Considered by many the greatest basso cantante of his
generation, Ruggero Raimondi has often been called the "Italian
Chaliapin." Born in Bologna in 1941, he has sung in all the world's
major opera houses, making his professional debut in 1964 at the
Rome Opera in Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani."
Raimondi's 32-year career has been marked by a willingness to
undertake roles both diverse and difficult. His repertoire -
Figaro, Mephisto, Philippe II in "Don Carlos," "Don Quichotte,"
Fiesco in "Simon Boccanegra," Basilio or Attila, the Count in "The
Marriage of Figaro," or "Falstaff." And then there is his much
acclaimed "Boris Godunov" - filmed in 1989 by Andrzej Zulawski.
But it is "Don Giovanni," a role he has performed more than
400 times, with which he is preeminently associated. Since
appearing in the Joseph Losey film, Raimondi is one of the few
opera singers to have ventured into the world of the cinema -
Maurice Bejart's "Six Personnages en Quete de Chanteur," Alain
Resnais' "La Vie est un Roman," Francesco Rosi's "Carmen."
Ruggero Raimondi has shown himself not only a great singer,
but an adventurer, willing to sail in new directions, and explore
Q: When the Second World war ended, you were not
quite four years old. What was it like growing up in postwar Italy?
A: We had a quite difficult time. During the
war it was difficult to find things to eat. And I remember once we
were bombarded - the bombs fell on our house while we were in the
shelter, and I remember how frightening it was; I was two years old
at the time. And I remember my parents taking in a partisan who was
on the run, but we had a problem - on the second floor of our house
we had the commander of the Wehrmacht. The partisan stayed with us
two days, and people were always whispering. I remember also my
parents listening to a London broadcast - there was the ta-ta-ta-
tum of Beethoven's Fifth. And I can recall perfectly the day Polish
soldiers entered Bologna, holding at gunpoint the Fascists who had
tried to flee. My father hung a white sheet from the terrace.
I remember in 1948 the white revolution, when the communists
made an attempt to seize power after somebody tried to kill
Togliatti. And then Bartali won the Tour de France, and in a way
saved Italy from revolution. We had a big terrace on the most
important street of Bologna - Via Rizzoli - and I can still remember
the armoured cars of the police facing the demonstrators, and the
police charging toward the crowd. These were difficult times. But
at the same time, we all had great hope for the future of Italy and
great faith in Alcide de Gasperi, who went to the United States
after the war to ask for help.
My town in the '50s was a wonderful place. Until four or five
o'clock in the morning you could find a restaurant open, and people
were still up and talking. During the springtime and summer there
were always people in the streets, and this gave you the feeling of
not living in a town, but in a great big family named Bologna. My
father worked in his magasin, and I liked very much visiting my
grandmother, who lived outside the city. And then there was the
first time I was ever in the theatre. I think I heard Belletti
singing "L'elisir d'amore." But perhaps it was Boris Christoff.
It was still a kind of human life - the humanity was much
closer. But suddenly, after I think 1977 or '78, things changed. We
had the Red Brigade in Italy, and everything was different.
Everything became very cold; people were afraid to go out. I lost
the feeling of living in a place that I knew very well, and found
instead a town that is no longer my size - but much bigger. My
grandmother's home in the countryside has today been absorbed by
the city. The whole atmosphere has changed so much, and I no longer
Q: In Italy's immediate postwar period, there was an attempt
to reconcile the ideological differences between Roman Catholicism
and Marxism. And your Bologna has been the centre of Italian
Communism. Was your family political?
A: My family was political, but only in the sense that my
father came from a religious background. I had an uncle who was a
Monsignor and an aunt who was a Mother Superior, and several other
relatives who were priests. Because of this religious background,
my father became a Christian Democrat. But I must add that my
father was never very involved in the political situation. Thinking
back, this is possibly why I myself have never been involved in
politics. It was the way my family brought me up; they didn't
really care about politics. They had a very strong religious sense
of the family, and it followed from this that one should be
faithful to the Pope. That is not to say that my family believed
strongly in the high theology of the church. My father had the
faith of a simple person - beati simpli sereno. He had a strong
faith without asking himself why - he just believed without
My parents were spiritual sons of Padre Pio. I was nine years
old the first time I went to Petracena, and I can still remember
the mass. It went on for about three hours. You had to wake up at
three o'clock in the morning to be there from four till seven. And
I remember this man with such impressive eyes. I always thought
that they were like x-ray eyes. You had the feeling his vision was
passing through your person. I remember meeting Padre Pio with my
mother in a corridor and receiving the benediction of this holy
man. Sometimes I see with the eyes of forty or fifty years ago, and
still I have a very strong impression of this meeting. He was
somebody not common.
Q: Artists have always needed roots, a link with their
environment, with their past, their people. Who and what were your
A: I was impressed very much by some recordings of Chaliapin.
On television during the early '50s, they used to show plays about
Schiller, Dostoyevsky, and Manzoni. I was impressed by the actors,
and I always thought it would be a very good way to earn your
living - to have the possibility of changing your character without
becoming a schizophrenic, to live a different life with different
sentiments. When it became clear that I had a voice, I wanted not
only to sing, but to have the possibility of becoming a different
person. To enter a world completely different from my own, and to
have the joy of becoming a king or becoming a devil. The pleasure
of interpreting different personalities.
Q: Of escaping from yourself, in fact.
A: Yes. Early in my career I met Piero Faggioni, who had
chosen the same career. Basically, I'm a very shy person and he
brought out in me the confidence I needed for the stage. I had
always lived in a very closed world, and I was under the impression
that being a professional singer required one to be careful - don't
go out, don't smoke, don't drink, don't get to know women. Piero
helped me to discover another ego, another personality, and I have
him to thank because he gave me a taste of the theatre in the
opera. And this is a gift that not many people have.
Q: While you were growing up, you enjoyed going to the cinema.
A: I always liked the cinema. For me the cinema was always a
time of relaxation. When I was a student I used to go to the movies
to prepare myself before examinations - to clear my head. Even now,
when I have to study, and a moment comes when the strain is too
much, I go to a movie to relax, to get inside another world, to
forget all the problems I have, and then I go back to study again.
Q: Was it the Italian or the American cinema that attracted
A: I think it was the American cinema, because of my age. We
used to go to see Esther Williams, and I saw all the movies of Gene
Q: You liked the fantasy quality of the American cinema?
A: Yes, very much.
Q: The Italian neo-realist cinema that emerged at the end of
the war was, as a whole, primarily a Marxist cinema...
A: I remember I was very impressed by "Roma, Citta Aperta"
with Anna Magnani. Possibly I was too young, but I didn't like
neo-realism very much. In our town we saw reality in front of our
eyes, and after the war we had enough of this. So American movies
were very well accepted because they were full of fantasy and happy
Q: Coming to opera then - the political tradition goes very
deep in Italy. Verdi in a way antedates populism, the rise of the
A: You can divide Verdi into two phases. First there were the
years when he was writing an opera every two or three months, and
he was preoccupied with Italy's situation, divided and still
dominated by the Austrians and the church. We can't forget that
Viva Verdi, the patriot, also meant Vittorio Emmanuele Re d'Italia.
I believe that Verdi was patriotic, but he also had a good business
Q: Still, he was an artist of the Risorgimento. Opera had the
power to carry ideas. Does opera still have that power? For you,
the meaning, the words of an opera, must always have had great
significance. What helps you to make sense of the words?
A: It happens when you study an opera. Let's take an absurd
one - "Simon Boccanegra." In a way it is quite absurd, because
ultimately it is very difficult to understand the plot. First you
read the text and try to find an interpretation there. After that,
you want to know about the Spinola and the Doria - who are they? So
you go to a history book and learn that the Spinola and the Doria
were noble families who shared power in Genoa, and you start to
learn about the political situation in Genoa at that time. You have
the popolo who fight the Grande Signori in order to elect a Doge
who comes from the popolo. You also learn through the words of the
character you are performing. Sometimes you are helped by a
historical or social idea, even though it may not belong to the
same period. And this slowly builds up a picture of what the
situation is and where to put your character. Through this
situation and the words of the opera you start to give him a
personality. The personality comes out also from the music, but
unless there is a historical and social background, you cannot
sustain the role that you are interpreting. It is not enough just
to sing, you have to interpret. You can interpret if you know what
to aim at. If not, you can only sing.
Q: How do you see history moving?
A: I don't see it moving at all. Some producer could set the
story in the present Yugoslavian war. Two different peoples
fighting against each other, and someone has the power to reunite
them. Historically things are always the same. They never change.
It is only the costumes that change, but the situation goes on
through the years and centuries.
Q: Opera has often been accused of being an elite art form. Do
you see it as such?
A: You can say the same thing for the symphony, you can say
the same thing for theatre - all these arts are elitist. But the
cost of a production in opera, in the theatre and also for the
symphony orchestra, is very high, and so it can only be available
to a relatively small number of people. If you performed in a big
stadium with microphones, it would not be for the few but for
everybody. But then it is no longer the same thing.
Q: Yes, the Met, Covent Garden or any of the large opera
houses charge very high prices for tickets, which invariably
reduces the number of people who can attend.
A: And this is very bad. Records are a substitute, but I don't
like them. I mean the living opera is one thing - recordings are
another. Unfortunately nowadays our culture relies more on records
than on the opera house, because of this problem of accessibility.
I believe what Covent Garden does in the square with a big screen
is very helpful to people who cannot afford to pay for a ticket.
But I don't see what the real solution is because theatre is still
very expensive. It's not the singer - the singer amounts to seven or
ten per cent in the budget of an opera - it's all the employees.
Where fifty years ago there were three, now there are thirty.
Scenery, lighting, orchestra, chorus, these things are very, very
expensive. This puts an opera house in a very difficult situation
I remember in '72 I was in Venice rehearsing "Boris," and the
rehearsal went on a long time. It was very fascinating - everybody
was touched and listening in absolute silence. Finally, the
director said, "It is 2:30 a.m.," and we all realized how long we
had been there. This sort of thing never happens anymore. When the
union came in the theatre they destroyed this magia. People are no
longer as involved in the love of opera. Instead, they belong to
the sistema, and the sistema makes everybody automatons. If you
have an emotion, you have to develop it from nine to twelve; after
that you have to stop because nobody's there. And the moment you
are most creative - twelve o'clock - you cannot do anything; it is
finished. You have to wait, go home, and continue the next day. I
remember a rehearsal with Margarita Wallmann - the piano rehearsal
before the dress rehearsal. Sometimes it would go until three or
four o'clock in the morning, in order to find the right position
for the lights. From work of dedication, of love, it has become
simply work for professionals. And, in a way, this is very good,
because you cannot make people work 24 hours a day. But in another
way, something has been lost. There used to be a fabulous feeling
that you were participating in a great performance. Not any longer.
Now we have very good professionals, but we have lost the passion.
Q: And you think this happened because the union came in?
A: No - I think the world changed. It's not a question of there
being no more artistry. It's just that the vision of life has
Q: We were saying yesterday that there has been little opera
of any consequence written in this century. So, apart from mounting
revivals, has the opera a future?
A: I love very much to hear opera. I don't believe the opera
will die - it will remain. I don't know how popular it will remain,
because in our day its popularity is linked more closely with the
singer being on TV and in the newspapers, instead of being in the
opera house. Another problem is how long we will have conductors or
singers who remember the traditions, who understand how to do
opera. How many producers will respect opera's traditions and at
the same time find new ways to read each work, without changing the
period and the costumes? More and more we see opera set in our own
day. I once asked a critic why this should be, and he replied that
we have to search for something new. I don't think this is the
right answer; I think it's done because it's easier. We no longer
have enough creative people who can build on the stage the magic,
the fantasy, of one or two centuries ago, to present in such a
situation the possibility of expressing an old idea, in a new idea.
The sentiments are always the same. History, we know, repeats
itself. Whether opera survives through the coming centuries depends
only on the way they decide to present it. Because if you do "Aida"
in a graticola it will certainly not have a future.
Q: Does the tendency to put opera into a modern context
endanger its success?
A: Yes, it is a danger. When I go to the theatre I like to see
costumes of the sixteenth century, the seventeenth century, or the
eighteenth century. I don't like to see actors in the theatre in
blue jeans, because I see plenty of blue jeans in the street. Let
me dream for a moment in the theatre. It is difficult to go back to
the past when you don't have the imagination.
Also, I think that anything sensational attracts more
publicity than something mundane. I wouldn't see "Un Ballo in
Maschera" set in our day. What would be the interest? Where could
we put it? In one of the republics of southern Africa? Should we
take it from Sweden and put it there? What's the point? To make it
intelligible or understandable - to whom?
Q: That's the point. Don't you think the producer is obliged
to make the story more understandable to the audience?
A: No. I don't think such producers understand anything. They
think they made it more intelligible to the audience, but the
audience is not stupid. Audiences in our day know what they are
going to see or listen to in the theatre. Why have this presumption
to teach, always to teach? Let people understand by themselves. Let
them dream. Let them think. But nothing very hard.
Q: You said earlier that when you go to the cinema it is to
escape, to be entertained. Why do you think there is so much
concern with intellectualizing art?
A: There are some great producers who can intellectualize, and
there are some bad producers who believe they can, but can't. You
see the problem? We find it everywhere.
Q: So you think it is an undesirable tendency?
A: Yes. But if you think about Joseph Losey's "The Servant,"
it was very intellectual, but it was wonderful. I am not saying
that intellectual movies are bad, but when you go to see them and
start to think stupid things, they are stupid. You cannot say they
are not. The problem is that afterwards you read that they are
Q: Working with Losey gave you your first opportunity of
exploring a new art form - opera on the screen.
A: I met him when we did "Don Giovanni" and afterwards
"Boris." It was my first time doing movies, and it was very
difficult to understand how to act in front of the camera. I didn't
realize that when an actor goes on the set, he just goes with an
idea - he improvises. In the theatre we usually have a month of
rehearsals, and we put together all the ideas with the music, so
during the three hours that we are building up a personality we
know every moment what kind of feeling one has to show. Movies are
completely different because you shoot thirty seconds or one minute
The most important thing was the situation I found on the set
with Losey. He looked at you with these occhi di ciglio. Sometimes
I had the feeling also that he was looking inside of me, asking me
to bring out the best. And it was because I was trying very much to
become more Don Giovanni than Ruggero Raimondi and to give a lot of
feeling to this person through my emotions. This was the first time
that I went deep inside myself to find the right emotion to feed
the character. And I must say that was one of the most wonderful
feelings. Sometimes when I was so deep inside myself, I felt very
great emotion. This made it possible for me to do other movies.
Q: Joseph Losey gave the Paris Opera a cinematic and
controversial "Boris Godunov" that opted for intimacy. He said:
"I've never liked the gap between the audience and the actor -
everything is like a long-shot."
A: Yes. I must say that there was a great misunderstanding by
the critics over this production of "Boris." Nobody understood that
the concept was to make musical theatre - to have the music behind
the action. It was a revolutionary concept, and they had to accept
it as they now accept Peter Sellars doing "Don Giovanni" in Harlem.
But at that time they were more conservative. And I remember one
critic said that he didn't like it, but his son loved it very much.
The funniest thing was to be acting so near the audience - obviously
the death scene became a whisper with some moments of vocale and I
remember the audience was completely astonished because I was only
a metre or so in front of them - it was like theatre. For me it was
a wonderful experience because I felt a great power at this moment.
I knew they were embarrassed - they didn't know where to look. And
they were completely taken aback by the power of the music and
interpretation. As with all really interesting things, people
Q: Once you've experienced this intimacy with the audience,
how do you go back to the traditional staging - how do you achieve a
A: You don't see it anymore, but you feel it. Certainly in the
case of "Boris" you had the opportunity of having them near. It was
like "give me your eyes and come with me in this world." Generally
in opera there is the orchestra, conductor, audience, but this was
something unique - I loved it.
You know it's a feeling that you have from the first moment
you go on. You can feel what kind of audience you have after you
have sung two or three lines - you feel it. It is something in the
skin. Obviously if an audience is with you, you can build up a
better performance. If they are coming to the opera just to show
themselves, you cannot go far. And if there is a night when you are
not feeling well, there's a problem, at least for me. For another
singer perhaps it doesn't matter - he will try to do his best. I too
will try to do the best I can, but I feel ashamed that I'm not able
to deliver the same feeling.
Q: You said once - "I have never hesitated to bring out new
possibilities of expression that are in me and have not yet been
exploited." This is one of the reasons you were attracted to the
cinema. I have the impression that your life and career have been
marked by a searching - even a restlessness to discover new ways of
channelling your creative energies. Is this why you are taking on
A: I am taking two new big roles - "Tales of Hoffmann" and
Iago. I feel that this is a very good way to exploit my energies.
They are both quite difficult; especially Iago.
Q: Iago is probably the most striking villain in all
Elizabethan literature. The English poet Coleridge spoke of his
"motiveless malignity." How do you see him?
A: If it was possible, I would have him whispering most of the
time. He has a variety of motives, including jealousy, but these
motives are not the most important thing. He enjoys evil for its
own sake, as the "Credo" he sings explains. Why do I like him?
Because the way he gradually works up a sense of insecurity in
Otello is extraordinarily clever.
Q: Do you think Iago embodies the decadence of his society?
A: You mean Otello is the new, young side of the society while
Iago is the decadence? Oh yes, certainly he may be called that,
because he belongs to a society that is, in many ways, corrupt.
Q: Verdi toiled with this opera for about five years and was
obsessed by the character of Iago - more than by any other in his
life-work, except perhaps, "Macbeth." For years, it was supposed
that his new opera was to be called "Iago"...
A: Yes. I think the opera ought to be called "Iago," but
dramatically it can't be, because Otello is the person who makes
Q: That's interesting, because in Shakespeare's play, Iago has
more lines both in prose and poetry than has Otello.
A: Yes, but without Otello you cannot have Iago. Without Iago
you can have Otello, and a different ending. But it is always
Otello who gives the motive to Iago to do what he does.
Q: Why has it taken you so long to perform in this part?
A: Because I always thought that when I was around fifty I
would do some crazy roles. I've never been a deep bass, I was
always a basso cantante, a bass baritone. And when I began
studying, I found that I could do it. In a way it was planned
twenty years ago.
Q: But you played Boris when you might have been thought too
A: Yes, I was young, but it was such a beautiful role, and one
much easier to identify with than Iago.
Q: You haven't played Boris...
A: For a while, no. The last was two years ago in Padua.
Q: Does Boris remind you at all of Macbeth? What I mean is the
torment of knowing that you had to kill someone in order to become
A: The political side stands out much more. I was
thinking...[sings a few bars from "Macbeth"] It's funny, in "Boris"
you don't have a feminine role near Boris that is so strong, you
just have Marina. In "Macbeth" there is Lady Macbeth, who is the
creator of this monster who repents at the end. There are some
points of tangera, but one is set in Scotland, the other in Russia.
It is not just the history of power but is the history of a people.
That is not in "Macbeth."
Q: But the inner struggle?
A: Yes, the concept is the same, but there it is not only the
question of political power; it is also the relation between power
and the popolo. And between power and the popolo there are always
people who interfere and make problems for the ruler, if they don't
want this kind of power - Shuisky or the Boyars, the nobles - and in
"Macbeth" we don't have this.
Q: Mussorgsky felt that it was during the troubled periods of
Russia's history that the soul of the people was better revealed.
"Whatever I do, it is the Russian people whom I see pass before my
eyes - grand, vast, majestic and magnificent..."
A: Yes, I can believe that. I remember the first time I went
to Japan, passing over Russia - I was surprised by how many hours
you fly over Siberia - it's incredible. You know Boris was the first
to send Boyars outside - he sent I think ten - but only two came
back, the others remained in western Europe. Later Peter the Great
went to work as a labourer on the land, and to learn about
ship-building. He was trying to open Russia to the outside, because
he understood his country needed this. But it's so immense. You
know how Napoleon and Hitler must have felt, because it is so big.
They thought it would be enough to get to Moscow. But Moscow is
only one-third of the way across the empire, and winter comes
terribly soon. This is the great difference. The greatest problem
and the greatest defence of Russia is its extent.
Q: I was reminded lately of the reception that Mozart and "Don
Giovanni" received in Prague - they loved him.
A: Yes. I can imagine.
Q: But when he came to Vienna they didn't appreciate it...
A: They didn't understand.
Q: Do you find such differences in audiences today?
A: No. There are evenings when there is a good audience, other
evenings when there are audiences that are there just to go to the
opera; that's all. In the United States there are good audiences;
there used to be. There are good audiences at Covent Garden and
Vienna, just as there are not-so-good audiences at Covent Garden
and Vienna and in the United States.
Q: Artists have always felt a great responsibility to their
audience. How do you see your task?
A: First to be vocally in very good shape. Second, to be
believable in the role you are playing, and third, I think, to
combine these two things perfectly well with the music.