For the time being, you are in a very difficult situation. On the one hand, the premier of a new opera performance lies ahead, the rehearsals of which are currently temporarily suspended; on the other hand, you, along with members of the theatre team, are participating in a protest against the artistic director of the theatre. What is the cause of your protest?
It is naturally much better when you are interviewed about some positive topics. However, I try to find a positive side in this protest too: I see a chance of revitalizing the Tbilisi Opera Theatre. I arrived here three years ago with only one aim: to implement a project designed to promote the theatre to the international arena – something which the theatre deserves. It was and must become again an indicator of the high level Georgian opera school. This school has great traditions. However, under the new management, for one year now, we have seen backslides instead of advancement. We have regressed firstly because of a deficit in communication. The administration of the theatre is on one side whilst the rest of the team – the soloists, the orchestra, the choir – are on the other. The opera theatre must work on the basis of democratic principles. People who work here must have the possibility to make their contribution to the development of the theatre and to prepare high quality performances. Naturally, it is physically difficult when we do not have the theatre's building available to us [as it is currently undergoing a major overhaul], but we must use this time to build good foundations for the return to our home. My aspiration is to enable this huge creative resource to show itself off and become known to international society.
I was invited here owing to my contacts; I mean that I have an international career – in recent times I have performed in Florence, in London with the English National Opera, in Beijing with the Beijing Symphony Opera, and with various other musical companies of international standing. During my three years working here I have also managed to organize tours with the Georgian team: we performed in Beirut, at the Al Bustan Festival, which I head as the music director; we had a tour in China; performed Rigoletto in Gubbio, Italy; and achieved quite a lot of international success. Everywhere I go I say that I am the principal conductor of the Tbilisi Opera Theatre; this information is also noted in the international press, thereby representing significant promotion for the rest of the team. Naturally, there is still much work to do; we have great plans. Over the past year, I have no longer seen progress. I have tried to tackle the internal problems in many ways, without engaging in conflict, but we have not been given a chance to advance and thus the leadership must be replaced.
It is necessary to have a repertoire prepared for at least two or three seasons ahead of time because theatres sign contracts with musicians many years in advance. For example, I know where I will be performing in 2017. Musicians also have to know their timetable – when to work on which role. A solo party cannot be prepared within one month. This theatre has my one hundred percent support. I have not arrived here for either my career or gaining money; I turned down two offers from France before coming here, although both of them would have been much more advantageous financially. I am here because I believe in this project, the aim that was set, and the talent of those people with whom I work.
Attitudes towards culture are not uniform worldwide. Some countries invest a lot of money in it, for example, France invests 58 million euros annually; on the other hand, in other countries, for example, in your native Italy, certain politicians think that – to use a famous phrase of the former Italian finance minister – "you can't eat culture". In your opinion, why should such a poor country as Georgia spend money on Georgian culture? Why is it important for the country to maintain the opera theatre?
Georgia, historically, has great operatic traditions. Numerous Georgian musicians have achieved success in the international arena. There are stars – and I call them stars indeed – not only abroad but here too that continue to maintain the great traditions of bel canto for Georgia. They did the same in the recent past, when they continued to work in the theatre despite the conditions of severe power shortages and the absence of heating. I am grateful to these great artists. The heritage which culture leaves is universal. Research has shown that culture, in the case of proper management, can also bring money to the state. Cultural institutions create jobs too. Therefore, I think that the Italian minister who said that phrase had no idea what he was talking about. Naturally, it is necessary for not only the public but also the private sector to assist the development of culture; we must not depend on the state alone. Since culture cannot develop independently, the state must support it by exempting us from taxes, though, at the same time, it must also offer similar incentives to private sector sponsors in order to encourage them to assist culture. The American and British models are exemplary in this regard.
You have been in Georgia for three years now. Before your arrival, as well as thereafter, one heard endless talks about those shortcomings which the performers, especially the orchestra, had: technical problems, the quality of musical instruments, the shortage of musicians, the level of their training, and low salaries. Can you recall the period after you first arrived and what has changed since then?
I must note that a little before I arrived one very good thing happened in Georgia: a project was implemented with financial assistance from the Cartu Group that envisaged the purchase of musical instruments for the orchestra. For example, all bowed string instruments were crafted by the master Claude Lebet. It was a pleasant surprise for me to learn that there was a private person who was so interested in culture. There is still much to be done. Some of the musical instruments have yet to be replaced. One thing is the cost of purchase, but the maintenance and repair of instruments also require huge costs. I have made a request in this regard.
As regards the level of training of musicians, I think we made a step forward in this area. Before coming to Georgia, I was warned about the attitude of Georgians towards their jobs, their constant failure to be on time for rehearsals – something which did not prove to be true. We created a very cozy atmosphere and, at the same time, managed to observe internal regulations. Respect is gained with a smile, not by shouting. We work according to this principle. At the same time, to have a well-trained musician, you need a timetable, properly scheduled rehearsals and also a space where one can work and prepare pieces of music. At the moment we have to rehearse in one of halls of the State Chancellery, which we have to heat somehow, which lacks acoustics and, since we do not have normal working conditions, some musicians go to the [Tbilisi State] Conservatoire to practice whilst others practice at home. We do everything possible and hope that we will be able to return to the Opera Theatre building soon to work in normal conditions.
We have often heard that you are an open person. Having arrived in Georgia you met some musicians who spoke neither English nor Italian, and you started to study Georgian. What is your working language now?
My current Georgian is more like Esperanto, intermingled with many English, Italian and Russian words. The key, however, is that we understand one another and manage to convey the meaning of what we want to say. I think it is very important to have knowledge about the country in which you live. I am happy to be here and therefore, am always informed about developments in Georgia. I consider myself to be an integral part of Georgian society. I have perfect relations with members of the team. All of them know my phone number, they can call or text any time and I always respond to them and am always ready to listen to them. I keep repeating that communication is central. Misunderstandings arise when people lack communication and are not properly informed.
You often conduct operas. The main problem here, a legacy of the Soviet school of lyrics, is that more attention is paid to form than to content. Do you think it is possible to conduct an opera without a thorough knowledge of content, the libretto? Does this kind of problem exist and how do you deal with that?
It is absolutely impossible to perform any piece without realizing its content – be it a piece of symphonic, lyrical or chamber music; even more so, in opera, which has content in the form of written text. Not knowing the meaning of the words is tantamount to disaster. I think that when working with text, understanding it is crucial. I discussed this problem with the leading soprano of our opera theatre, Irina Ratiani, who used to perform in Italy and is fluent in Italian – we agreed that this will and must be a necessary condition to work in the theatre. When we move back to the theatre building and have proper working conditions, we will implement this, or to be more precise, will necessarily work on this topic. Before staging any opera, it is necessary to hold meetings to work on libretto and discuss personages. Analyzing and understanding a text is crucial because it is the words that influence musical expressiveness. I hope that this principle will also be adopted in the [Tbilisi State] Conservatoire. One who sings needs to know or understand basic opera languages – Italian, French, German and Russian. I am interested in being able to invite pianists, pedagogues, and stage directors to the opera theatre or opera studio, who will, in various languages, share their experience and knowledge with those musicians who thus far have not had the possibility to receive such an education.
You noted that there are many Georgian stars in the world of lyrical music – both inside and outside Georgia. Those singers who work abroad are more or less known to the Georgian public, but who are those local Georgian stars you have spoken about?
There are many. I will start listing them with Temur Gugushvili, Irina Ratiani, Tea Demurishvili – these people have often performed abroad, but they decided to make their contributions to the development of our theatre and I am very grateful to them for that. Nika Lagvilava, Legi Imedashvili, Gocha Datusani, Irina Taboridze, Marika Machitadze, Irina Aleksidze, Salome Jikia, Natia Jibladze, Otar Jorjikia, Irakli Murjikneli... The list will be too long and I will not continue in order not to miss anyone. There are many young singers among them and I think this wave of successful Georgian singers will never stop.
And finally, please tell us about your wishes and the projects you plan to implement in the future.
Upon returning to the opera theatre building, I wish to offer a quality product to the Georgian audience; to perform those pieces of music which the locals have not had the possibility to listen to. I would like to have the possibility to conduct Giuseppe Verdi's opera Ernani, Mozart's Così Fan Tutte, Charles Gounod's Faust, Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, works by Vincenzo Bellini, Giacomo Puccini, Jules Massenet and, of course, the great Georgian operas which must be fully performed – and I do not mean only the great operas of Zakaria Paliashvili. The existence of Georgian operas speaks about important traditions that must be protected and taken care of like a national treasure.