Zubin Mehta interview

There is no need for introduction when talking about an international star of Zubin Mehta’s caliber; a conductor who carries all the charm of his native country, mysterious and fragrant like the spices of India. Zubin Mehta was born in Bombay on April 29, 1936, where his introduction to music came from his father Mehli a famous violinist and founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. He soon abandoned his studies in medicine and moved to Vienna to pursue his dream of becoming a conductor under Han Swarowsky. The dream soon became reality when early on he was chosen for  prestigious positions with the some of the world’s greatest orchestras like  the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, L.A. Philharmonic and  the New York Philharmonic where he held a 13 year tenure, the longest in the orchestra’s history. In 2011, he celebrated 50 years on the podium together with three world famous philharmonic orchestras; Vienna, Berlin and Israel, With the Israel Philharmonic, he holds the position of Music Director for Life, as well in Florence with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. He has received countless awards and honors (including a star on Hollywood Boulevard) for his outstanding career spanning over half a century. Zubin Mehta considers music the bridge between people and together with his humanitarian commitments supports the musical education of young  talent in India having created the Mehli Mehta Foundation and in Israel with the Buchman-Mehta School of Music . We met in Tel Aviv on a beautiful spring day on the eleventh floor of the Hilton Hotel where there was a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean.
Let’s talk about opera: what memories do you have of your operatic debut? If I’m not mistaken, it was Tosca.
That’s correct. The first time was Tosca in Montreal in 1963, then in 1964 I made my operatic debut in Europe with La Traviata. In Montreal it was a new production and we “improvised” a bit, but we had  the great bass-baritone George London in our cast who came only for the dress rehearsal. Since we were friends, he did me a favor! In 1965 I made my debute at the Met with Aida  and conducted there a lot up until ‘71, then I started with my committments at the Salzburg Festival, with La Scala and the Vienna State Opera. In the last 25 years my operatic engagements have been mainly in Florence.
Which productions do you remember with greatest satisfaction?
The co-production of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Palau de les arts Reina Sofia (Valencia) of Wagner’s Ring that was staged by the Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus. With la Fura it was a unique partnership because we both were very flexible about everything discussed. The staging was modern, however everything remained absolutely in accordance with Wagner’s instructions. It used cutting-edge methods, but everything that the audience expected from Wagner, they saw on stage. I loved it. I’ve conducted 5 different productions of the Ring;  one in Chicago that was not bad, another in Monaco, but a production that I didn’t like, the one in Italy that was staged by Luca Ronconi and designed by Pierluigi Pizzi in the 80’s was partially beautiful;  Rhinegold and Twilight of the Gods were gorgeous, but the other two titles a bit less. Even in those days there were many economic issues in Italy and Ronconi had to sacrifice a lot.
Does a conductor who uses a baton with your rare elegance  feel equally satisfied  standing in the pit as he does on the stage?
I practically started the two things simultaneously. Opera and Symphonic repertoire represent  completely different challenges. With Opera you need to be in control of both the stage and the orchestra at the same time. In order to have this dialogue between stage and orchestra, the conductor should know when it is time to accompany rather than conduct a singer.  Similarly you have to know when to conduct a scene, as in for instance  the second act of Tosca where if the conductor makes the mistake of accompanying the singers, all the suspense is lost. It is fundamental to conduct the drama! I recently did Tosca with Bryn Terfel in Valencia and it was quite an experience for me as well as for him because it was a real partnership between us, the stage and the pit. Many singers do not feel this relationship. Placido Domingo is a master in maintaining this contact with the pit and the conductor, if the conductor commands!
Have you ever had to deal with a singer who did not share your vision?
I’ve never had battles with singers and when I see that a singer does something exceptional even if a bit different from my vision, I am flexible about giving him or her the opportunity to express themselves, but we usually go well together. Sometimes in Wagner where the words are so important, often more than the melody, I give the singers more liberty. Rheinegold and Siegfried are a conversation from beginning to the end  therefore the text should be highlighted and the music must be perceived by the audience as background. This is the most important goal to be achieved in Wagner’s musical theatre. The conductor (and the stage director of course) have to help the singers develop the drama. The great singers always have  clear articulation – performers like BrynTerfel, Juha Uusitalo who portrayed our Wotan in Florence and as the great finnish bass Martti Talvela. When Talvela was on stage singing King Mark in Tristan, the director didn’t have to do anything! Just his presence and words made it all happen. Always the words! That is fundamental, a great musicality to sing the text into the great musical line of Wagner. All this to the ears of a listener feels natural, but is actually the result of really hard work!
We have talked a lot about Wagner but we are in 2013 and it is Verdi’s 200th anniversary as well. What are your plans?
In July I’m scheduled to conduct Otello and Falstaff on alternate days with the Israel Philharmonic. One day we offer the latest work in the style of the evolution of Verdi (Otello) and the next day with Falstaff comes a completely different style very close to Mozart and Rossini. The partnership Verdi-Boito has produced wonderful masterpieces. Boito, a great musician too, has written 2 librettos that are the perfect fit for Verdi’s music. Verdi at the end of his life wrote Otello which is so rich in sonority and then Falstaff – a classic piece with such transparent orchestration. In both works there are not many solo arias. In Otello, there are the “Credo” of Iago and Desdemona’s two songs, but the character of Otello doesn’t have a real aria. The whole time Otello is talking, is suffering, is corroded by jealousy. Verdi didn’t write him an aria, there is only a small piece in the third act where he cries for himself. I conducted performances of Otello with Jon Vickers who had the firm conviction that Otello had some sort of divine message to kill this woman and he practically raped her on stage. There were a few Desdemonas who came to me after the performance to show the bruises! He was really obsessed with this vision, but singers like Vickers are not so common because many of them prefer to focus on the beauty of sound rather than on the action. Placido Domingo always uses his voice within the action, as well as the finnish bass Matti Salminen – great actor and singer.
You are one of the few conductors able to conduct both opera and symphonic repertoire by heart. What does it give to you?
I conduct a lot of Italian operas by heart, but not the German works. I did not grow up with the “word of Wagner” in my youth and  Wagner’s text does not use today’s German. It is even more than Hoch Deutsch. Wagner plays with language, he has this obsession to make sentences where every second word begins with GR or CR and it is very hard for the singers too.
Recently you have had some wonderful debuts with unusual repertoire: The Makropulos affair by Janaceck,  Strauss’ The woman without a shadow and The rose cavalier. What brought you to choose these titles?
I also debuted Cherubini’s Medea in Valencia. I debuted four operas in a year. I had to study a lot! Medea is a masterpiece rarely performed because there are not many sopranos wishing to deal with such a demanding role. Violeta Urmana was superlative.
Is there still much comparison with Maria Callas for this role?
Everybody talks about Callas in this role, but Callas did many things that were easy for her, including cutting many pages. Our Medea was similar to the Callas version, but we also opened many cuts and it was really sensational, not so much for us in the pit as for the singers on stage. We had such an amazing cast! I’m glad that Helga Scmidt, Executive Director of Valencia, forced me to study this piece.
Do you have other musical dreams in mind?
Next year I will debut Parsifal in Florence. Unfortunately there are not other things  programmed since the economic situation in Italy doesn’t allow us to make plans for 2014-15. We have not planned anything in Florence yet and are waiting  to see how the situation will evolve under  the government control. The commissioner (government delegate) will make a “take it or leave it” proposal to the unions because he has a mandate to save € 6 million euros by the end of 2013. He has already made cuts for € 2 million by cancelling many things that were programmed for the Festival del Maggio Fiorentino. With that we’ve had to cut Verdi’s Don Carlos to a concert version which could have been a delightful production with staging and scenery by Luca Ronconi. I really love Ronconi who is not doing well right now and we had given him great flexibility for the rehearsals, accepting all his conditions  in order to have him back in Florence where a few years ago we did a wonderful Falstaff together. I’m terribly sorry that my work with him has been canceled.
Unfortunately, the situation of the Maggio Fiorentino is constantly in the newspapers in Italy. Is there still hope?
If the unions do not accept thecommissioner’s proposal, the theater will be closed by the end of April. His goal is not to destroy the theater, but he has a mandate from Rome to save 6 million euros. He has already saved two million, but he is asking for more sacrifices to save the remaining 4 million. This will mean major wage cuts. The theater has not paid singers, stage directors and conductors for more than a year now. For the Cavalier of the rose which was performed in May 2012, the singers have not yet received their fees and that’s not the theater’s fault! We can no longer count on the FUS (Performing arts endowment) which was cut another million this year. I do not understand, even with all the economic difficulties in Italy, why  the budget for culture has always been so modest. It is just 0.04 of GDP! It has already been lowered to 0.02 and they are discussing cutting more with 14 theaters that are foundations and  live with this endowment! Now even the Bank of Monte dei Paschi di Siena that has always been very supportive of Maggio Musicale is facing a serious crisis. In addition, Italy does not offer the possibility of making tax deductable donations to theaters. This his system widely used in the United States helps a lot and not just the theater!
Do you think that Italy should adopt the private founding system as in USA?
In the last 100 years, American culture has grown; not only orchestras and museums, but everything! Even universities and hospitals are living with private donations that are also tax deductible. This is the wealth of America. I’ve spoken with Mario Monti, who in theory could not agree more, but at the same time believes that it is still too early to introduce this system in Italy. Other ministers with whom I spoke had not even thought about this possibility! Without the tax exemption, culture will not survive. Culture and education should be put on the same level. Many years ago I spoke with Rocco Buttiglione, the former Culture Minister, who told me that he would propose this, but nothing happened so we continue to suffer Artists and stage directors have to be patient if they don’t get paid. Some prefer not to come to Florence or demand guarantees in their contracts that can not be met, we are not able to promise a payment within a specified dead line. Agents are calling the artistic direction protesting, but both sides are right. Florence counts on the public funds for employee’s salaries, but this does not cover artists. The theater has an accumulated a € 34 million deficit, but if we manage to save € 6  million this year, we’ll be in less danger.
If you had had the opportunity to speak to a great composer of the past, who would do like to meet and what would you ask?
Definitely Mozart. Definitely Verdi. I wish I could sit for hours and hours with Wagner and ask him questions. For the symphonic repertoire there are many things I’d like to talk about with Mahler despite the fact he has already written many instructions for the conductor in his scores.
In recent years there has been much talk about the Dudamel effect with regard to the numerous nominations of conductors in their early twenties as Music Directors of major orchestras. Looking at your career, we see that you’ve held prestigious positions at a very young age even with the L.A. Philharmonic.  Have things really changed? We have good young conductors even nowadays. There is talent, but many orchestras do not accept young conductors immediately. It is necessary to make many trials. I usually wait for 2 or 3 years and then I invite them to conduct my orchestras again. The musicians are sometimes very snobby with young people, they do not treat them well and do not let them express themselves. Italian Orchestras for instance demand a very high level from young Italian conductors. I distribute a form to my musicians in Florence where they can express their opinions so I know what they think: with Italian conductors they are particularly severe.
What are the guidelines to follow when preparing the programming of its musical seasons?
If we take the Florence opera season for example; we generally have a great singer in mind and ask him or her what they would like to do. If I want Violeta Urmana for example, I ask her what she would like to sing in Florence and then see if we are on the same page. Medea in Valencia was her idea, we did it for her and was really worth it. We always offer a baroque title every year, as well as belcantistic operas. Puccini has always a big role. Then we present new commissions and contemporary operas, which has always been a tradition of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino since it’s very beginning. So we have a good mix, but we need a budget to fulfill these dreams!
One of the programs that you will be performing with the Israel Philharmonic pays tribute to a legendary Indian artist who recently passed away, Ravi Shankar, whom and with whom you have also recorded the Second Concerto for Sitar. You and he were friends?
Good friends! India has really lost it’s greatest musician and his daughter will play his concerto for sitar with us. I am anxious to hear how it will sound because I do not know her as a sitarist. I heard a couple of improvisation concerts, but now I’m curious to hear how she will perform her father’s concerto.
How does the sound blend with the orchestra?
Amplification is needed because the sound of the sitar is very transparent. The sitar is a instrument conceived for palaces and for small rooms. Almost all Indian instruments do nott have a big sound. The sarod and the vina also have a very intimate sound.
From a logistical point of view, how is your music library organized? Do you travel with a suitcase full of scores?
No, no! I have to organize everything in advance because my library is in Los Angeles and every time I travel I leave for 6 months. I prepare packages of scores with labels indicating the date and destination; Munich, Florence, Israel. I only take the scores that I need immediately and I send the others with FedEx. FedEx does a lot of business with me!
Being a citizen of the world, what do you always bring with you from your country?
I always carry my small medals depicting Zarathustra that my mother gave me. They are like tiny buttons that I always wear on my lapel even in concerts.
You brought your orchestras on memorable tours through exotic and distant countries. Where did you find the most demanding and the warmest audiences and where would you like to return?
In Latin American countries and Central Europe – the circle that includes Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Dresden and Berlin has an audience that even if it cannot literally analyze all the symphonies, they carry this music within. One can feel that music was born there, that our symphonic repertoire was born in Central Europe. In South America, the audience is wonderful. The Brazilian public is wonderful. The Russians are very enthusiastic. I am always delighted to direct at Carnegie Hall and in Los Angeles.
How does it feel to be Zubin Mehta? Do you have everything you might want or is there something missing?
No, no! I am very depressed, not in my private life, but for the present situation. I don’t  know how to help my two theaters in Valencia and Florence. A conductor should stay out of economic issues, but if I support the union, I insult the artistic direction and vice versa. I must be a bridge between the two. Yesterday I spoke with the commisioner by phone for 1 hour! I do not feel very well thinking about the situation in Florence because I am a Florentine of choice: my home is there and I am very happy in Florence. We really do not deserve this situation because the orchestra has improved a lot; it has a very high standard and the chorus does as well. I recently conducted a Verdi Requiem, (I prefer not to say where) and really missed my Maggio Fiorentino chorus! I hope that everybody accepts with good grace, what the Delegate will ask them to do to save the theater.
I would like to close this interview with a question which is purely a curiosity for me: Chili, myth or reality? It ‘s true that you always carry a box of chilies with you?
Always! But I do not like chocolate (my other passion) with chili. Now it is very fashionable to mix them and I do not like it. Or chili, or chocolate!