Maestro to conduct opera academy in China

Updated: Apr 16, 2024 By Chen Nan China Daily Print
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Italian conductor Riccardo Muti. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In July 2015, Italian conductor Riccardo Muti's wish to devote himself to the training of young musicians was realized: the first edition of the Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy took place in Ravenna, Italy.

Every year since, talented young musicians and an audience of music-lovers from all over the world gather to take part in the project, which has been held in different cities around the world, such as Ravenna, Milan, Seoul and Tokyo.

This year, the Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy will arrive in China for the first time, taking place from Nov 21 to Dec 3 in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. The 83-year-old conductor will work with the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra to deliver the course to young musicians. The maestro chose Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), an opera in one act by the Italian composer Pietro Mascagni, for the upcoming event.

"China and Italy both have a profound culture and very long history. I know that there are many Chinese who love Italian opera and I have been trying to get close to Chinese culture," says Muti in a video played at the launch event for this year's opera academy at the Italian Cultural Institute of Beijing on April 3.

"During the past decades, classical music has gained a large fan base in China, with new concert halls and new symphony orchestras appearing in the country," he adds. "There are also many great Chinese musicians performing around the world — pianists, violinists, singers and conductors — who have become like bridges, bringing our countries closer to each other."

When he recorded the video, the conductor had just finished a rehearsal with the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, which he founded in 2004 and is made up young musicians from all over Italy.

Muti says that he is aware that many Chinese classical music enthusiasts know him from the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Concert, which he conducted in 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2018 and 2021. He is set to once again take up the baton at the orchestra's 2025 New Year's Concert.

"I cannot wait to come to China to conduct an Italian opera, like Cavalleria Rusticana. I want to pass on the knowledge I have acquired over a long career, from my great teachers to young musicians, and I want to help those young musicians to understand Italian opera," Muti says in the video.

Born in Naples, Muti studied composition and conducting at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where he studied under the guidance of Bruno Bettinelli and Antonino Votto. He can trace his conducting lineage back to Verdi. His teacher was Votto, who was the assistant to Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini knew Verdi and played cello at the premiere of Verdi's opera Otello.

Massimo Ambrosetti, Italian ambassador to China. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"Italy is the birthplace of opera, which was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2023. It's an art form that is a combination of music, drama, acting and staging," said Massimo Ambrosetti, Italian ambassador to China, in Beijing on April 3.

"In China, Peking Opera also has a very long history, and is a combination of different arts. We hope that the academy project will promote understanding and communication between people of the two countries."

According to Chen Guangxian, president of the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra, Muti will select five conductors from the applicants from around the world. After the course is completed, they will perform Cavalleria Rusticana with orchestra.

"Maestro's project addresses not only young musicians from all over the world, but also an audience of all ages that can attend all his rehearsals in the concert hall," says Chen, adding that Suzhou Symphony Orchestra, founded in 2016 and one of the youngest orchestras in China, gathers musicians from 18 countries and regions.

The idea of bringing Muti's academy to China was conceived a very long time ago, and one of the key members of making this event happen is Chang Li-kuo, who is a professor of music in viola at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

Chang was a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 35 years before he became a faculty member at Jacobs, including years of working with Muti when the conductor served as the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from September 2010 to June 2023.

"Our longtime wish is about to become a reality," said Chang in a video played on April 3. "Ever since maestro Muti became the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, we performed five Verdi operas and Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni in concerts.

"Those were unforgettable musical experiences. In 2017, by invitation of Muti, I attended the entire session of the opera academy in Ravenna, as the guest principal viola, that has firmly made me believe that in today's music world, he is the only one who can claim himself the authority on the interpretations of the authentic Italian opera tradition.

"We want to enable musicians and music educators in China to observe and experience Muti's teaching and mentoring in person. I have been trying to make this project happen for almost 10 years," says Chang.

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