Voices are heard.
Girls and boys outside the theatre.
It’s a break during the rehearsals for the new Autumn Trilogy of Ravenna Festival.
The Verdi-Shakespeare project, directed by Cristina Mazzavillani Muti, stages three new productions of Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff.
I enter the theatre.
The hall is in semi-darkness.
The singers and chorus are waiting.
And here’s the calls of instructing voices:
"Vittoria on stage, please," and again: "We are waiting for Vittoria". Vittoria arrives, in the role of Lady Macbeth. And here’s another instruction: "Silence, please, on stage and in the hall. Get ready, Maestro!" I recognize Cristina's voice, now: "Softly, guys, softly. We are not supposed to hear what is happening". And again: "The light, Giordano. Your light should back up a little. All the Joans-of-Arc with bare breasts, please, that’s how I want them. I want to see some flesh, not only men! Now raise your heads together. Slow movements. Now gently rock. All of you. We had deleted this, but I really miss it. When the ladies are Witches, please remember the hoods. Keep close to one another, stay close. The chorus only opens later".
Whispers and continuous adjustments. Warp and weft threads weaving the plot of the opera.
Meanwhile, on stage, a Caravaggio-like light breaks the darkness, and the singing and action are hymns to beauty. The figures are drawn by lights, at times suggesting the depth of the ocean or the tangle of a forest.

A Common Good
Dear Cristina, last night you asked me to come and meet you at the rehearsals.
We seldom meet, but when we do, a deep emotional and intellectual involvement creates between us.
It's a state of grace, I think.
I am not here for an interview today, it’s not my job. I came to watch you in action. For some years now I have listened to your introductions to the Ravenna Festival. And every time I have been enchanted by you.
The Alighieri Theatre is full of people, and you chat with them as if you were at home among friends. You have the sort of authoritativeness that derives from authentic passions—passions whose origins date back in time, in a childhood full of gifts.
I think the difference between you and the other speakers is precisely in the power of a thought that can take the form and substance of a common good to be shared.
In 2011 I gave a nice acceleration to my work, and I see you have done the same. We both move from a trilogy to another.
Now I'm interested in the creative path that led you to stage three of Verdi's operas at such a short distance from the previous three, with an energy capable of moving mountains and dividing the sea. Well, you remind me of biblical events!
Thanks to my parents, the opera accompanied my childhood, then was set aside. And now, through you, it powerfully re-surfaces.
A few hours of rehearsals were enough to understand that, starting from where you are now, with all the means offered by new technologies and with the awareness that Verdi himself would have gladly used them, you “put your whole self into the operas” to give us the irresistible essence of both Verdi and Shakespeare in a single confluence.
When I say “your whole self" I mean your extraordinary load of experience - sometimes difficult but always led by your intelligence, sensitivity, humour, widespread creativity, ability to unite and courage of remaining faithful to your essential being.
The world you are evoking now is a world of time and memory, emerging from what is meaningful to you now.
Just as Goethe said, “All that was there before me is mine.”
I actually believe that contemporaneity gladly takes what is remote to have it renovated and brought nearer through the artist's work. And now you are here to offer, communicate, donate.
For some time now, I have myself realized a sort of art community in which the different disciplines come together within an ideal being and working together that is the only meaningful way of doing things. I give shape and substance to events in places that I recognize as emotionally mine, places I could not forget unless I forgot myself. In Giuliana Anicia it was the sea, inevitably reflecting my own being. In The Trees Were Gods it was the passion and mourning for our dying pinewood. And in the third it was the wetland, which I chose as the centre of my days and a source of constant inspiration. I have the collaboration of “migrant” artists who are willing to work with me in my irresistible, fateful places. Several of my beloved friends, daughters and grandchildren join in the chorus, but I would like my whole progeny to participate and share this emotion, fear and gratitude.
But back to your work.
Apart from Verdi's greatness, which mixes here with Shakespeare's, in these days of rehearsals I have been a witness to the essence of working together. It's a pleasure of the soul, a return to the sacredness of my home. Thanks for the gift.
And I will never stop learning, because your work as a director is like the tip of an iceberg concealing a world of harmony, contrasts, passion, drama and irony... there's life under it!

October 27, 2013
The House
Yesterday afternoon, after the rehearsals, we agreed to meet at your place today at 10 am.
I am on time. The house bears your mark: spacious, full of plants, paintings, photographs and stunning African articles. Yes: fragments of Africa in the heart of Ravenna. At the centre of a wide corridor, a long strip of colourful sand.
I bend over to take a closer look.
It's bowls of sands from distant deserts, having different textures and hues. My fingers run on velvets, powders, silks. Light, space, peace and quiet. After this world, the other, distant world is now here.
Time stops. Silence, in the absence of unnecessary sounds.
Back from the desert, we sit "at the table" and talk freely. Almost immediately I realize that I need to record our words. Luckily I click the right buttons. I also take notes: this morning, I am here to listen.
I want to learn about your path, which, I know, shares several confluences with mine.
In a fit of obvious unconsciousness I think that, in terms of genius, there is no difference between you and the two “great artists”. Human genius, indeed, has multiple shapes and latitudes.
My recording opens with an entry on the theme of the Divine.
“Genius” and “Divine”, and we are no fools.

Cristina Mazzavillani Muti
The Divine Within Us
I mean, we seek the Divine within us for all of our life.
When we wonder about the events taking place in us, the Divine is there.
It’s Man, it’s Humanity that gives shape to the Divine. Such peaks as Verdi and Shakespeare belong to humanity. For fear of approaching such great geniuses we make them untouchable, we keep them at a distance, and this does not help. Some simple people may be fragile, but they are also curious and want to explore the world of art through the help of others: if their path is made difficult and complicated, they will never reach artistic vision.
This is why I think that one needs to bring out one’s childish ways. “Let the little children come to me”, Jesus said. What He really meant is, “children understand me better than you do, with your impressive superstructures which keep me outside. Stay childish. Make sure you keep a pure, simple and welcoming mind.” For all our knowledge, we do not want to show our own fragility, and we put on masks and shields to approach others.
This system only removes man from man.

So, if I go back to my childhood, I go back to puppetry, a form of theatre that addressed everything, from Verdi and Manzoni to Goethe. These poor wooden heads reached the small towns where the TV did not exist to tell the news of what was happening: past, present and a little bit of future.
I have worked in puppetry, and I have understood that the important thing is to communicate with one other. In short: the important thing is acting as a go-between. A director is a go-between.
This task was somehow modelled on me, since all my life I have had signs that I could be an interlocutor. It was easy enough for me thanks to the influence of my father, or because I had seen other people acting like this. I do not know what the result will be, but I agree with you: I do create a means to get people together, to unite.

In order to reach the others in this way you need love, respect and courage: nothing will ever belong to you otherwise. How can we live if we hesitate in front of risk? With these three operas I have taken a risk. “And why do you do it, if you realize the risk?”, my husband always asks me... Because my method makes me think we are a whole. All these young people are glad to be on stage: mimes, members of the chorus, orchestra musicians, singers… You've never been to the singers' rehearsals... You would see another side of their commitment, when I explain the various stages, the words and how they should pronounce these words. Sure, every now and then someone prefers to avoid the test, someone who is not interested and just says “I already know that, why should I be put to the test again?”

Nothing Happens By Chance
And now I have discovered this exceptionally talented Martini... I had never heard of him... but a sign came from our savings bank: they presented their customers with a book of Spiridione Martini’s drawings inspired by Dante. Leafing through it I thought, “here is a genius... How suitable for Macbeth!” I made a research and found out he was in love with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and had illustrated it...Then I thought “it's him!" I pay attention to signs... Signs always direct you... He drew the Witches, he drew a sensational Macbeth... I'm telling you, my Macbeth was greatly influenced by this gentleman... I found him on my way, at a point when my way was already somewhat traced but I lacked the courage to follow it through.
Nothing happens by chance, things always come to you at the right time, and you must be able to catch them. Some people are always attentive, always receptive. They have open pores and absorb everything. But some other people are closed up, for a variety of reasons: it is not their fault, and much depends on how their childhood played its cards.

Women and children first
Stealing children's childhood is the worst crime of all, because it means stealing the yeast of life. When you make me think about Joan of Arc, I see my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my mother's sister, whom I never called my aunt… she was so much of my mother's sister. I see them all, lined up, advancing, a women platoon… with a powerful, amazing vitality.

I want to add that I am also a loner, a Bedouin, open to anything, wind, sand, especially solitude, which implies a confrontation with oneself. Blessed are those who love solitude, since they have a beautiful inner world in which to live. But those who are blessed with the beautiful gift of being a companion to themselves must donate it in turn, to be able to enjoy its full pleasure. It’s all about communicating vessels: I need my silence to somehow enrich it, then donate it and start re-filling it again... and so life goes on.

The table
I have personally selected these young artists: I have listened to them, and slowly introduced them to my concept of how we had to lay this sort of beautiful "table", I like talking about it as a sort of table... I talked to them, I captured them, I tried to bring the best out of them. And now I find them on stage, all the work I've done is there... It is not gone, and indeed this is the last act in a long previous discourse, without which nothing would have happened on this stage, that could also be nothing but a place of suffering. If people do not meet and do not understand each other, this could be a destructive experience, especially for such difficult parts as Lady Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff and all the characters of the commedia dell’arte Verdi loved and found in some of Shakespeare's plays. A third genius took part in this, and it was Boito. We should not forget Boito and his achievements! Boito cooked up for Verdi by mixing Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor through the character of Sir John Falstaff: a pot-pourri of pure genius.
One of the most beautiful pages ever written for both believers and non believers concerns the Last Supper, when you see Christ at the table, breaking the bread. He also had a need for this symbol, the table, and everybody was sitting at it: holy men, traitors, all of us... each apostle represents a slice of humanity.
In my opera, Banco is a Christological martyr... I can’t help it: when Banco arrives and points his finger towards Macbeth, Shakespeare has a toast, but here there is a banquet. When Banco comes in, it's Christ coming in. While he usually disappears, I have him sit at the table: I never plan in advance, I'm open to change, to signs.

In My Life, My Vocation
I've had this vocation since I was a child: we are all born with some disposition, and it's pointless to overlook them. And if you happen to have someone in the family who has as many vocations and passions, it is like the imitation of Christ, and the imitation of the parents you have admired as the champions of a capability for friendship. This vocation found its expression when I was a child: when I was at school, I was the one that had to do everything to have the children sing. When I was a little older, ten to twelve, my father chose me among his 5 children to travel around with his puppet show: we performed at hospices in the Po Delta region, bringing a smile to whomever needed one. Then the Girl Guides organization was born, and somehow the then Bishop asked me “Cristina, would you like to be a Ranger Guide?” I was eighteen. I had never been a girl guide, and I had to invent a world I knew nothing about... Imagine a girl who has never been a guide, who does not even know what a girl guide is... I had this little book, began to read it and started camping... And all these moms were entrusting me, a girl of eighteen, with their thirteen- or twelve-year-old daughters!
And then sport: I was petite, but had to tackle discus and javelin throw, shot put and all sorts of sports requiring strength and power since I had considerable elasticity. I did not excel in anything, but I was suitable for everything: I was a sort of jack-of-all-trades and all the things girls were not doing, I did. I was in all disciplines during tournaments: now that you mention it, I grew up with a multidisciplinary mentality.
At the Conservatory I was the organizer of all small concerts or groups... I wanted to be a singer but I've ended up doing everything except singing… that’s life... I gave it all up for my family. I met a handsome talented guy who was closed up like a clam and very pessimistic about the future of music: I felt the need to organize things for him as well, I was a sort of Joan of Arc by his side, constantly reminding him that the world was a better place than he thought. It is a vocation I have always complied with, and to which I am thoroughly committed.
At fourteen I was alone in Venice to study singing; three years later I moved to the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where I met Riccardo, graduated, debuted etc. Then I got married and dropped everything, and for twenty years I have been a wife and a mother, basically packing suitcases.
Then the Mayor of Ravenna asked me if I could do something for the city, and as you know I refused because I was too busy. But I later agreed, urged by my husband who had initially strongly disagreed because if you build a family, one of the two must be family… I truly think that, in a family, the mother is essential for “the table”!
In 1980 the Mayor of Ravenna asked me again, and in 1990 the first edition of the Festival saw the light. It's 25 years now, but for me it's 26, since in 1989 I worked for the 1990 Festival.
Let's not forget all the hours I spent listening to my husband's rehearsals in worldwide theatres: I just listened, but I also lived and talked with an artist. I never stopped, and I was like a child, soaking everything up like a sponge: I learned lots from the great directors, from the soloists and from my husband, himself an extraordinary man. This constant introspection in my artist's silence - I basically see myself as an artistic soul - built my experience and sensitivity through all the great people I met, even though I was not the protagonist.
The Mayor's request at that very moment was yet another sign in a life that was increasingly filling.
You go on sowing energy until someone at the right time, and perhaps without even realizing what he is doing, throws you in the game, and so you have to play... and I think I never stopped, all things considered.
I do not think this climate is very common, I see competitions everywhere, and I think we have a sort of paradise here, precisely because there is a woman who sees all this accumulated energy as the only positive result: no energy prevailing at the expense of others but everybody’s energy converging towards a common aim, an ultimate goal to be reached as best as we possibly can.
My way of working is peculiar, because the first thing I say to a singer with a good voice but maybe too shy is, "Show me who you are, let me understand, I know you have a beautiful voice, I know you can do something with it, you have good technique, you have studied. Now tell me how you would interpret your character... How would you do this? How would you do the sleepwalking Lady?" Then I look at her and in her gestures or pauses I can see her strong points and weak points. It is my task to enhance and improve her qualities and in so doing I improve too, because this psychological work is useful to both of us, and this is how the best of us both can emerge.
If you make a goal inaccessible, you have destroyed a small potential miracle.

I arrived at Cristina's in the fog, but I leave her in the sun. Cristina says, “Our words brought the sun out!” I like to think it really went like this. I ride my bike to the banks of the meeting rivers. A confluence: “Try to figure out which water is which!”.