Riccardo Muti is a conductor in the old style—fiery, demanding, and charismatic. He was said to idolize another Italian autocrat of the podium, Arturo Toscanini. Famous off the podium for wrangling with administrators and presenters, he sometimes ended up in the headlines. Yet there have been few other figures in the world of classical music who could command similar attention, and though Muti has had detractors as well as admirers, no one has doubted his energy and sheer force of personality. Considered one of the true greats among contemporary conductors, Muti has been equally at home in the opera house and in the symphonic concert hall.
Southern Italian to the core, Muti was born in Naples on July 28, 1941. His father was a doctor who also was a singer. Taking violin and piano lessons at home, Muti moved on to study composition and piano at the San Pietro a Majella Conservatory in Naples. One of his teachers there was future Godfather soundtrack composer Nino Rota. Switching to conducting, Muti attended the Verdi Conservatory in Milan. His breakthrough as a conductor was a win in Italy's Guido Cantelli Competition in 1967. That led to a conducting appearance with the orchestra of the Italian national RAI radio network the following year, giving him a reputation as a young conductor to watch. In 1969 he married Christina Mazzavillani; the couple had two sons and one daughter. That year he became principal conductor of the Maggio Musicale (May Music Festival) in Florence, one of Europe's most prominent annual classical music events. He remained in that post until 1981.
The early 1970s saw Muti filling a sequence of guest conducting slots, each more prestigious than the last. Holding a conducting job with the Civic Theatre in Florence, he appeared at the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 1971 and with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1972—two of the top symphony orchestras in the world. The Philadelphia Orchestra appearance proved to be the beginning of a long love affair with Muti for concertgoers in that heavily Italian-American city; Muti became principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1977, and in 1980 he took over the music directorship of the orchestra from its legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy.
Other American orchestras floundered after their leaders of the middle twentieth century retired, but under Muti the Philadelphia retained its exalted status. From 1974 to 1982 Muti also served as conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra, adding the post of music director in 1979. He continued to conduct opera performances in Europe's top theaters in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and among his critically acclaimed recordings of that time was a 1980 version of Verdi's La Traviata for the EMI label, with the Philharmonia Orchestra backing stars Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus. "The most remarkable quality of the performance is its intimacy," wrote Peter G. Davis of Opera News. Muti strictly observed the notated musical scores of operas, but within those parameters he shaped distinctive interpretations.
In 1986 Muti notched a still-greater career accomplishment when he became music director of the La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. The history of that illustrious theater, dating back to 1778, included the premieres of many of the classics of Italian opera. Muti hung on to his Philadelphia post, but tired of the transatlantic commuting after a few years.
He also never quite succeeded in coming to terms with the egalitarian nature of the American cultural scene. "I always felt the accent was more on entertainment than the cultural experience," he told Andrew Clark of Britain's Financial Times. "When I made tours around the U.S., I was shocked to find reviews written on a page called 'entertainment': topless show next to Bruckner [Symphony No.] 7. That says it all. It says culture is something to consume, not to engage with. When I go to a concert or opera, my attitude is to go to a place where I make my mind work." Muti gave up his music directorship in Philadelphia in 1992, but stayed on as conductor laureate and continued to appear with the orchestra.
By that time, Muti was one of the best-known conductors in the world. He was also unafraid to exert his power and influence. Even early in his career he had walked away from productions in Florence, Milan, and Paris, rather than compromise over artistic questions. In 1992 he pulled out of an appearance at Austria's prestigious Salzburg Festival because he disliked the ultramodern interpretation of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito being mounted by director Gérard Mortier. He stayed away from Salzburg throughout the 1990s but found plenty of work otherwise, continuing to make both operatic and symphonic recordings for EMI and releasing several albums a year for much of the decade. Seemingly safely ensconced at La Scala, he turned down the top post in American classical music, the conductorship of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, in 2000.
Controversy began to engulf Muti at La Scala itself, however, as the opera house closed down for a massive renovation in 2003. The organization mounted operas in a new suburban Milan theater, the Teatro degli Arcimboldi, to which a member of La Scala's board of directors had financial connections. Muti objected to he what he saw as the dumbing-down of La Scala's programming in its temporary home, and he attempted to convince the La Scala orchestra to cast a no-confidence vote against general manager Carlo Fontana. The move backfired; the orchestra musicians not only refused to go along but also lodged a complaint of their own against Muti, alleging that he had refused to hire prominent guest conductors who might detract from his own power.
The feud intensified, and made headlines in Italy. Among Muti's detractors was film director Franco Zeffirelli, who was quoted by Anthony Barnes in London's Independent Sunday as saying that Muti was "drunk with himself, drugged by his own art and his own personal vanity; he can only talk about himself; he's become a caricature of a conductor." But Milan mayor Gabriele Albertini, a La Scala board member, defended Muti, often referring to him as the world's greatest conductor.
For the Record . . .
Born on July 28, 1941, in Naples; son of a doctor and singer; married Christina Mazzavillani; children: two sons and one daughter. Education: Attended San Pietro a Majella Conservatory, Naples, Italy, and Verdi Conservatory, Milan, Italy.
Made conducting debut with RAI orchestra, Italy, 1968; named principal conductor, Civic Theatre of Florence, 1970; named principal conductor, New Philharmonia Orchestra (later Philharmonia Orchestra), London, 1974; Philadelphia Orchestra, principal guest conductor, 1977-80; music director, 1980-92; laureate conductor, 1992–; La Scala opera house, Milan, Italy, music director, 1986-2005.
Awards: Winner, Guido Cantelli Competition, 1967; Great Silver Medal of the Austrian Republic, 2001; inducted into Legion of Honor, France, 1992; Federal Republic of Germany, Order of the Cross; Republic of Italy, Cavalier of the Grand Cross.
Addresses: Office—Riccardo Muti, Conductor Laureate, Philadelphia Orchestra, Broad and Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19102.
The appointment of a new administrator, Mauro Meli, as a buffer between Muti and Fontana temporarily patched up the quarrel. But controversy flared around Muti once again in 2004, when he backed out of a La Scala-designed production of Verdi's La forza del destino at England's Royal Opera House, after British administrators demanded a small change in the stage sets—the replacement of a solid brick wall with a curtain—that they said was necessary for safety reasons. Muti was lambasted as a prima donna in Britain's famously merciless newspapers.
After La Scala reopened in late 2004, things deteriorated for Muti in Milan once again. He persuaded the opera company's board to force Fontana out and to replace him with Meli, but the orchestra players refused to accept the decision and organized several wildcat strikes. On March 16, 2005, they convened a meeting of all of the theater's 700 or 800 employees, who voted overwhelmingly to ask for Muti's resignation. After two more weeks of bickering, Muti resigned his post on April 2. No one thought that this marked the end of Muti's career. He was said as of mid-2005 to be under consideration for the position of conductor of the Chicago Symphony, and it would be a rare opera house that would turn down the chance to benefit from his musicianship and charisma.
(Verdi) Nabucco, EMI 1986.
(Mozart) Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), EMI 1987.
(Respighi) Pini di Roma/Fontane di Roma (Pines of Rome/Fountains of Rome), EMI, 1991.
(Tchaikovsky) Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty Suites, EMI 1992.
(Bellini) I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues), EMI, 1994.
(Verdi) Requiem Mass, EMI, 1995.
(Beethoven) Symphonies 1 and 5, EMI, 1997.
(Bruckner) Symphony No. 4, EMI, 1999.
(Verdi) Il Trovatore, Sony, 2000.
(Mahler) Symphony No. 1, EMI, 2001.
(Brahms) Complete Symphonies, Philips, 2002.
(Puccini) Tosca, Decca, 2003.
(Rossini) Stabat Mater and Petite Messe Solonelle (Little Solemn Mass), EMI, 2005.
Evening Standard (London, England), September 24, 2004, p. 21; April 20, 2005, p. 20.
Financial Times (London, England), January 22, 2005, p. 34.
Guardian (London, England), January 31, 2005, p. 16.
Independent Sunday (London, England), April 3, 2005, p. 13.
New York Times, September 17, 2000, p. AR1.
Opera News, July 2005, pp. 18, 22.
Times (London, England), April 9, 1986.
"Riccardo Muti," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 20, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
Muti, Riccardo, greatly talented Italian conductor; b. Naples, July 28, 1941. His father was a physician who possessed a natural Neapolitan tenor voice. After receiving instruction in violin and piano from his father, Riccardo studied composition with Napoli and Rota at the Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella in Naples, taking a diploma in piano. He then studied conducting with Votto and composition with Bettinelli at the Verdi Cons, in Milan, and also attended a seminar in conducting with Ferrara in Venice (1965). After winning the Guido Cantelli Competition in 1967, he made his formal debut with the RAI in 1968; then conducted in several of the major Italian music centers. His success led to his appointment as principal conductor of the Teatro Comunale in Florence in 1970; also conducted at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, becoming its artistic director in 1977. In the meantime, he began his advancement to international fame with guest conducting appearances at the Salzburg Festival in 1971 and with the Berlin Phil. in 1972. He made his U.S. debut with the Philadelphia Orch. on Oct. 27, 1972. In 1973 he conducted at the Vienna State Opera, and that same year became principal conductor of the New Philharmonia Orch. in London (it resumed its original name of Philharmonia Orch. in 1977). In 1974 he conducted the Vienna Phil. and in 1977 appeared at London’s Covent Garden. His successful appearances with the Philadelphia Orch. led to his appointment as its principal guest conductor in 1977. In 1979 he was also named music director of the Philharmonia Orch. In 1980 he succeeded Eugene Ormandy as music director of the Philadelphia Orch., and subsequently relinquished his posts in London and Florence in 1982. In 1986 he became music director of Milan’s La Scala, but retained his Philadelphia position. Muti announced his resignation as music director of the Philadelphia Orch. in 1990, but agreed to serve as its laureate conductor from 1992. His brilliance as a symphonic conductor enabled him to maintain, and even enhance, the illustrious reputation of the Philadelphia Orch. established by Stokowski and carried forward by Ormandy. Unlike his famous predecessors, he excels in both the concert hall and the opera pit.
J. Kurnick, ed., R. M.: Twenty Years in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1992).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire