This interview is also available to listen to as a podcast here
Alvise Casellati, would you say that music is in the DNA of your family?
Yes, Rossini recommended my great grandfather to become honorary composer of the Royal Philharmonic Academy of Bologna, an academy of which Mozart wanted to be part. As a child I would hear my grandmother play the piano and my grandfather warming his hands with Paganini when he woke up. All our family members needed a diploma in the Conservatory of Music and a university degree, and we all met and played music together at the weekends. It was almost an orchestra!
How were you educated in this musical tradition?
My father taught me to play the piano when I was six. He wanted me to play the violin like his father and was ecstatic when I was admitted to the Conservatory of Padova. It was a big honour because it was a very selective exam and only four or five out of a hundred applicants were admitted. I was in the Conservatory of Padova age 10 through age 21, but at the same time going to middle school, high school and law school.
Did you become a good violinist?
I have a diploma in violin. At the Conservatory I took piano, I took harmony, I took history of music, quartet, orchestra…, I did all the things that people do to get a diploma as maestro of violin.
You put the violin aside to go to America, where you worked in a law firm. Why did you also get involved with the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture (FIAC)?
I gained my law degree at twenty four and after that I focused on law, but I went to Vienna and studied conducting while I was writing my thesis. In New York I worked as an attorney, but the convincing reason for staying in New York was the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture, which represented for me a real bridge between my profession and the arts. So my soul felt fulfilled.
But then you had an unexpected and serious illness that lasted for months. What changed?
I realised that I could have died aged 34. I realised in the hospital that if I had died that day, my biggest regret was not to have the courage to devote my full time to music and to try hard to make my passion become my profession and a mission of my life. I didn’t know this before that moment. I was living without regrets, but this episode opened my mind and made me see things that I did not understand before.
“Opera was written as pop music and meant to reach out to everybody”
Alvise Casellati, what did you do then?
I had previously told a conducting teacher at Juilliard School of Music that I did not have the time to go to his classes. I called him from the hospital and told him, “Maestro. Now I have time.” Because when you really want something, you make time. I was still a lawyer during the day, but in the evening I would go to conducting class.
How did you realise you wanted to be a conductor?
I was very good as a violinist, but being a soloist was not what I really wanted. I discovered conducting in Vienna in 1998 when I attended Musik Hochschule. That was really what I was made for, the perfect thing to do that would fulfil every single part of my body, personality, feelings, emotions. I thought that I would do conducting at a later stage in life, when I retired from work, but in the hospital that day I realised that nobody could guarantee me that I would become old and retire. We’re all hanging on a very thin line, and could be here today but not tomorrow. There was no time to waste to pursue my dream.
How were you able to quit your job as a lawyer and become a full time conductor?
La Fenice Theatre in Venice gave me a great opportunity. They had heard about this conductor lawyer in New York, and as part of their mission to launch young talents, gave me the opportunity to conduct a concert. This concert was to celebrate the 150th anniversary concert of the unity of Italy in 2011.
What did you conduct?
Symphonies from Verdi’s operas, and other pieces for choir and orchestra, from Nabucco, from I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata. I conducted by heart for one hour, there were newspapers, TV, and it was one of the most stressful moments in my life. But I could cope with it very well, so after that I said, “OK, I can do this profession.” That was the beginning point.
What did you do?
My mentor Piero Bellugi, a very famous conductor and one of the most revered teachers that Italy has ever had, told me that I should quit everything else and just devote time to conducting. The irony of destiny is that when I came back to Italy to finally meet him he died the day we had scheduled to meet. It was a very cruel message for me, that now you have to walk alone.
And how did you walk?
I became assistant to Gustav Kuhn, a very well-known conductor in Austria for whom a new theatre had just been built in Erl, a small town of fifteen hundred inhabitants close to Kufstein. The whole of Austria and Germany was converging into this theatre to watch amazingly high level performances. I was his assistant for the winter and summer season in 2012 and 2013, for opera and symphonic concerts. In 2013, I started having quite a full agenda of conducting commitments, and then things went better and better.
“I am the maestro on stage, but when I walk off stage I am a student and I study.”
Alvise Casellati, have you now conducted in many places?
Many places, in Italy and abroad. The path to perfection is a very tough one, because the more you work towards perfection, the more you see perfection to be far, further and further, from where you are. My profession is that of a student. I am the maestro on stage, but when I walk off stage I am a student and I study.
Yes. I also became the director of the Academy for Young Voices, and we selected 30 voices from around the world from 700 or 800 candidates. This was my opportunity for a debut in opera, because I could work with voices and teachers every day and understand the limits and difficulties of the most delicate instrument on Earth, which is the voice. The world of opera presents different challenges and additional complications.
What is the main difficulty in conducting opera?
To work with a stage director, with singers who move on stage, to have the choir very far away from you, the challenge of putting things together and making things work, is a privilege that requires a lot of experience. As a lawyer I had learnt to understand which issues are serious and which minor, and to focus on the important ones. Opera presents amazing challenges, but is a magic that is very, very difficult to explain.
How are you able to conduct many different orchestras?
I can conduct the same piece of music, but it will be a different piece of music. Each orchestra has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to create the best you can make out of it. The most important thing as a conductor, regardless of the orchestra, is to convey an idea: to have a precise idea of how you read the music according to what the composer wrote. You have to get to this idea, you have to convey the idea to the musicians, and make them share this idea with you, and all work towards the same goal.
How do you gain respect from the orchestra?
Whenever you know what you want and understand how to achieve what you want, you get the respect. It comes from studying, from experience and from everything. The conductor is basically a stage director in a movie, but in front of the camera.
Why did you create “Opera Italiana is in the Air” with FIAC in New York in 2016?
Because opera was written as pop music and meant to reach out to everybody. Now it is considered a niche for an elite. This is not true, and not the mission of opera. I wanted to help give people the opportunity to know what opera is today by bringing opera to the park, in the open air, outside the sometimes intimidating theatre, and making it free for the people to see. If you don’t come from a musical background or if your parents or friends did not expose you to this beautiful art, you don’t have the privilege of knowing it. FIAC loved the idea of bringing young people outside in a very informal environment in New York, the melting pot of the world, and showing that opera is the most global thing that exists. The first time was summer 2017, and it’s been ongoing with the exception of Covid. It’s supposed to continue in Central Park next year on June 28, and in several other cities in the US, Italy, and, in the future, in Europe, hopefully in London as well.
“This is a job that is so difficult that you have to devote every single second of the day to it.”
Alvise Casellati, in which countries is there a larger passion for opera?
In Russia classical music is the pop music – there is a warmth and the public is really attentive. The same is true for Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
What about the United States?
Americans are open for experiences. If you are able to touch their hearts and give them passion and emotions, they immediately understand. The complete silence in Central Park during the performance was totally unexpected. The only noise was that of birds on trees duetting with the flutes and the oboes in the orchestra. This says a lot about the magic of beauty.
And in countries like China or Japan?
In Japan and South Korea there is a level of almost fanaticism – the same level of passion that Italians have, and even more. Twenty years ago classical music in China was not as important as today, but they keep opening theatres and the interest in classical music is growing. Opera, and Italian opera, is the most performed in the world. Which is a message of how pop it still is.
Have you conducted in China?
Yes, in 2015 and 2018 in Shanghai and in Xi’an, where the famous terracotta soldiers are. I was with a very famous singer, Leo Nucci, and you would not believe the level of screaming when people saw this legend that they only knew through CDs and from videos. I conducted some symphonic pieces of Verdi, Rossini, and arias from Traviata, Andrea Chénier, Nabucco and Rigoletto. It was a lyrical gala. It was beautiful to see so many young people with huge enthusiasm. Our concert streaming was followed by millions of people.
Do you have a favourite opera?
Puccini is always able to pierce the heart, and my maternal grandparents’ opera was Tosca. My grandfather organised the resistance against fascists in Italy and was condemned to death, December 24, 1944. He was never executed fortunately, and was freed by the Americans April 25, 1945. During this time my grandparents communicated like in Tosca, where she was giving letters to him via a guard in the prison, and Tosca was the code of their conversation. I grew up with this opera linked to my grandparents, and it is a very emotional opera for me.
Are you totally in love with your profession?
This is a job that is so difficult that you have to devote every single second of the day to it. Unless you love it, you cannot do it. You need to go to the level of sacrifice. You need to love it so much that that makes sense.