Enrique Mazzola, an internationally recognized conductor who won plaudits for his appearances with Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2016 and 2018, will take over as the company’s third-ever music director beginning with the 2021-22 season, Lyric Opera officials announced Thursday. He takes the title, music director designate, immediately.
Anthony Freud, the company’s general director, president and CEO, said Lyric Opera 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. “He has worked here now on a couple of occasions, and those were extraordinarily happy experiences for everybody — for our opera orchestra, for the company as a whole, for audiences. It quickly became apparent that Enrique was the ideal successor to Sir Andrew.”
The Spanish-born Italian maestro will replace Sir Andrew Davis, who is beginning his 20th season as music director and principal conductor. In more than three decades of appearances with Lyric Opera, Davis, 75, has conducted 674 opera performances and nine special concerts, gaining the favor of attendees and critics alike.
“I will have been here for 21 years, which is a pretty good stint,” Davis said. “It’s time for me to give myself a little more free time. People say to me, ‘You know, there are other things in life.’ Maybe I’ll find a little place and grow vegetables.”
Mazzola, 51, who has conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and Salzburg Festival, fell in love with Lyric Opera and Chicago right from his first visit, and it didn’t take much persuasion for him to take the music director job. “What attracted me was everything,” he said. “We’re talking about Lyric Opera of Chicago. It’s one of the main opera houses in the world.”
He has found the company to be warm, welcoming and collaborative. “Sometimes, we artists face different conditions. It can be easier. It can be difficult. But the ideal place is one where the artist can express himself or herself. Lyric Opera is one of these places.”
In his off time during his two visits, the conductor has enjoyed getting to know as much of the city as possible — strolling the Riverwalk, exploring Chinatown, Little Italy and the Loop, and appreciating what he called the city’s “art de vivre (art of living).”
In fact, the conductor has already decided that he will shift his primary residence to Chicago from Paris, where he recently served as artistic and music director of the Orchestre National d’Île de France, in the fall of 2021. “Being a music director is not only conducting,” he said. “It means thinking about the future of Lyric and, most of all, being able to listen to what the people have to say. So, I really need to live in Chicago and do my shopping and take the L.”
Mazzola is highly regarded for his work in French opera and his interpretations of the bel canto repertoire — Italian operas of the 18th and early 19th centuries by such composers as Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Gioachino Rossini.
Mazzola was already booked to guest conduct the first two of Lyric’s upcoming presentations of five early, lesser-known operas by Giuseppe Verdi, beginning with “Luisa Miller,” which opens Oct. 12. He will now conduct all five (one a season), first as music director designate and the rest when he takes over his new post.
The conductor believes his experience with bel canto, which came historically right before these works, ably sets the stage for this project. “It’s the right moment in my conducting life to make a Verdi exploration,” he said.
In addition, he is interested in taking on French and early romantic German repertoires and contemporary works. He is enthusiastic about the company’s plan, announced earlier this year, to present a recent English-language opera each season.
Mazzola will remain as principal guest conductor of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, but he has no immediate plans to seek a complementary music-director post with a symphony orchestra. He said his Lyric Opera appointment is so exciting and challenging that he wants to focus on it at least for the first few seasons.
Davis had planned to step down after the 2019-20 season, finishing with Lyric Opera’s April-May presentation of Richard Wagner’s massive, 15-hour set of four operas — “Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).”
But Freud persuaded him to stay for one additional season. He will oversee the transition and serve as something of a mentor to Mazzola, whom Davis is “thrilled” will be serving as his successor.
Among his accomplishments, Davis pointed to an improved orchestra and chorus and dozens of notable productions, including a previous “Ring” cycle in 2005 and such works as “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (2007) and “Lulu” (2008). He hopes to return to Lyric and conduct occasionally in future seasons.
“I adore this company,” Davis said. “It’s been a fantastic time. Most of the things we have done have been extraordinary and very wonderful and fulfilling for me. I’ll be going out feeling that my legacy, if you like, is a good one.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.