Q & A: Director Emilio Sagi on ‘Il Pirata’ & His Passion For Bel Canto

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Javier del Real)

Few opera directors have had as much influence as Emilio Sagi. After nearly 40 years, he is not just any other opera director – he is a brand and an icon, his work easily identifiable.

He debuted in his native Oviedo with “La Traviata” in 1980 before triumphing in Madrid with “Don Pasquale” in 1982. Since then he has been handed the reins of Artistic director of such organizations as the Teatro de la Zarzuela- Madrid (1990-2000), the Teatro Real- Madrid (2001-2005) and the Teatro Arriaga-Bilbao (2008-2015).

But his influence as a director has not been limited to just his native country as his productions have traveled all over the world to such cities and countries as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, China, Japan, in addition to all the major European opera houses.

His style is easily identifiable by his respect for an opera’s originations and time periods, though at times, he can push the limits of a traditional approach and incorporate abstract and expressionistic imagery that enhances the mis-en-scène. This was most prevalent in his recent “I Puritani” where chandeliers hung over the stage eventually falling, their lucidity gone as Elvira’s madness takes over.

Opera Wire recently talked to Emilio Sagi during the rehearsal process of the revival of Bellini’s “Il Pirata” at Teatro Real, a production which debuted at Teatro della Scala in Milan in 2018. “Il Pirata” continues another trend in Sagi’s work of taking on rare gems of the Bel Canto repertory.

 OperaWire:  What appealed to you about directing “Il Pirata?”

Emilio Sagi:  Well, that’s a simple answer: because they asked me to. When you are artistic director of an Opera House, you can choose what to direct to a certain point.

In this case, it was Joan Matabosch, the artistic director of Teatro Real, who asked me to join this project, in co-production with the Teatro de La Scala in Milan. I just knew a few arias and had the wonderful classic recording of Monserrat Caballé and Bernabé Martí, but I did not have a whole reference of the opera.

So I studied the opera and I find it really interested. In general Bel canto titles please me. Then it comes the point where you can reject or join the project, and that is when I decided to do it. Sadly you can rarely choose what you direct.

OW: You have been named the director of the “rare operas” and a specialist in Bel Canto. Is this something you have been looking for?

ES: This is how career goes. Theater companies began by offering me Rossini and Bel Canto titles, and it seems that I might have done a good job as they keep asking for this kind of repertoire. And they know that I have a long experience and lots of theatrical resources to resolve all the problems that this repertoire might present. They are not not usually strong librettos and this creates scenes hard to stage in a “realistic staging.”

In my opinion, with Bel Canto you have to rely much more on the music which gives you all the foundation for the emotional world of the characters, which are usually explosive emotions. I think that theaters trust me when they offer me these kinds of operas.

In the case of Bellini’s “Il Pirata,” I fell in love with this Gothic quality and exaggreated romanticism which represents the character of Gualtiero, a  kind of Byronic hero. This presents a unique challenge and I consider that challenges are important in this profession. You might sometimes regret it later, but it is all about taking risks. That’s why we are artist.

OP: What is your process for preparing an opera? Do you have a set method?

ES: I usually hear a recording and take it with me everywhere until I know the music by heart, not only the arias and recitatives, but all the accents and dynamics that the orchestra presents. I have a strong musical background as my grand father and uncle where famous Zarzuela singers in the past, and I have a music education.

But I am very onomatopoeic while working and usually say things like: “Listen to this ting, ting….. We repeated from the pom, pom, pom” Usually conductors and singers have a good laugh when they don’t know me, but this is my natural way of working. The music and my ideas are in my head and I don’t work with the score in hand. I study the score before the rehearsing period starts but I try to internalize everything.

And that is very important with this kind of repertoire when you have all the repetitions in the cabalettas, codas, even in the lyrics. Leonora from Verdi’s Trovatore, for example, repeats “per eso moriro”  a dozens of times on the same line. You need to look for the subtext within the music to fulfill this cabaletta, otherwise it might seems ridiculous or unbelievable. Therefore, to me, while working on a Bel Canto opera, I rely strongly on the music which speaks to me about how the scene should go.

But then again as I have master’s in philosophy and English literature, I do profound research about the literature which surrounds the period where the opera was written to see what influences or where the libretto came from. In this specific case all the gothic and romantic world that surrounded Bertrand (the title character from the play) which  comes from the novel “The Castel of Otranto” By Horace Walpole.

It is after all this previous research and study is done that you talk to your creative team, stage designer and costumes, to create the atmosphere which surrounds my initial idea.

After months of working with your team, it is time to work with the singers in the rehearsal room. You need to have clear fixed ideas about what you want, otherwise the rehearsal period could be chaotic. This does not mean that I have planned ahead every single movement and reaction of the singers, as I know some of my colleagues do, but you need to have a clear vision about what you want to talk about and how you want to do it. Working with actors is a discovery.



OW: What do you want to tell the audience with your production of “Il Pirata?”

ES:  There is a clear excess of sentimentalism in this opera which I found rather interesting, and I wanted to create a big contrast by creating a big cold, dry box in the scenery where all these exaggerated passions, like the two duets between Gualtiero and Imogene, take place. This coldness reinforces the power of characters’ feelings.

It is a very ascetic setting, but never ugly. I always try to avoid disagreeable settings and look for suggestive and aesthetic ones. For example, you don’t see Palermo on the stage, where the libretto is originally set, and you find a snowed landscape in Act two, which was inspired by the Ibsen dramas where the coldness surrounds the drama. You won’t columns, or tapestry, or furniture. Instead, I looked for a beautiful suggestive cold place to emphasize all the conflicts and passions present in this opera.

The floor of the stage, which you see reflected on the mirror ceiling, is like the sea, like a swamp. I did not want to stage a realistic storm at the beginning of the opera, even if we use some video projections as I believe this storm is a prelude to what is going to happen during the drama. Like in the gothic novels when the hero is riding a horse through the forest at night and they describe the ghostly trees, and the moon, the wind. All these elements reflect the soul of the character.

OW: You have always talked about the importance of having a strong reliable team to work with. In this case you have counted with Daniel Bianco and Pepa Ojanguren once again. Is this because they form part of your habitual team or did you choose them for “Il Pirata” specifically?

ES: I like to work with a common understanding between my artistic team. I know them and the know me well, so this avoids lots of problems or a brings quick solutions when they arrive ( as they always do). That is why I always work with the same people around me.

I obviously do not work only with Daniel or Pepa, but if you analyze my career, there is always the same people that I work with: Jesus Ruiz, Llorens Corbella , Francesco Calcagnini Ricardo Sanchez Cuerda. I do not collaborate with a huge number of artists.

In Daniel Bianco’s case, he was my assistant artistic director when I was in charge of Teatro Arriaga in Bilbao, and I remember that at that time we were working in my latest production of “I Puritani,” and we could discuss the production during the lunch break or during the evening. And Pepa has been a good friend of mine for years.

OW: Chairs are a constant element in your productions: Do you have a specific reason or it is something hidden in your subconscious?

ES:  Furniture in general is something which is always present in our daily lives, and being that chairs are one of the most used elements, on stage they can give a sense or order or chaos depending always on the configuration. I love to play with this duality of order and chaos on my productions.

OW: Is there going to be a notable difference between the premiere of this production of “Il Pirata” in La Scala and this revival at Teatro Real?

ES:  To begin with we are using projections for the opening storm which unfortunately were not ready in time for Milan. And the most important thing for my work is that the cast, with the exception of Sonya Yoncheva, is completely new, so I have to adapt to the organic impulses of the performers to lead them where I want to. I believe that this is one of the beautiful things of my job.

Then we have more cuts in the score in Madrid so you have to adapt some scenes as you have less music or a whole recitative absent. Also, when you revisit your own work, you never feel completely satisfied and I always look for improving and cleaning my scenes.

I am working on a different staging right now for Gualtiero’s second aria, but I am pretty sure that in future revivals I will keep adjusting and polishing the staging. It is subtle but there are always things to change.

The chorus of Teatro Real is full of energetic young singers which give you more chances to create dynamism and action on stage, even considering that the Chorus  at La Scala is amazing. But if you see the “Pirate’s chorus” from Act one you will find a complete different level of energy and movements in Madrid.

OW: How do you confront the challenge of having three casts of singers?

ES: First of all you need to be perfectly organized, otherwise you might lose lots of time and there is always a cast which barely rehearses. So I plan a conscious schedule ahead, always considering the needs of my artists.

We have had a last minute cancellation in the third cast of Imogene and Maria Pia Piscitelli just arrived 10 days before the premiere. So in this case, I have to schedule a full day of rehearsal on the stage just to work with her.

(Credit: Teatro alla Scala / Brescia e Amisano)


OW: You were Artistic director of Teatro Real between 2001 and 2005 but have come regularly to do productions of revivals. How do you feel coming back to this theatre?

Emilio Sagi:  I feel very welcome, and it somehow feels like home. Afterall, I spent four intense years of my career here and practically lived in the theater, with the exception of the few weeks per year that I went away to direct productions somewhere else.

And I have to say that this is a solid strong Opera House. In my opinion, that there are only a few theaters around the world which have the professional quality that Teatro Real has. It works like a clock. Everything: the artistic administration, the technical teams, the chorus, the singers, etc. And even if it is a young theatre it has been very well-structured from the beginning and I hope they keep working like that because very few theaters are as precise. I would say that you can count with one hand the number of the theaters that work at this level.

OW: Looking at your vast repertoire, and considering for example that you have done three different productions of “Carmen,” and two different ones of “Puritani” and “Barbieri,” which opera would you like to stage again?

ES:  I would definitively say “La Traviata.” It is the opera I debuted with and I have never had the chance to do it again.

OW: And which opera would you never revisit again?

ES:  “Tristan und Isolde.” I find that I do not connect well with Wagner. We did “Tristan” twice in Barcelona and Madrid and I have done a production of “Die Feen” in Paris. I had an offer to direct another title but even if I was busy at the moment I honestly did not feel inclined to do it.

He is a great composer and I enjoy listening to his music and attending performances, but it is this deep transcendecnce present in his work that I find very hard to work with. I remember that the great conductor Peter Maag, with whom I have work a lot, used to tell me that I should do “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” but I have never been offered this tittle. Who knows, maybe one day I find myself doing a Wagner production again but right now I feel like I have little to say on stage with Wagner. I can not tell you exactly why.

OW: Are there any operas that you haven’t directed before that you still want to do?

ES: I would say Massenet’s “Manon” and Gounod’s “Faust.” And I dream about working in Tchaikovski’s “The Queen of Spades,” but it would be very complicated as I do not speak or read Russian at all.

OW: Can you tell us something about future projects?

ES: Well, amusing enough, I have another unknown Donizetti opera for the Wallonie Opera: “Don Sebastiano.” I am very looking forward for it. It is curious that legends state that this king disappeared during a battle in Morocco and I found it theatrically really interesting.

I also have a proposition to stage Puccini’s “Il Trittico” and they have asked me to do a new production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” But after two productions, I feel really enthusiastic about the latest one and find it really hard to do a new proposal. I think it would be too similar to the recent one.

We are also discussing a project with Teatro Real in co-production with two more theaters. And there are, of course, multiple revivals of previous productions.

Anyway, I must say that right now I feel I need to slow down a bit. I have spent 80 percent of my career being in charge of an opera house while directing operas, and I am not that young anymore. I prefer to work on few titles per year and have moments of rest at home.


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