A stroke of good luck: one maestro’s path to stardom

From Tuscan village to San Francisco opera house, Nicola Luisotti’s route to stardom reads like a feel-good Hollywood movie. Maria Roberts meets the energetic maestro 

When I caught up with conductor Nicola Luisotti for dinner in Covent Garden a few months back, ahead of the opening night for Kasper Holten’s Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House, he was in high spirits. ‘Don Giovanni makes me laugh,’ he began as he joined the table with his wife Rita. ‘It’s like Mozart only wrote it this morning. This is what’s so wonderful about it; no matter how many times you go to the theatre and hear Don Giovanni, it always offers something new.’

The production at ROH was positively received and it’s easy to see why Luisotti is steadily gaining popularity with critics: his onstage and off-stage personas are equally thrilling, he’s a rare and imaginative find. We first met over a year ago in San Francisco (everyone in the restaurant knew his name and called a cheery ‘hey there, how are you?’). Then too, he was unswervingly professional and brimming with energy. Perhaps this is because Luisotti is not your typical conductor, indeed his own story reads like the screenplay of a feel-good movie.

Nicola Luisotti © Terrence McCarthy SFO 2
Nicola Luisotti © Terrence McCarthy / SFO

Born and raised in a small village in Tuscany, Luisotti says his early life bears some semblance to that of the film Billy Elliot. ‘When I first saw that film in a hotel room in Trieste, I never cried so much in my life. I saw myself in that movie. It’s my story,’ he says, though not with self-pity, more with amusement that he is able to tell the tale. ‘Billy Elliot is the story of an artist and the mentality of the small village where he lives. He is almost prevented from following his dream – and then he realises his dreams. I was that boy.’

Not that the conductor blames his parents: ‘It was not that my family didn’t believe, but that they didn’t understand my dream.’ He recounts how as a nine-year-old boy, all he wanted was to be a famous musician, yet it seemed out of reach. Like many other families in the village, his father was a carpenter and his mother a housewife. ‘All the other people in the village would say to me, ‘Look, you are the son of a carpenter and one day you will be happy to be a carpenter or a blacksmith, this is your path in life. And so at 15 my father took me to be a blacksmith where for many years I worked to pay for my studies.’

After trying to teach himself to play the piano, he was eventually given lessons on the proviso that he would play at the village church. ‘After that my brother said: ‘Now you are good enough to play the piano at church you can do the same job as us.’

‘And my father said: ‘One day, when you are a blacksmith, you will thank me for it. And I do have to say thanks to my father because by working as a blacksmith I knew what I didn’t want – and only then did I realise my destiny!’

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It is Rita, his wife of 25 years and partner of more than 30 years, who he has to thank for his professional career. ‘I met Rita when I was 20 [she was in the ranks of the choir he led] and she told me: ‘You have a huge talent, you have to be a musician.’ I was so eager to study, but Rita really pushed me, she said: ‘read this book, read this book, read this book’ – I was reading until three or four in the morning every single night for years. Every time she got me a present, it was a book. She said I needed to understand what was written inside and study for 10 or 12 hours a day. I had one shirt and one pair of pants for many years, and I would dress in these for lessons. We made a lot of sacrifices.’

But the conductor doesn’t consider his story to be special. ‘Throughout history, people didn’t try to become famous, they tried to eat with their work. If they were able to write things that the audience appreciated, they could eat that night otherwise they were starving. Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Shakespeare, all of the writers and artists were just doing a job – we consider them to be geniuses now, but then they did not consider themselves to be geniuses, they were simply artists trying to survive.’

His very humble beginnings, and the support he has received from Rita, inspires Luisotti to take a nurturing approach with his players. He says he is always working; how the musicians react to him as a conductor is important to him and so he wants to put himself in their shoes. Even on rest days he will study scores and play the piano for hours.

‘As a conductor you must have self-awareness because only then can you understand the orchestra better. Otherwise, it is easier to be unforgiving and ask the players, Why are you playing like this or like that? – but if a conductor plays himself then you understand more about what your players are doing. The musicians have a hard job to do; when they play an instrument they are playing with their whole body.’

It is this particular mindset that allows him to remain joyful about his work and ‘forgive the little mistakes’. ‘You push them to do what you have in mind – and if you have practised this yourself then you know what is being asked of them in order to achieve a result. If you don’t have these challenges in mind, you will ask for stupid things – and if you do that as a conductor, you are dead immediately. You are finished.’

Attila © SFO Cory Weaver
Attila © SFO Cory Weaver

Not that he is anywhere near finished, all is going well for the Italian maestro, who appears to be hitting his stride. Recent plaudits include acclaimed co-productions of two Verdi works: Attila with La Scala and San Francisco Opera, and Nabucco with La Scala and The Royal Opera, as well as a 100th birthday celebratory performance of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West in performances at both SFO and The Metropolitan Opera, for which The New York Times praised his ‘stylish, nuanced and sensitive conducting’.

Currently coming to the end of a run of Otello at Teatro di San Carlo, Luisotti will conduct La Traviata and Madame Butterfly at SFO in June and July, followed by Norma and A Masked Ball at SFO, and Il Trovatore and Salome at Teatro di San Carlo. In spring 2015 he returns to London for Madama Butterfly at the ROH, then it’s back to SFO for the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara next summer.

Says Rita: ‘At 20 Nicola was very green, he was full of enthusiasm and so passionate about music, life and love – I was really impressed with him. He still feels the same excitement at every production, every premiere. We are so lucky, I always had a feeling he would fulfill his dream.’