Interviste & Articoli

Ruggero Raimondi, beau joueur - Interview in Zürich
Heather Kiernan, Queen's Quarterly, Fall 1996

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 new seas.

          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 feel Bolognese.

          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 question.

          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 influences?

          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 you?

          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 Kelly.

          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 endings.

          Q: Coming to opera then - the political tradition goes very deep in Italy. Verdi in a way antedates populism, the rise of the people.

          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 sense.

          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 nowadays.

          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 changed.

          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 fantastic.

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 a day.

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 didn't understand.

Q: Once you've experienced this intimacy with the audience, how do you go back to the traditional staging - how do you achieve a closeness again?

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 new roles?

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 everything move.

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 young...

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 king.

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.