Conductor Survives Pit Marathon With Divas, Horses: Interview

Marco Armiliato soared through Saturday's matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera of "Aida," (around three-and-a-half hours of marching extras, horses, dancers and suffocating singers). After taking a long shower and donning fresh clothes at his nearby apartment, Armiliato returned to conduct the evening's "La Traviata" (in which the diva takes about three hours to expire).

That's a lot of arm-waving.

A popular Met regular, Armiliato, 46, took over "Traviata" on short notice for Leonard Slatkin, who had arrived insufficiently prepared for last Monday's premiere, enraging diva Angela Gheorghiu. By Thursday, Slatkin was gone.

Sitting at a cafe near Lincoln Center, the fit-looking Italian spoke about his unexpected marathon.

Lundborg: What did you think when you got the call?

Armiliato: I was at Carnegie Hall rehearsing for a concert on Thursday when [Met General Manager] Peter [Gelb] asked if I could do it. I said it was no problem. I can't say no to the Met. Anyway, after "Traviata" I could have done another opera.

Lundborg: So you didn't find it taxing?

Armiliato: It was exhilarating. I'm so totally focused, the music gives me energy. Afterwards, I went home, cooked myself some pasta, played some PlayStation and called my wife in Genoa. When I looked at the clock, I was surprised to see it was 3:30 in the morning.

Lundborg: As usual, you did both without a score?

Armiliato: Yes. I feel so totally comfortable with this great orchestra, it was fun.

Lundborg: You've worked with Angela Gheorghiu before?

Armiliato: Angela has sung Violetta so much it's in her body and so it is difficult for a conductor to change her. She's a diva and she prefers the conductor to follow her lead. She knows exactly what she wants, and 99 percent of the time she's right.

Lundborg: What did she say to you afterwards?

Armiliato: She came to my dressing room, closed the door and sang a beautiful Romanian folk song just for me. I didn't understand a word.

Lundborg: How do you offer support to the singers?

Armiliato: They are all different -- one may need more space to be expressive, another may be in a rush to get through. The conductor has to bring some musicality to the singer's necessity. I love the voice and I respect the delicate instruments singers have. You have to breathe with them.

Lundborg: How did you learn to do that?

Armiliato: When I was young, I worked as a pianist with some of the great singers, including Pavarotti, so I saw them up close.

Lundborg: What was working with Pavarotti like?

Armiliato: I went to his house one summer to help him learn "Andrea Chenier." He was very lazy, he didn't want to study, and I had to really push him because the time was so short. I'd start playing the piano in the room at the back of the house just to get him in there so we could work.

Luciano wasn't a good student but he was one of the great instant musicians who could create magic. Sometimes when he was doing something weird, I would wonder, but then saw that it really worked.

Lundborg: You're a protege of James Levine -- do you want his job when he retires?

Armiliato: Who doesn't? I love New York and I love the Met and the orchestra Jimmy built. When I walk through the stage door and the security guard gives me a smile, it makes my heart bigger and I want to give the best I can.

Actually, I would like to have a musical life just like Jimmy's in the combination of opera, chamber and orchestral music.

Lundborg: Are you looking forward to settling down?

Armiliato: It's great being a guest conductor. You do the job and you can leave all the problems behind when you're done. You don't have to challenge or change things. On the other hand, I'd like to grow something. I've had offers, but right now my calendar is too busy.

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(Zinta Lundborg is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Zinta Lundborg in New York

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