The 28th edition of Ravenna Festival has almost reached its conclusion for the Summer, before resuming its course with the traditional Autumn Trilogy (November 17-23), this year featuring On the verge of the 20th century: Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Tosca. Ravenna and the world of culture are grateful to Mario Salvagiani for his relentless work of research and promotion, where the breadth of his insights has met dynamic, effective organisational skills, resulting in Ravenna Festival, a multicultural and international “monument”. In order to explore such an exemplary history - which is also the history of Mario Salvagiani, of his city, and of how his projects and his achievements have deeply revitalised it – I have seized the opportunity of an enlightening conversation with him.

“I have worked with some of the major musical institutions around the world, I have met conductors, soloists, directors, set designers, singers, dancers, actors. I have met scholars, critics, historians, musicologists, I have listened to them as I have done with the artists. It has been a first-rate permanent school, teaching me a great deal not only on the artistic content and its meaning, but also on the existential state the theatres live in and hide behind the curtains. The Theatre is mystery, body, gesture, voice; it is image, sound, word, movement, shape; it is merging of languages, simultaneous action; it is expression, communication, action; it is education, discipline, training. It is our history.”

Your projects and your commitment, starting from the Seventies, found a city which was still traumatised by the forced industrialisation and somehow culturally numb. What do you think of your “creatures” and what influence do they have on Ravenna today?

In Ravenna the episode Eni Anic, placed at the beginning of the decades of major changes for the city, nurtured both hope and aversion. Hope of those who predicted more jobs and a new drive for the local economy; aversion of those who worried about the environment or the feared, excessive imbalance resulting from the consolidated productive layout and the system of the land income and the real estate values.

There was also who imagined that the industry, with its cumbersome load of satellite activities, would represent an unprecedented insult not only to the economy but to the city itself, to its nature, its history, its image, to the point of changing its course and its perspective. In truth the Company was a colossal foreign body, which did not communicate all at the beginning, and was then isolated for a long time. But the Anic advent was also – I suppose – one of the reasons for Ravenna’s late modernity. Other investments followed, and together they gave shape and substance to the chemical plant. Then the city and the Company got together: they had common projects, meetings were encouraged, marriages were celebrated, associations and circles were created. This normalisation happened at the same time of the general awakening and facilitated it. New cinemas were opened and the “creatures” started showing themselves. The Theatre, which had been closed for a long time due to safety reasons, reopened. Decades have passed and the “creatures”, entrusted to skilled hands, still represent a dynamical factor for the city.

Since my beginnings - when nothing existed except for an exemplarily elegant theatre and a certain willingness of the Municipal Administration, together with my personal determination - the activities have increased. This way, in all and every genre, such activities have achieved an extraordinary collection of high-quality, statistically-relevant, impressive results; a substantial balance of programmes and audience, featuring music, dance, theatre, but also complex explorations of the contemporary age, collaborations with the schools and the local activities, especially juvenile ones. Meanwhile, the Alighieri Theatre was joined by other stable (and complementary) venues, such as the Rasi Theatre and the Rocca Brancaleone, and the Sala Almagià later on. Around the Direction, centres of artistic, administrative, technical, surveillance management gathered; knowledge and skills were acquired, together with the instruments and means of communication. But all this – we must be truthful and clear about it – was done on a minimal scale, much below the line of what was required for the management of such an impressive volume of activities.

Besides the theatre and its astounding programme, the genres moved to the Rocca Brancaleone – for the number of seats it could offer – were especially appealing to the young generations. Starting from the jazz music, which over time hosted the entire American school and the main European and Latino-American masters, giving life to the longest festival of the kind in Italy; then the Opera, which was a discovery and, in such an unusual venue, acquired an overwhelming charm; but also the Dance, already the most dynamic genre at the time being inherent to the young body culture and the attendance of many active schools. Soon enough, I started wondering. I had started my work in 1972. The results were positive. I was at the head of the Teatri di Ravenna – the Theatres which had recorded the major and quickest development in Italy; I was deputy president of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, deputy president of the Regional Orchestra, deputy president of ATER (Emilia Romagna Theatres Association). My point of view was well-equipped and optimal, I knew the job, I had important relations: this led me to think that this first chapter, even with its outstanding results, had to reach its conclusion. There were no development opportunities ahead and it threatened to run ashore with activities that – no matter how good or excellent – had been seen before. A new analysis was needed, a new project, a new programme.

Then, the splendid idea of Ravenna Festival.

The time had come to concretise the idea of the Festival. Starting with the place which was naturally called to becoming its location, Ravenna. Unesco city, city of mosaics, capital city of the Empire, the city of Theoderic, Dante, Byron; a byzantine city, a city of poets, a right-sized city rich in theatres, churches, palaces, courtyards, adequate or even predestined spaces; also a city at the very heart of one of the major touristic accommodation assets in Europe, with a large seaside tourism incoming and a relevant quota of cultural tourism. The Festival was born from the previous experiences but with deeply innovative goals considering to the general layout and the artistic scenario they referred to. The first step was a change in the image, which moved from the model of the season as a festival of events to give an explicit and recognisable sign of the new course. It was very urgent to identify a subject which could not be the Municipality anymore, but rather a widely representative entity which could guarantee the unification of the local community and prepare, safe from possible political short cuts, the conditions for the required commitment of Maestro Muti and Cristina, whose presence was worth the Festival.

The interregnum lasted four years. For the first two years – ’86 and ’87 – the Artistic Direction was led by Lorenzo Arruga, musician and influential critic, as rich in culture as in imagination. We owe Arruga the symbol image of the Festival and also its name, with a difference: after four years Arruga’s Ravenna in Festival lost the “in” and became Cristina’s Ravenna Festival. The next two years the direction was entrusted to Carlo Fontana and me; it was an intense, fruitful, and loyal collaboration which contributed to stabilising the relationship with the national and international audience with our programmes. Close to my retirement, around the mid-Nineties, I suggested a new radical reform plan for the live show department to the Municipal Administration. On one hand, the reform was founded on the move past the one-director system, as it had been established during my years; on the other hand, it lay in the consequent attribution of homogenous sectors to rising, trustworthy subjects, who were already in place. The new layout was successful and represented an enrichment of intelligences, cultures, specialisations, sensitivities, talents, vocations. Immediately the artistic weight and the productive variety of the theatres benefited from it, and it is the same today with Antonio De Rosa as the general manager, Cristina Mazzavillani Muti as the president, and Franco Masotti and Angelo Nicastro as the artistic direction.

One of the highlights of the current edition of the Festival was Victory over the Sun, the masterpiece of the Russian Futurism of 1913…

This year the Festival has featured the quintessence of a widespread intelligence in the city; those who have worked on it not only offered their skills but also their passion. The proposal of the Victory over the Sun had a double meaning: for the masterpiece itself had his Italian debut in Ravenna as well as one of the few performances in the world; but there’s also a fil rouge connecting Ravenna to the Futurism, if you think about the merits of the Ravenna and Romagna-born Ginna, Corra, and Pratella. This makes me think about the fact that unfortunately our Futurism was Italian; if it had been French or German it would have been widely praised. Besides I’m sorry to know that the Russian Futurists themselves, who had anticipated the revolution in the artistic expression, were later betrayed by the very Russian Revolution, whose leaders were unable to understand the strongly innovative drive of the cultural world.

And after almost 30 years of Ravenna Festival

It has been delightful to be here and still be here, like a constant presumption, where the main factor was Ravenna. After all Ravenna was a capital city of the Empire, therefore it was supposedly ready – with its rich heritage and a history not to be missed - to host a cultural event of such world quality and size.

So, with its customary and gentlemanly modesty, Mario Salvagiani concludes the interview, but this is how the respected and grateful words of Cristina Mazzavillani Muti – president, promoter, and ‘deus ex machina’ of the Festival – describe him: “I want to underline the fundamental role Mario Salvagiani played to relaunch our city; we can say that every wide-scope event now bears his mark.”