Interview: Francesco Cilluffo9:06, 16th August 2018
An Italian who, he reveals, does not drink espresso coffee and is not an enthusiast for Italian food, Francesco Cilluffo does at least have a deep love of opera.
‘I don’t come from a musical family but my father was a Latin and Greek scholar and a great opera lover. So when I was little there was always opera playing in the background. I remember when I was five listening to Aida and I was very taken by this music. So I asked him: what’s this all about? And in a very clever way he told me the story as though it was a fairy tale, although a very tragic one of course. I remember I ended up listening to the whole thing. At the end of that I said to myself that I want to be part of this world.’
Cilluffo is in London – we meet in the Green Park, with echoes of Verdi in its name – for rehearsals ahead of his debut with Opera Holland Park. He will be conducting Mascagni’s Isabeau, a neglected work of the kind that the company has specialised in reviving. He is happy to be back in the city where he spent several years as a postgraduate composition student having completed his degree in his home city of Turin.
‘I fell completely in love with London the very first time I came here – it was on a school trip 30 years ago. Also, I had the idea that this was really a place where I could grow up as a musician, as a person, as an artist. At that time I was mostly studying composition. Italian composition teaching, although very thorough and very serious, has always been basically on avant-garde and mostly German and French music – Boulez and all that. I felt I had a different voice and I knew that the way composition was taught in England was from a more pluralistic point of view.’
He had at university even written his final thesis on Britten’s Billy Budd. ‘At that time – we are talking about 2001 – it was seen as almost rebellious because Britten was considered to be a very soft, conservative composer. It was like a statement. In fact, one of the most successful things I did recently as a conductor in Italy was this touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I insisted on doing it with an all-Italian cast, or almost, because I think there are some lyric sides to Britten’s writing that are very much in the tradition of making music in a bel canto kind of way.’
He refers several times during our conversation to his particular attachment to music of the early 20th century, this being the period, of course, when Mascagni was writing. And Isabeau is not his first encounter with his lesser known operas: he conducted Guglielmo Ratcliff at Wexford Opera in 2015, never imagining as a boy that he would ever even see a production.
‘I see the early 20th-century Italian operatic style not just as part of a long-standing operatic tradition from Italy but really a cultural product of what the world of music was at that time which was mostly European culture, French culture and German culture. As a composer I think I can give a broader spectrum to this music that is not just wonderful, passionate love stories but that has so many layers.’
These days his composing takes a back seat to his international conducting work. After Holland Park, his appearances include Wexford again this year (for a double bill of L’Oracolo and Mala Vita) and in 2019 a return to the Grange Festival for whom he conducted Verdi’s Requiem last year.
‘What I think these three all have in common, and this is something that gives me a lot of joy, is that there is an extreme care and love for the form of opera and there is this mission to bring opera to as many people as possible. And to bring back to life operas that for some reason were neglected and deserve to be heard again.’
As we prepare to leave the park and head to Piccadilly, I ask if there is anything he would like to add before we end the interview. Not really, he says. ‘But I’m very happy that we met here because I can get my Fortnum and Mason fix: I am a great tea lover. So I’m a bit un-Italian there too.’
1979 born Turin
2004-5 fellow in composition and conducting, Guildhall School of Music & Drama
2005 awarded masters in composition from Guildhall
2008 awarded PhD in composition, King’s College London
2010 premiere of his opera Il caso Mortara at Dicapo Opera Theater, New York
2015 makes debut at Wexford Opera
2018 makes debut at Opera Holland Park