Q & A: Rosetta Cucchi On Taking Over As Artistic Director Of Wexford Festival Opera & Working With Singers & Music

By Alan Neilson

In 1995, a young Rosetta Cucchi first walked through the door of the Theatre Royal in Wexford, home of the Wexford Festival Opera, beginning an association, which almost 25 years later, is still going strong, having just been been appointed as the company’s Artistic Director. Cucchi will take over the running of the festival from 2020, replacing David Agler, who has been in the post since 2005.

However, her work over the course of her career has not been solely centered on Wexford. Far from it. She has been a successful pianist, accompanying  many famous singers, such as Juan Diego Flórez. She has an established career as a director, producing works for the top international opera houses, and winning acclaim for her insightful and imaginative productions.

Having just returned from the US, for a production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” for Opera Omaha, OperaWire managed to track her down for a quick interview about her career, the art of directing and, of course, her vision for the Wexford Festival.

Operawire: Originally you were a pianist, often accompanying singers. What made you change to directing?

Rosetta Cucchi: I started as a pianist, but I also studied Theatre Studies at the University of Bologna; the idea was already there, it was always in my heart. I started in the symphonic repertoire, but then moved to become a pianist in the opera. I did concerts all over the world with singers like Mirella Devia, Sonia Ganassi, Michele Pertusi, Juan Diego Flórez and many others and I learned their secrets, not just vocally, but as singers and human beings. You learn what the singer can achieve and what they can’t.

In many ways I was very lucky, because I did not get to know opera until I was 25, because in the conservatories in Italy they don’t teach opera to pianists, so many of the operas for me were completely new. So I heard and played “La Traviata” for the first time when I was 25, and it was an immense emotional experience. I can say that I liked this because it meant I approached the operas as a discovery.

This is why I am attracted to Wexford. For example in 2015, I directed “La Bohème,” for the first time, in Boston. Obviously, I knew the opera, but it was the first time I really studied it and got to know it properly. I found it so deep, and vicious, so I decided to approach it from that perspective. I placed it during in Paris, during the 1968 student riots, a period of damaged youth, a story of the lost hope, but at a time when it is was all too late! The critics loved it, the audiences loved it.

OW: How do you approach a new production? What extent does the music play in your initial ideas for an overall conception?

RC. My starting point is always the music, not the libretto. If you want to direct an opera you must trust the music. You must be faithful to the music, sometimes directors don’t, and this is a pity. I play the score on the piano, and then I go to the libretto. When I play through an opera I can hear what the composer wants. Obviously, there are some points where the music can take you in one direction or another – this is normal, but you can hear the feelings in the music, and most of the time you will find this justified when you go to the libretto. Of course you can make a mistake, or take the wrong path, this happens and sometimes you only realize when it is too late. It happens to everyone.

But this approach also helps my relationship with the singers. They know, that I know what I am talking about. We talk the same language, we have the same vocabulary. I know some directors that arrive with the libretto and the DVD and say you do this here, and do it like this, and the singers think, “Ciao!” Whereas, if I say, for example, this is a musical progression that arrives to a major tune, and the composers wants this to bloom etc… If I talk in this way, the singers will do what I want, they respect this approach. I rarely fight with singers, we have a mutual respect, and I become great friends with many of the people I work with.

OW: Do you involve yourself in the musical side of the production, especially with regard to the singers interpretations?

RC: Absolutely yes. I try to stay outside the musical side of things, but I can’t. Luckily, I usually find that conductors are happy to talk to me about the music. They appreciate the fact that I involve myself with music. I do sessions with the singers with the recitatives, which the conductors welcome. It is important part of an opera, both musically and for the staging, and I find the conductors are very happy to have help with this.

OW: How do you define sentimentality, and what role does it play in your productions? I am thinking particularly of your production of Alfano’s “Il Risurrezione.”

RC: It depends, it can mean a sugary thing, which I really don’t like. But it also means putting on the table a part of your soul and leaving it open, which is not what you always find. It is not about eliciting the audience’s sympathy, rather I prefer to use sentimentality to expose the inside of the human being.

So when I staged “Il Risurrezione” two years ago in Wexford, the main role of Katiusha was performed by Ann Sophie Duprels and we worked together to build a character able to take the public along her journey into her hell and rebirth. She gave tremendous and beautiful performance.

As a stage director you have a choice, either to expose the sentimentality like a chocolate box, which is very easy or to take one chocolate and cut it open and to see what is inside. This is the right way to go.

When I approached “ Il Risurrezione,” I read the book; it was Tolstoy’s last book. His way of being a Christian was really deep, but towards the end of his life he started to doubt it, and started to look instead at ideas of equality; in the book there is a sense of this. This story of the Prince who becomes so humble, that he is prepared to follow Katiusha for ten years. The differences between the book and the opera is that in the book the real protagonist is him while in the opera Alfano decided it was her.

Next January it will be staged again in Florence. It is a far bigger stage, so I will have to look at how the sets fit, but I intend to keep the production as it is, to keep the same feeling.

OW: How do you view the audience, and your relationship to them?

RC: This is a very controversial subject. Our duty is to the public, for sure, but we cannot be guided by the tastes of the public, it is too easy. It is too lazy to amuse them, and then stop. It is also dangerous; we have a responsibility as artist to educate the audience, to look at new ideas, which are not always followed immediately. Ideas can take a long time to grow in the minds of the public, it is part of our job to help them grow.

People who come for the first time are not so worried about seeing a traditional presentation, but they want a story; they are more open than traditional audiences because they don’t bring preconceptions with them, they don’t know what to expect. But they want a story they can follow easily, that they can understand. Think of Shakespeare: these days nobody is scandalized if “Hamlet” is not done with the skull in the hand saying “to be or not to be.” That is the past, and it has to be developed, we have moved on.

OW: But how far can you go with this approach?

RC: You can go as far the music and libretto allow you to, but you must respect them. If it is says, for example, he is in the room, it does not mean we have to create a room, but we must be faithful to the story, even if you change the time or place; this is not scandalous.

You can have a beautiful updated staging, or a terrible traditional staging, and vice-versa. For me there are only good and bad stagings. Of greater importance is the fact that opera is becoming a niche market. Audience numbers are falling! This is the real concern.

There is also a problem with new operas; after serial music where did we go? We have not decided yet. New operas are experiments but they are going into a cul-de-sac. Yes, new operas are marvelous in their own right, but they are not going anywhere. We need to find a new way, the world is changing so fast and the arts, including opera, has not yet found a way to move in the same direction.

OW: You have a long association with the Wexford Festival. What is it about the festival you like?

RC: I liked the fact that when I first arrived in 1995 I couldn’t find the theater. I arrived in the High Street and thought I am in the wrong place, there wasn’t a theater. Then suddenly I saw the stage door and inside the door was the magic of Wexford. And it is still like this, even in the new theater.

I like warmth, and the family feeling, and the fact that this relatively small country and this small town can host this international festival. It is amazing! I have worked in a lot of festivals and Wexford is unique. The surroundings and the local people are marvellous: they volunteer their services, you walk around the town and people say to you “come in, you are from the festival, come in.”

Recently, this feeling has declined a little, but this normal after 69 years, things go up and down, but it is something I want to revive! It is true that I have been there for a long time, but now I am the boss.

OW: Do you like being the boss?

RC: Yes I do! It is an important job, it is an important international festival and it is important for Wexford and for Ireland, and they need someone who cares deeply about it. So I am here, not just because of my skills, but because I know the past and I can change the future, while respecting the past. I am rooted in the festival.

OW: What are your aims for the Wexford Festival?

RC: I want to keep with the three rare operas, every year I want to stage three unknown jewels; rarity has to be central, it is what Wexford is all about. I am going to set operas around a theme; next year, in 2020, it will be Shakespeare. All the operas will be between the 19th century and 20th century, although in the future I want to introduce operas from an earlier period, as there are so many little gems to be found there. But you must also respect the tastes of the audience, which is definitely set in the bel canto repertoire.

My intent is to have a Festival with a lot of events around the town which involves the local people. I am planning on more then 50 events in 13 days. But I have a lot more ideas, for I would like to establish an Academy for Irish singers. I think Wexford although an established international festival, has a duty to create a factory of Irish talents

I would also like to include events which mix opera with spoken theatre and create composite works. I want to continue putting on new works, like Synott’s “The Dubliners,” which we did two years ago. This year we are doing another opera by Synnott, which came from my idea to link Rossini’s “Adina” with a new piece, called “La Cucina.”

I also promised the Board of Wexford Festival that I would plan the program two years in advance instead of one year, as they do now. I am working like crazy and have already planned for 2020 and 2021. This is very useful for the public, for the travel companies and for the sponsors, who can target specific events.

OW: This year you are directing Rossini’s “Adina” and Synott’s “La Cucina.” What are your initial thoughts about the works and how you will approach them?

RC: I did “Adina” last summer in Pesaro, which was a big challenge for me as it is my home town; it was not the easiest opera of Rossini to direct. It is not written completely by Rossini, it is a patchwork. It is a one-act opera, a farsa with a chorus, with the usual complications, but the main idea of the opera is the wedding. It is a kind of “Waiting for Godot,” waiting for a wedding that is never coming. So I thought let’s use a big wedding cake, so every thing is transposed into a whimsical dream. The public loved it, it was real fun.

I used the idea of the huge wedding cake for “La Cucina,” so it is set in the kitchen where they are making the cake. This is not whimsical. The story is about a cook who has lost his voice after suffering a disaster, following a premiere at La Scala. He was commissioned to make a soufflé for the party, and when he brought it into the hall in front of everybody, it deflated and due to the shock has never spoken since. Now he is waiting for a mysterious ingredient for the wedding cake, which never arrives. It is funny and sentimental, and fits nicely alongside “Adina.”

Andrew Synott, the composer, of “La Cucina” created a beautiful score and I wrote the libretto. He is a very talented artist, a wonderful musician and so easy to work with.

OW: What responsibilities, if any, does a director have for nurturing young talent?

RC: This is very important for me. When I recognize a singer has a voice, but has not yet developed the acting skills I will work with them, to help them. It is important. Two singers came to audition for me in Parma, a few years ago, one a mezzo and one a soprano. They were young and had good voices, but not yet the acting skills, so I worked with them a lot and they developed, and they came to work in Wexford with me. Now they both have good careers, and this makes me very happy. It is important to have someone to help you in your career, someone helped me in mine, now I help others. It is one of the pleasures of the job.

OW: What are your plans outside Wexford over the medium and long term?

RC: I told Wexford that I will continue with my career as a stage director, mixing this with my job at Wexford. This is important for me. Some people say that the Artistic Director has to be a technical person. I do not agree. I think an Artistic Director, at least for my way of being an Artistic Director, is to be an artist because this can advise my role as an Artistic Director.

My one big wish, however, is to direct an opera at Covent Garden. I don’t know why, but it is not La Scala nor the Met, it is Covent Garden.


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