Is It Scary to Sing for Muti?

Conductor Riccardo Muti
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Music Director Riccardo Muti, photo by Todd Rosenberg

Q. How do you sing for Riccardo Muti?
A. Practice, practice, practice.

To perform Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, nearly three hundred people will come together under Riccardo Muti’s baton—a chorus, an orchestra, soloists—each having taken his or her own journey through steadfast determination, hard work, and sacrifice.

In preparation for Macbeth, which opens this weekend at Symphony Center, Chicago Symphony Chorus Director Duain Wolfe begins rehearsals weeks in advance. This will not be his first full-length opera with the Italian maestro: “It helps,” he laughs. “There are fewer surprises.” Nevertheless, Mr. Wolfe puts the CSC through wild unorthodoxies, taking them to extremes in tempo in order to ensure malleability when Mr. Muti takes over.

One chorister admits, “When Muti comes out for that first rehearsal, it’s terrifying—but it’s amazing. He’s incredible.”

For all the wide-eyed alertness that his entrance commands, Maestro Muti barely conducts at first—just a dip of the shoulder, a toss of the head. At this point, the chorus is like a pencil sketch awaiting pigment. Mr. Muti assesses the sound of his chorus before getting to work. From there he leads them beyond the execution of notes, into the unbounded array of color in Verdi that so profoundly mirrors the human experience. In the first witches’ chorus, for example, there is a polish to the CSC sound that he doesn’t like, “You see staccato, marcato. These are not from the publisher, these are Verdi’s marks.” Mr. Muti sings the phrase to the women; his tone is pointed, and harsh. They respond in kind. The witches in Macbeth are not to be beautiful. The journey begins.

In the next scene the basses belt out, “Pro Macbetto…”

The maestro stops them, “Loud then soft.” He sings it back to them, “Pro Macbetto…”

The basses repeat, “Pro Macbetto…”

This time the atmosphere shifts, like a cloud moving across the sun (this is the moment we learn the Thane of Cawdor is dead, and the witches’ prophecy is fulfilled).

Still, the maestro is not satisfied. He explains, “You are not a symphony chorus, but an opera chorus. Sing what you feel. You are not an army, but an individual—again!”

“Pro Macbetto…” In an instant, the sound pops into 3-D.

Music Director Riccardo Muti rehearses with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, photo by Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti prepares to rehearse the Chicago Symphony Chorus, photo by Todd Rosenberg

With hundreds of operas under his belt, Riccardo Muti sculpts a performance with impressive efficiency. For this chorus-only rehearsal, he provides continuity by singing the lines of the principal characters himself (including Lady Macbeth, which will be sung by dramatic coloratura Tatiana Serjan). Often he’ll sing to his chorus in the instant before an entrance, conveying the exact tone and effect, which they can echo. Their pencils take notes. But he keeps the music moving forward. In this way he hones his concept with few interruptions. One CSO violinist confides, “It’s almost all from the podium. When he stops us, it’s usually to crack a joke.” And there are plenty of those. For all his intensity, Riccardo Muti keeps them laughing, which seems to bring them even deeper under his spell.

“Look at my face, and it will come naturally.”

—Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti rehearses the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soloists
Riccardo Muti jokes with soloists at a “Macbeth” rehearsal, photo by Todd Rosenberg

Musicians learn quickly to trust Maestro Muti, and to produce the information coming at them from his podium. Italian baritone Luca Salsi, who will sing the role of Macbeth, loves every minute he’s singing for Mr. Muti: “He asks you with the eyes, with the face, with the hands; and you immediately know what he wants. … I study a lot at home; the notes, the significance of the words—everything. He tells you something, and I think, ‘Why didn’t I see it?’ … It’s so simple. He’s right.”

Although Riccardo Muti is a natural musician, he tends to let context be his guide. In Act IV he pauses, becoming reflective. Macduff and the refugees sing:

“Oppressed land of ours! You cannot have
the sweet name of mother
now that you have become a tomb
for your sons.”

Mr. Muti explains, “In this music, Verdi is making a statement about foreign domination.” In fact, Verdi wrote Macbeth as Italians were preparing to rise up against Austrian rule. Here Mr. Muti folds pathos and patriotic fervor back into the music.

Over the course of the Macbeth rehearsals, there are a number of impressions, snapshots of the man who has spent a lifetime with Verdi. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. In Riccardo Muti’s universe, “Truth” is to be found on the page, in the relationship between the notes and the text. Understanding the composer doesn’t come from some mystic oracle or from gut feelings, but from intensive study of Verdi’s scores.  At one point, Maestro stops the singers, “Many conductors make the mistake of cutting this. They think it’s funny. It’s not funny. The color is very dark.”

Riccardo Muti challenges musicians to question their own understanding of the music, rather than to question the composer. Following Thursday’s run-through, which brought together chorus, orchestra, and soloists, he confessed he had witnessed some laziness over the years, a lack of commitment in the performance of early Verdi. “It pains me. … One note can contain a universe” in Verdi. Verdi demands total commitment; and so does Riccardo Muti.

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