Scents and Sensibility

by Articulate

Conducting opera may well be the hardest job in classical music. The quietly spoken Fabio Luisi does it all with grace and aplomb.

The legendary 19th century German composer Richard Wagner used the term Gesamtkunstwerk to describe the complexity of opera. It doesn't translate very easily, but it basically means an all-embracing art form. And charged with coordinating all the moving parts of this all-embracing art form, from singers to orchestra to chorus is the conductor. One of today's greatest opera conductors is Fabio Luisi. Serious and soft-spoken, he seems a world away from the stereotype of the flamboyant, passionate Italian, except when it comes to one particular item of clothing, his socks.

Fabio Luisi: I like to joke about them, that it's my transgressive part. It is like, it's a little bit, not to take everything so deadly serious.

Today, Luisi is a regular presence in the world's great opera houses. Since 2011, he's been principal conductor at the Met. He began planning his career at an early age.

AJC: You went to an opera rehearsal in Genoa when you were young, and you made two decisions. One, that you were going to be a conductor. And two, that you weren't gonna be the kind of conductor that shouted at orchestras or singers. True?

Luisi: It's true, yes. But at that moment, the first decision was made that I wanted to be a conductor. How would I behave as a conductor? I didn't know yet, but what I knew was that the behavior of that conductor in that rehearsal was not nice, was not acceptable to me, even if I was a kid.

AJC: But there was a time when conductors could get away with being dictatorial and big. A lot has changed since then. Now, I don't think anybody would try that, would they?

Luisi: No, it is not possible anymore. I and many of my colleagues, we try to be one of them, and just making music together among good musicians. I don't need to give order to artists because we are talking about music, and mine are just suggestions. And they are asking me to show them how to play, how and where to go with the music. And so I just explain that I don't need to be loud.

Luisi applies this philosophy to every aspect of his job. He's especially aware of how vulnerable singers can be on a grand opera stage.

Luisi: I can make their life very difficult if I'm too slow or too fast, or too loud, or I don't help them when they need. If they need a cue, I don't give that cue, and so I can be uncooperative. I can be against them, which I never am. So knowing this, I try to do exactly the contrary. How can I help them? What do they need? They need a cue, they need to feel I am with them. They need to feel they have a support from me. Of course, sometimes I just like to listen to them, because they are singing so beautifully.

And whereas Luisi is world-renowned as a conductor, he's increasingly gaining reputation for his skills as a perfumer, a creator of handmade custom perfumes using exotic ingredients in a workshop in the heart of New York City.

AJC: My sense is that smell and music, when they evoke memory, are probably coming from the same place.

Luisi: You're using the right word, because evoking is absolutely the right word for it. And which connects the two of them, music and the sense of smells. What do they do? They bypass the intellect and they go right there in that part of the brain where memories pop up. And this is what the connection between the two, which I like very much.

AJC: How does it present itself? Do you smell it in your brain? Is it in the same place where we smell?

Luisi: Mm yes, yes and no. The idea is maybe an image or a situation. Or a person, or a group of person. And so I try to translate this into a perfume. And then, creating the perfume, you have to mix and to find the balance. This part is very similar to our job. So mixing instruments, this one not so loud, this other one a little bit more so they don't cover themselves, and I have the right balance.

And it would seem that Fabio Luisi's life is itself an obsessive quest for balance, in every sense.