Several days have passed since the launch of the fifth edition of Riccardo Muti’s Italian Opera Academy, this year focused on Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). As in previous years, the musicians of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, opera singers and a group of talented young conductors and répétiteurs have assembled, along with dedicated audience members, at the Teatro Dante Alighieri in Ravenna, Italy, for two weeks of focused study with distinguished conductor, master interpreter and teacher Riccardo Muti as their guide.

At the beginning of rehearsal, Maestro Muti introduces a special guest to the assembled musicians. It is Li-Kuo Chang, Acting Principal Viola of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who just completed his 31st year with the Orchestra in the 2018-19 season. Welcomed with enthusiastic applause from the musicians on stage and the audience in the theater, Chang says, “It is an honor and a privilege to continue learning from Maestro Muti, especially in this special atmosphere of the Academy.” Then, Chang and the other musicians get down to work, immersed in the world of Mozart’s music.

Exterior of the Teatro Alighieri in Ravenna, Italy, during the 2019 Italian Opera Academy

Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, part of the Mozart-da Ponte trilogy that also includes Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni, is in many respects an Italian opera and a natural choice for this year’s academy following presentations of Verdi’s operas in recent editions (Falstaff, La traviata, Aida and Macbeth).  As Muti explains, “This is a gift that Mozart made to the Italian repertoire, because it is undoubtedly an Italian masterpiece—not only because it sets to music a libretto written in Italian but also because it proves that Mozart knew and spoke Italian and that he fully mastered the typical intonation and flow of our language and the melody and the rhythm of words. He perfectly captured the expressive thread that runs through the verses in the arias and in the recitatives, which were later borrowed as models and brought to perfection by Verdi.”

Chang says, “I love this opera. I have the score and many favorite recordings, but being at the Academy, and listening to Maestro Muti’s analysis in such an intimate and unhurried atmosphere, has revealed more of Mozart and da Ponte’s double meanings in the opera. This in-depth exploration introduces me to ideas that can unlock a new interpretation of this masterpiece, even for me as a seasoned professional musician.”

Chang has also observed the impact of this method with the younger musicians at the Academy. He adds, “I am also deeply touched and inspired to see Maestro Muti, someone with such status, knowledge and experience, giving so much time, dedication, passion and energy to sharing his understanding of the authentic interpretation for the Italian opera masterpieces with young generations of musicians, who can someday carry this great tradition all over the world, for many years to come. Maestro Muti’s ability to explain the inner connections — between the words and the notes, between the voices and the instruments —is so enlightening, so convincing and yet so accessible and engaging, that I wish every musician in the world could come here to experience this in person!”

During his time at the Academy, Chang joins the Cherubini Orchestra as guest principal viola, sitting wih the young musicians in the viola section as five young international conductors lead rehearsals alternately. Reflecting on why operatic repertoire is important for the orchestral musician, Chang says, “Performing opera is a big, combined effort of many musicians. You must develop a sense of flexibility and sensitivity, and learn how to provide a good musical background that maintains emotional intensity but is never too loud. This is something that we as CSO musicians have learned with Maestro Muti in preparing and performing several of Verdi’s operas, but it is so valuable for any orchestral player.”

Riccardo Muti reviews a score with Academy conductor and participant Jiannan Cheng

Being among the Italian pre-professional musicians who make up the Cherubini Orchestra leads Chang to another discovery. He notes, “Of course, for any musician, there’s always rooms to improve, but I was immediately impressed by the unanimous concept of the tone production of these young musicians. It was very unified and refined, expressive yet elegant — a very fitting style for Mozart, and obviously the result of years of Maestro Muti’s cultivation. This is exactly what Maestro Muti wants in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra‘s understanding and execution of tone production. I am absolutely delighted to be surrounded by these wonderful, talented young musicians. I have come here to teach them and help them develop, but they have already led me to new ideas about how to play this music during our time together.”

Eileen Chambers is director of communications and public relations for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.

TOP: CSO Acting Principal Viola Li-Kuo Chang is greeted by Riccardo Muti on the stage of the Teatro Dante Alighieri at the 2019 Italian Opera Academy. | Photos: Zani and Casadio