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Enrique Mazzola steps into ‘dream job’ at Lyric Opera with debut production as music director

Mazzola intends to put an emphasis on contemporary opera, including company commissions and a continuation of Lyric’s plan, announced several years ago, to present a recent English-language work each season. 

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s music director Enrique Mazzola is photographed in August at the Lyric Opera house ahead of the 2021 season opening. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s music director Enrique Mazzola is photographed in August at the Lyric Opera House. The company resumes in-person performances with its 2021-22 season opener, “Macbeth.”
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

When Enrique Mazzola steps into the pit on Sept. 17 to lead Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth,” it will be his first production as Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new music director — a position he views as a dream job.

When he left Chicago after guest conducting his final performance of Bellini’s “I Puritani” in February 2018, he allowed himself to imagine how “beautiful” it would be to serve as Lyric’s music director.

The Spanish-born Italian maestro felt a strong rapport with the company’s orchestra and chorus, and equally important, he really liked Chicago. “I’m very European,” he said, “and I’ve seen other [American] cities which do not have a concept of city as we Europeans have. Here in Chicago, it’s more European style, and you can really walk from Lincoln Park to the South Loop.”

Those were just musings, though, because Andrew Davis had been the company’s highly effective music director for nearly 20 years and seemingly had no plans to leave. But a year or so later, everything changed. Davis decided to retire, and the company approached Mazzola about taking over as his replacement. He couldn’t believe his ears when the proposal came.

“I was stunned,” Mazzola said. “I could not say yes in a proper way, because it was such an emotional moment.”

When Mazzola’s five-year appointment was announced in September 2019, Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director, president and CEO, said the company compiled a list of more than 20 qualities it sought in candidates for the position, ranging from being a world-class vocal coach to possessing a serious commitment to education and community engagement.

“Enrique checked all the boxes, I have to say,” Freud said at the time. “He has worked here now on a couple of occasions, and those were extraordinarily happy experiences for everybody . . . It quickly became apparent that Enrique was the ideal successor to Sir Andrew.”

Mazzola, 53, has led numerous opera performances on many of the world’s major stages like the Salzburg Festival, Metropolitan Opera and Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and served seven years as artistic and music director of the Orchestre National d’Île de France in Paris.

He believes that two of the most important ingredients for being a good opera conductor are understanding the workings of an opera company from top to bottom and getting the necessary experience in the pit. Both points might sound obvious, he said, but some young conductors try to find short cuts, which don’t always work out.

Enrique Mazzola will lead three operas a season as Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new music director, and he plans to make a point of always conducting the season opener, as he will this year with “Macbeth.”
Enrique Mazzola will lead three operas a season as Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new music director, and he plans to make a point of always conducting the season opener, as he will this year with “Macbeth.”
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“The jump from the symphonic podium to the pit podium is very difficult,” he said. “In the end, in the show, everything is in the hands of the conductor. I start. I close. I accelerate. I save. I smile. I support.”

Mazzola discovered conducting as a member of the children’s chorus at Milan’s La Scala when he was 7 or 8. He was asked to sing a solo in Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” and though it was not until the end of the opera, he had to arrive early, get into costume and wait for his moment.

While sitting backstage, he watched famed conductor Claudio Abbado on a grainy monitor and became enthralled as a gesture elicited a roaring bass drum. “This is magic,” he remembers thinking. “I want to do what this man is doing.”

He will lead three operas a season as Lyric’s music director, and he plans to make a point of always conducting the season opener, as he will this year with “Macbeth,” followed Sept. 26-Oct. 8 by Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.”

“Macbeth” is part of Mazzola’s plan to lead five of Verdi’s early and comparatively less frequently heard operas — one a season. The project began in the fall of 2019 when Mazzola led “Luisa Miller” as music director designate and it was supposed to have continued last year with “Attila,” but because of the COVID-19 shutdown, that production turned into a digital series of concert highlights.

“‘Macbeth’ is such a classic,” the conductor said. “What is unique is that we have two geniuses, Shakespeare and Verdi, for the price of one.”

Mazzola also intends to put an emphasis on contemporary opera, including company commissions and a continuation of Lyric’s plan, announced several years ago, to present a recent English-language work each season.

“It is in my natural DNA to make commissions, to help people create new music,” he said. “I want to develop a dialogue with the people of Chicago, to explain to them that contemporary opera is not necessarily difficult or not nice to listen to. But it’s important, because it tells us about contemporary problems and issues.”

His third production Jan. 22-30, 2022 will be Missy Mazzoli’s chamber opera, “Proving Up,” which the company plans to present in the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre. “She is an American woman composer,” he said, “and this is very important. We cannot continuously present men. We have to acknowledge that there are fantastic women composers, and this is their moment.”

The new music director embraces the calls for greater diversity and inclusion stemming from George Floyd’s killing last summer and intensified discussions surrounding race and gender inequities. In addition to trying to make Lyric’s offerings more accessible to everyone, he believes it’s important that systemic change happen within the company.

Mazzola acknowledges that he might like to add a complementary symphonic conducting post some day. But for now, when he is not in Chicago, he will devote himself to his principal guest conducting duties at Deutsche Oper Berlin and guest conducting, including regular visits to the London Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.