In 1983, Stéphane Lissner was director of the Théâtre National de Nice when he joined the opera world with a three month contract at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, starting with a major production of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. The contract turned permanent and Lissner has stayed in opera ever since. Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, La Scala, Paris Opéra and now Superintendent of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples: his CV reads like a hit parade of world opera. We talk about the current situation at the world’s oldest continuously active opera house, his plans for its future, and more: our conversation reveals a clear-sighted, purposeful man with no fear of speaking his mind.

Stéphane Lissner
© Francesco Squeglia

DK: The Covid-19 crisis is hurting the entire opera world. How did the crisis unfold in Naples? What were the most important issues you had to deal with?

SL: The first issue that had to be dealt with was to avoid the San Carlo employees going on unemployment benefit, which unfortunately, here in Italy, only entitles them to about half their salary. In a city like Naples, in a theatre like the San Carlo where salaries are not very high, receiving only half one's salary means finding oneself without the capacity to pay one's bills and to support one's family. So my objective for the last year has been to create activities. The latest important activity, which lasted three months, was setting up training courses on new skills, linked to new technologies, and on general culture. This allowed me to bring in great Italian personalities – intellectuals, writers, philosophers, art historians, museum directors, political journalists – to open up to the employees fields outside the opera and music worlds. It was financed by the Ministry of Labour through a 700 million Euro competition, which was very significant across Italy. We were the only theatre to apply.

There was, of course, all the artistic activity: streaming, concerts. We went through different periods: the theatre open with half an audience, the theatre with only a third of the audience... Then we had the theatre closed for several weeks. Now, we have arranged a whole series of concerts, starting with Cavalleria rusticana with Elina Garanča and Jonas Kaufmann. In the next few days, we will begin rehearsals for the summer, for which we have a very busy programme from June onwards. So we are going through this period determined to support all our employees – chorus, orchestra, ballet, as well as the technical and administrative staff.

You’ve mentioned your employees: is there also, as there would be in England, an issue with freelance workers?

No: in England, there are no annual contracts. In Italy, contracts are annual. What is very difficult here is that as the salaries are very low, a certain number of people – the technical staff, for example – work evenings or weekends, trying to have small jobs to top up their main salary. And obviously with lockdown, all these people have not been able to keep their usual supplementary salaries, especially since the second wave, which has affected and is still affecting a lot of southern Italy at the moment, whereas the first wave mainly hit Lombardy and the North.

Everywhere, I think, cultural organisations are going through terribly difficult times. There is no work, no income, and the catastrophe is not only economic but also psychological, because people are experiencing enormous distress due to the lack of reference points, of perspective. And I don't think that European governments in general have supported culture very much. Young people, students and cultural organisations are very much affected.

The Teatro di San Carlo and the Piazza del Plebiscito
© Teatro di San Carlo

How confident are you that this summer's events will actually go ahead?

I've designed the whole summer programme to be outdoors, because I am very pessimistic about the likelihood of our being able to reopen theatres very quickly. It's especially a case of the conditions under which opening will be permitted: opening a theatre to an audience of 200 or 300 isn't economically viable. So apart from L'elisir d'amore, which we will try to perform in the theatre at the end of July, all the major concerts, ballets and operas are planned to be outdoors.

You are creating a new streaming platform. With so many platforms commercially available, why did you want a new one and what makes it different?

I decided on this platform and got it funded in October 2019, when there was no Covid-19 and nobody knew there would be a pandemic. It wasn't originally intended to be a platform for streaming! Rather, it was a global and above all a social project, aimed at all the people who can't come to the house, who are not necessarily interested in opera, but who could discover through this platform all the art forms that revolve around music – or, even, discover the music itself. It will be a kind of free television in which there will be a relationship between the theatre and the city, the city and its citizens. With screens in the disadvantaged areas of Naples and the possibility of discovering opera through films, as I did with the "3rd Stage" at the Paris Opéra, of showing the work of the Academy, dance classes, singing classes... At the beginning, therefore, streaming did not overly interest me. It was possible to broadcast a concert, an opera, a recital, but that was not the main purpose. It was because of the pandemic that I had to adapt myself and do streaming. I won't deny that I've seen a lot of streaming of a quality that I find highly questionable. For me, streaming came about because I was very much looking for ways to give work to the company's employees, to have an activity for them so that they would not be caught in financial difficulty.

Did you arrive at San Carlo with a mandate for stability or, on the contrary, for reform?

Let's go back to the theatre's history. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Teatro di San Carlo competed with La Scala in Milan for the title of number one Italian opera house, and Tebaldi, Callas, the greatest singers came to San Carlo as well as to La Scala. Unfortunately, this didn't last, mainly for economic reasons, because the city of Naples does not have the same means and the same companies that support La Scala. Little by little, funding ran out and the theatre found itself without the means to maintain its position.

Then, the situation became dramatic, the debts exceeded tens of millions of euros, and there was a plan throughout Italy to reform all the foundations. My predecessor, who had run the theatre for ten years, had a very clear mission: to balance the books and reduce expenses as much as possible. Let's say that the artistic project did not have the importance one would expect for an opera house of this quality, taking into account its beauty, its history, the city. When I was appointed, in October 2019, the project was to relaunch this theatre, with the possibility of having great artists, ambitious projects, so that the San Carlo could regain its aura and its reputation.

Anna Netrebko
© Julian Hargreaves

Elina Garanča
© Christoph Köstlin

It's well known that your address book includes the greatest voices of our time. What do you say to those who complain that you should programme more Italian singers?

When you get to see the programme I'll be announcing for the 2021-2022 season, you'll see that the vast majority of the artists are Italian. I think all the Italian singers will be here in Naples next season: there is no problem in that regard. When you do concert versions you need big names, because otherwise you don't fill the house, but as far as the staged versions are concerned, the vast majority of the singers will be Italian: Maria Agresta, Gabriele Viviani, Rosa Feola, etc.

Anyway, I'm no stranger to controversies: they make me laugh. Like the one about the Verdi-Wagner year at La Scala, where I did Lohengrin first and then La traviata, because Jonas Kaufmann was available for Lohengrin in 2012 and not in 2013, and it turned into a national outrage. Controversies are always the same, you are often accused of the opposite of what you actually do.

I would add something very important: this theatre must have an international standing. If we want to make the San Carlo a truly international theatre in the future, open to an international audience or even to an Italian audience from Milan or Rome, we must include an international project. So yes, there will be foreign singers: it's Anna Netrebko who will sing Aida next year. It's true that she's not Italian, but she's not bad, as singers go...

Let's talk about the Neapolitan School, with composers like Domenico Cimarosa, who are hardly ever seen in other countries. Do you have any plans to bring them into the limelight?

I have set up an Academy that will focus on two aspects: the Neapolitan 18th century, with a Neapolitan team of musicologists and others, and, alongside them, Mariella Devia, who will be there to defend bel canto, the great tradition of Italian singing. I have made an agreement with the Palazzo Real, which is one of the most beautiful theatres in existence, a 450-seat court theatre built 20 years after the San Carlo and in which we will give two productions of Neapolitan opera each year with the Academy. The objective is, within three years I hope, to do a major opera on the San Carlo main stage based on the work we are going to do with the young musicians, the young singers and also the musicians of the San Carlo orchestra, because there are a certain number of musicians here who are very interested in this repertoire.

As regards the Academy, I'm somewhat surprised that the Teatro di San Carlo doesn't have an academy, even though it's really in the city of singing. It is very important for them, not only in Naples but in Italy in general. The launch of this academy has been delayed because of Covid-19, but I hope that it will be able to start during 2021. The first show is scheduled for September 2022 for the feast of San Gennaro [the patron saint of Naples].

Stéphane Lissner
© Teatro di San Carlo

In Paris, you had very tense exchanges with the trade unions. The unions in Naples are notoriously difficult to deal with; I know it's early days, but how is it going with them?

Difficulties with trade unions should be judged in the context of the difficulty of everyday life. The unions that represent the employees of the Paris Opéra defend people who are in very different circumstances from those in Naples. Therefore, it can be a lot easier to accept tense relationships with the Naples unions than with the Paris ones. Here, people live in far tougher, more precarious conditions. I can understand and accept trying to work through many things with the unions in Naples which, at a certain point, I became unwilling to do with the French trade unions and with SUD in particular, because I consider that they overstepped the mark. Considering what happens at the Paris Opéra and what happens in Naples, I think it wouldn't hurt if some people from Paris came to Naples and took a look at how people live here. Maybe it would give them a better understanding of their own circumstances.

There are currently very few world premieres of operas by Italian composers. Why do you think that is? Can a house like San Carlo promote new operas?

I think that in any country, and in Italy in particular, it is the great conductors who give the impetus for creating new operas. At La Scala, Claudio Abbado staged new operas: he premiered works by Luigi Nono, by Stockhausen. Then, for twenty years, Riccardo Muti, his successor, staged virtually no new operas. If you don't set an example when you are the musical director of the biggest Italian house and a highly respected conductor, how do you expect other houses to support what the number one opera house does not?

In Italy, we don't have this tradition of new opera at all. And we haven't had new music movements, like there were in France, for example. In France, the conflict between tonal music and atonal music was, in my opinion, very beneficial for music. In Italy, it doesn't exist. It has never existed. Just as the appetite for Baroque doesn't exist in Italy: Monteverdi is not played, nor are the other musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries. They don't get performed. I remember when I did the Monteverdi trilogy at La Scala: the house was half full. So you have to understand that we are in a country where, really, the Italian 19th century is the reference point. Everything before and after, once you're past Falstaff, is likely to prove problematic. And yet, there have been great Italian composers – but almost all of them have made their careers outside Italy.

As regards staging, there is always a tension between the desire to advance the art of opera and the desire to conserve it. Which side are you on?

Anything but conservation, that's for sure! Art is not about preserving: art is about inventing, imagining, creating. For me, conservation has nothing to do with art. But neither am I in favour of pursuing provocation at any cost. My starting point is the work: there is a libretto that tells a story, it can be transposed, it allows us to tell the story and to bring the opera back to the world we live in, which seems to me to be very important. I'm never seeking to provoke and I've never hired a director who was more concerned with expressing his fantasies than with the libretto he had in front of him. But audiences are conservative, and I think the press is extremely conservative, even more so than audiences, and that doesn't help us! Obviously, if the press were a little more modern, a little more innovative, it would draw audiences towards something newer.

Is there an opera that you have wanted to stage but have never had the opportunity?

Yes, perhaps Rimsky-Korsakov's Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. I've done a lot of Russian operas. In fact, my father is from a Russian family, so I was brought up by my grandmother who used to go to the Bolshoi a lot and who used to make me listen to Rimsky-Korsakov's operas when I was young. So, The City of Kitezh is a work I would have liked to do. Tcherniakov did it admirably well, and I like Tcherniakov very much, but I would like to do it somewhat differently.

Translated from French by David Karlin