. Toscanini played under Verdi in the premiere of Otello. So there is a lineage. All the things that Votto taught me, you don’t find in the books.

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Riccardo Muti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic
© SF | Marco Borelli (2022)

“These young conductors don’t know anything about how to build an opera – what to say to the singers, how to work with a chorus, the relationship between orchestra and stage because stage directors have now become the gods. I remember, when I was young and in Florence, I conducted a new production which the critics did not like – and they blamed the conductor also. È certo! They were right, because you, the conductor, have your name on the poster in print bigger than the stage director’s name, so you have to take responsibility. You have approved what is happening on that stage and you cannot excuse yourself by saying ‘It’s not my job’. You are there conducting music which doesn’t fit what we see, so why didn’t you say anything to the stage director?

“We are quite lost. Votto used to say that a good opera conductor must absorb the ‘dust of the backstage’. You must know about the technicals, the lighting, you must be involved. I remember conducting Don Giovanni at La Scala in Giorgio Strehler’s staging. I entered the theatre at 9 o’clock and he was doing the lighting rehearsal, so the theatre was empty. I came in and saw the lighting for Act 2 – it was fantastic, like a dream! I was speechless. I sat behind Strehler and he went on until midnight, correcting and adjusting. At the end, I felt miserable: what for me was fantastic, for him was not good enough. Strehler knew music very well, he could read a score. Now, you have an opera where the conductor doesn’t speak Italian, the director doesn’t speak Italian, none of the singers are Italians…” There’s a despairing nod, a dismissive wave of the hands. 

Riccardo Muti rehearses Nabucco at La Scala in 1986

The previous day, the production team at the premiere of Salzburg’s Falstaff got heartily booed. Muti last conducted an opera here – Aida – in 2017. I suggest that nowadays he seems to prefer concert performances. 

“Not ‘prefer’. I had so many experiences of horrendous productions that I had to fight with this director, that director. I come from the old school. It’s not that I tell the stage director what to do, but I would like to talk with them beforehand. What I see on stage – modern, traditional, avant-garde – I don’t care, but I want something that doesn’t disturb what I am doing through the music. Between Schoenberg and Kandinsky there was a lot of correspondence. Schoenberg was interested in paintings and Kandinsky in music. And there is a letter from Schoenberg saying to Kandinsky: ‘If what you see disturbs what you hear, that’s wrong.’ This was Schoenberg… not Giordano or Mascagni! Capisce? So I don’t want to spend the few years in front of me fighting with an idiot.” 

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Riccardo Muti rehearses with the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini in Ravenna
© Zani Casadio

Is it any better in his homeland? “In Italy – with a few exceptions – opera is still something that belongs to a few opera buffs. They want to hear the tenor, they want to hear the soprano... it’s time now to go and hear the opera. When you go to hear Mozart or you go to hear Wagner, generally you go to hear Mozart or Wagner. In Verdi, ‘Oh, we want to see if the tenor has the high C’... that Verdi never wrote! 

“There is a letter where Verdi says there is only one creator – the composer – so he begged singers and conductors to do exactly what he asked. And that doesn’t mean the metronome. Many critics, your colleagues, they still don’t understand it. Come scritto – it doesn’t mean the metronome! It means you have to use your imagination and your interpretation, not changing what is written but using what is written!”

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Italian Opera Academy rehearsal with Polina Lebiedeva and Riccardo Muti
© Zani Casadio

But cutting the score? I explain how the ballet music has been cut from the new Macbeth. Muti is implacable. “I would sue. I buy the ticket because I want to hear what Verdi wrote. If you take away this part or that part, for me it’s impossible to know what Verdi wrote. Having paid, I have the right to hear not what the stage director thinks is necessary – or not necessary – for his interpretation, because I have the right to hear what the composer wrote. I think they should call a judge!!” He erupts into laughter. “È vero!”

On a roll now, Muti berates the loggionisti – the often highly critical audience members gathered in the upper reaches of Italian houses, especially in notoriously difficult theatres like Parma. “I will tell you the story of Carlo Bergonzi, who was singing Radamès in Parma. He tried everything possible to sing ‘Celeste Aida’ with the pianissimo at the end and he’s right, because this is a vision, a dream. So the loggionisti insulted him. He was furious. When he emerged after the performance, there was a group waiting for him and Bergonzi held up the score. ‘Look, pianissimo! It’s what Verdi wrote.’ You know their answer? ‘Verdi was wrong!’ 

Riccardo Muti conducts Nabucco at Opera di Roma in 2013

“They want to show that they own Verdi. You know the Club dei 27? It’s a group of 27 members – everybody has the name of a Verdi opera and you cannot join until one of them dies. In 1994, I was made one of the ‘Cavalieri di Verdi’. There is a big masonic-style ceremony held in this cave, where everybody holds a little light, dressed in black, and you have to shake hands with everyone. At the ceremony, they sing ‘Va, pensiero’, which is always sung wrongly, by the way, because it is written grave, sotto voce. So there was a recording that was playing and they were singing along, and I said, ‘But this recording is not my recording’ and they replied, ‘Oh, Maestro, we tried to go with your recording…’” Muti pauses for comic effect. “‘But it is too slow!’” More raucous laughter.

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