There are few secrets in the insular Chicago arts world. Most news is known as rumor and gossip before public announcements are made. But when Lyric Opera made an unspecified “special announcement” three years ago in September to a group of media and donors, most of us knew half the story, i.e., that Lyric’s longtime music director Sir Andrew Davis would be stepping down. But few of us knew the other half, that Enrique Mazzola—a name few of us knew and a conductor who had only twice previously been a guest conductor at Lyric—had not only already been hired to replace Davis, but would be publicly announced as his successor the same day. In fact, both current music director and music director designate would both be present, although no questions were taken.
What was so blindsiding about this was that typically an announcement of the departure of a major company music director as distinguished and long-serving (two decades) as Davis is news enough in itself. That the news of Davis’ departure would be eclipsed by the announcement of his successor at the same time seemed to make Davis a double lame duck. The process that would usually follow the news of such a departure and the procurement of a successor? Done. Finito.
“Publicly, there was not a process,” admits Lyric general manager Anthony Freud, “and that was intentional. But there was a real company-wide process involving the board and various board groups, involving a dialogue between me and the orchestra, me and the chorus, etc. I was perfectly ready to contemplate a scenario in which we were not going to be able to appoint a music director and announce that appointment at the same time as the announcement about Andrew. But I always felt that it would be incredibly strong for the organization if we could do both at the same time. I’m really thrilled that that proved possible. But had things not worked out with Enrique, I imagine that it would have taken us much longer to announce a new music director. But I’m very happy that it worked out the way that it did because I think it was a really strong statement of artistic confidence and intent on the part of the company. It completely avoided the possibility of a vacuum developing between music directors. It avoided the regular public speculation about what’s going to happen next. It felt like a very positive and strong thing to do and it was something I was enthusiastic about doing. But only in the right circumstances, only if the new appointment we were announcing was an appointment that was really fantastic, which it was. So, I’m very happy with the way that it worked out.”
So, how did Freud become aware of Mazzola and how did he end up becoming music director of Lyric Opera?
“The first time I heard Enrique conduct was at Glyndebourne in 2013,” Freud recalls, “and it was a performance of ‘Don Pasquale.’ I remember that performance very vividly and how much of an impact it made on me. Most of the performances at Glyndebourne are by the London Philharmonic, a really superb symphony orchestra, but I can imagine that for symphony orchestras to play Donizetti is not necessarily something that would light their fire. But I have to say, the way that they played the score with scrupulous attention to detail and a buoyant lightness and a real rigor and focus, made me realize that it actually was Enrique who had inspired that enthusiasm for a piece that I can imagine most symphony orchestras would not approach playing with enormous enthusiasm. I went away from that performance so impressed because I do think the bel canto repertoire—a bit like Mozart, a bit like Rossini—leaves nowhere to hide in music making. And it seemed to me an incredibly impressive performance from Enrique that stayed with me. And from that, his guest engagements at Lyric developed.”
“Anthony Freud came to my room—knock, knock, knock—and said, ‘Hello,’ and ‘toi, toi, toi,’ as we say in our opera world,” Mazzola recalls in an animated Zoom interview from Glyndebourne where, as then, he is conducting. “And actually, two or three weeks later my manager called me saying, ‘Enrique, you have an invitation from Lyric Opera of Chicago.’ Of course, I knew it was a big institution in America but I didn’t know very much about the city of Chicago. How big is the theater? How is the company? Who are the musicians? How is their experience? I knew that the music director was Sir Andrew Davis because he is often here in Glyndebourne and that is where I met him for the first time. To be sincere, I didn’t know anything more apart that it was an opera house where big stars go. So, it was really thrilling for me to know, wow. I have received an invitation. And then conducting two big productions at Lyric. And then receiving a phone call, ‘Okay, might you be interested in being our next music director?’ Of course, it’s a journey in different degrees in different layers of experiences and situations. But I would say behind this is a very beautiful story to tell, yes? From the beginning to the moment I will open our new season.”
“When I started at Lyric,” says Freud of his own company arrival a decade ago, “one of the things that I was most excited about and looking forward to was working with Andrew. Obviously, Andrew was very much our music director and he and I have a great relationship, I must say. It must have been around 2018 when Andrew intimated to me for the first time that perhaps after his current contract would expire in 2021, he thinks it will be time for him to step down as music director. When he said that to me, I said, ‘Andrew, please don’t rush into anything. Please don’t think that I feel that the time has come for you to step down as music director. You may have been music director here for many years, but it’s a wonderfully successful and productive relationship. So please think about it.’ So, he went away for a few months and came back and said to me, ‘I have thought about it, and I really do think 2021 will be the right year for me to step down.’ And he was very considerate in letting me know that a good two-and-a-half years in advance.
“I think an important part of my job—and I would say this should be true of anybody doing my job—is always to be aware of the need at some point to recruit a new music director and therefore always to be thinking about possible candidates. We have a wonderful orchestra, we have a wonderful chorus, it’s clearly of fundamental importance that our music director has a really great, dynamic relationship with those two core artistic groups. And therefore, when Andrew first told me about his decision, it was really among guest conductors who had worked really successfully at Lyric that I thought, well, let’s begin by thinking about whether there are really strong candidates among people who have guest-conducting experience and who therefore have an existing relationship with our orchestra and with our chorus. And frankly, it was a very short list and Enrique was at the top of that list.
“The process in an opera company is perhaps less structured and less formal than the process in a symphony orchestra. And so I embarked on a number of conversations with Enrique just to establish whether the interest was mutual. When he immediately expressed interest and I realized it was mutual interest, then we needed to have months of very detailed conversations so we could get to really understand each other so that he could have a really full understanding of Lyric beyond his valuable perspective as a guest conductor who had conducted here a couple of times. I’m really grateful to Andrew for having made his intention clear two-and-a-half years before his time as music director came to an end because it meant that none of this needed to be rushed. And clearly Andrew is an incredibly hard act to follow. It seemed to me we needed someone very different than Andrew, and I mean that entirely in tribute to Andrew and his extraordinary achievements. I felt we needed somebody who like Andrew, has a really creative and passionate interest in choral repertoire as well as a broad repertoire interest. Like Andrew, I think we need someone who is a real company builder, who is committed to the company. The Ryan Opera Center is another of our key artistic ensembles in the organization and it’s important that our music director have a very strong involvement with the Ryan Opera Center. A commitment to Chicago is very important and I must say that when Enrique very early in our conversations said that he would definitely want to make Chicago his principal home were this to come about, I realized how meaningful that was and how significant it felt that when Enrique wouldn’t be guest-conducting somewhere in the world, he would be in Chicago whether or not at that time, he had rehearsals or performances at Lyric. He was from the start very interested in Lyric Unlimited, our community engagement and learning initiative. And during his years as music director at Orchestre National d’Île de France—and that was a seven-year relationship that came to an end a couple of years ago—he had a really strong track record in commissioning new works. And although Enrique in the last few years has been best known for bel canto, he actually has a huge operatic repertoire. He has conducted ninety-plus operas and has a really strong interest in contemporary work which is why it was so important to him and to me that in his first season with us, he conducts ‘Proving Up,’ the Missy Mazzoli piece. I wanted from the start it to be clear that he has far broader repertoire passions and commitments than has been clear from his work at Lyric so far.”
“What I get from the hands of my predecessor, Sir Andrew Davis, is an opera house which is in marvelous shape,” says Mazzola. “An opera house with enormous potential not only in the U.S., but in all the world with artistic forces really at their top as far as quality. And with a group of patrons and donors who are mainly from Chicago who are our most strong and devoted supporters. I enter into the continuation of this line. If you want, being my nationality, my citizenship, Italian, I will bring this touch of, if I may use an Italian word, italianità, yes? A touch of Italy. With this taste of Italy, of experience of Italy, of artistic imagination, with this smile and if you want, the sunny way that we Italians have in our attitude which actually matches very well with the Midwest kind of character I’ve seen. I have done my American debut in New York at the Met and New York is a marvelous city but very fast, not stopping too much to take in details because everything has to be done fast. In some ways, for a soul like mine, I feel much more at home here, actually. You know, I already have a place in Chicago. I decided that to be a good music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, I have to live in Chicago. Which doesn’t mean I will stay twelve months of the year in Chicago because I have contracts in Vienna, in London, in New York. But home will be Chicago. And I have to tell you that I am already in love with—of course, it’s easy to say with a city, Chicago is a very attractive city—but also, with the people of Chicago. This is something very warm and very sincere for me. What I love very much is to explore the city by walking, without Google maps. Just walking. Where you arrive, you arrive. And after my first rehearsal here I changed my shoes to sneakers and began to discover Chicago. Vibrant. Full of people. So nice. So welcoming. It was a very beautiful moment.”
Verdi’s “Macbeth,” which opens Mazzola’s first season as Lyric music director with a new Sir David McVicar production on September 17, holds special significance for Mazzola. He sang in the children’s chorus at La Scala and sang one of the three apparitions for a legendary 1976 production under legendary conductor and later, Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal guest conductor, Claudio Abbado. “I didn’t know that Abbado was Abbado,” Mazzoli recalls. “Of course, I knew he was the boss. That was clear. But he was always very silent, very calm, never screaming, just conducting and saying very few words. I remember that in a stage rehearsal he wanted to know me personally so, he came in front of me, let’s say ten seconds before I was starting my phrase. And because I was singing backstage, the apparition was a big cartoon that moved while I sang backstage. Ten seconds before he appeared in front of me, I did my cue. I started my phrase and because I was backstage, I had to sing fortissimo to make the voice arrive into the hall. And I remember Claudio Abbado jumping back because he did not expect that! Of course, from the podium he was hearing me mezzo piano. But from one meter of distance, it was fortissimo!”
“Abbado is one of my inspiring guides. He really created in my childhood imaginative world already a style, an idea of how to read Italian opera which in some unconscious way, remained in me for years and years. Now, it is all coming back in a mysterious but absolutely dutiful and powerful way, this capacity to create the Verdian line and at the same time to give an emotional and aesthetic and dramaturgical importance to the orchestra. The first time I sang in the children’s chorus of La Scala, I had to sing Marie’s son in ‘Wozzeck’ by Alban Berg. And Abbado was on a black-and-white screen and I was watching him in the pit. This was magic for me. It’s sort of imprinting, he gave me this path. I remember I went back home and I said, ‘Mama, Papa, when I’m big, when I’m grown, I want to do what this man is doing in the orchestra pit!’”
Another legendary conductor Mazzola regularly worked with at La Scala that had an enormous impact on him was Carlos Kleiber. “With Kleiber, it was ‘Otello,’ it was ‘Bohème.’ Kleiber told me about the leggerezza of style, this happiness of conducting. This one-hundred-percent engagement and involvement with every phrase of the singers. He was rarely watching the score, his eyes were always on stage. This is something I learned from Kleiber, to be with the singers: to be one with the hands, the music, the eyes, the breath, the voice. And this was very beautiful.”
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: email@example.com