'Time has come for our cultures to get closer': Renowned music conductor Michele Gamba on performing at Dubai Opera as part of COP 28

Can music address the urgency of climate change?

By Mariella Radaelli

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Michele Gamba.
Michele Gamba.

Published: Mon 27 Nov 2023, 8:03 PM

Last updated: Fri 1 Dec 2023, 5:03 PM

Opera’s sheer universality represents deeply emotive stories reflecting the best and the worst of human nature. When the 80 musicians from La Scala Theatre Orchestra take their places on stage in the Dubai Opera on December 1, it will mark a historical moment as the music ensemble from the world’s most revered La Scala Opera House in Milan makes its debut in the Gulf region after more than two centuries since its inception. A pianist and conductor widely admired in both roles for his acute, deliberately unflashy musicianship, Michele Gamba, 40, will be at the podium for ‘Concert for Tomorrow’ for the United Nations COP28 Climate Summit. He will lead the instrumentalists of La Scala in an operatic gala concert featuring a mix of well-known operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni.

La Scala Orchestra is one of the world’s top ensembles for opera productions. Its recording catalogue stretches back to the 78rpm era and includes some of the most famous opera records ever made under the guidance of the Orchestra’s legendary principal conductors and musical directors.

Maestro Gamba will bring the written score to life through his fiery baton and establish a deep connection between his arm movements and the music emanating from the players. On the Dubai Opera stage, he will also keep the beat and shape the sound for two of the major opera stars who will showcase their vocal and theatrical power: the Russian soprano Aida Garifullina, a mind-bending talent with a beautiful voice in perfect pitch and coloratura and Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo who, at the last moment, replaces Piero Pretti.

Music is a unifying, powerful force, and in Dubai, La Scala Theatre Orchestra, with its name’s history and its sound’s cohesiveness, aims to transmit a rich tradition and a message of hope that raises social awareness on climate change. City Times met Michele Gamba as he prepared to fly with the troupe for the event. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Maestro Gamba, what does this Dubai debut mean to the La Scala Theatre Orchestra?

This debut represents a historical landmark in the history of our prestigious orchestra, and we all hope this concert will also be a fruitful opportunity to develop new policies to protect the environment.

Milan’s famed La Scala Opera House opened in 1778, but its orchestra is going to perform only now for the first time in the Gulf. Why?

Relations between nations and people need time, and culture plays a key role in everyone’s identity. Now, we all feel that the time has come for our cultures to get closer and merge to create something new.

How will you approach the performance and the Emirati audience?

Each concert has an extraordinary atmosphere. Here, we know that we are ambassadors for our country, which is an even bigger responsibility for each of us. You selected highlights from the opera repertoire: set pieces by Verdi, Puccini and Mascagni.

What standout arias did you choose for the gala concert?

The programme is the epitome of our core repertoire. Each aria and each overture is a meaningful gem of the world’s musical heritage. From La Bohème to La Forza del Destino, through Cavalleria Rusticana and Traviata, we take our audience for a trip to the heart of musical culture.

Vittorio Grigolo
Vittorio Grigolo

You wanted two international stars on stage as soloists: the world-famous Aida Garifullina, a Russian lyric soprano of Tatar descent, and Vittorio Grigolo, exponent of true Italian tenor singing, with a warm, full voice and easy top notes.

First of all, they are indeed great artistes, not just technically but also expressively. They always bring something new and fresh to each performance.

‘Concert for Tomorrow’ coincides with the World Climate Action Summit, a gathering of global leaders at the start of COP28. How did you get involved in the event?

In 2021, when the pandemic was still ongoing, I was invited by the Teatro La Fenice in Venice to conduct the concert for COP26. Later, I was so happy to hear that La Scala was invited to represent Italy at this important summit in Dubai. Now I am honoured to be a part of this event again.

Aida Garifullina
Aida Garifullina

Nature has always been a source of inspiration for composers. I think of Beethoven or Vivaldi. For instance, Puccini hated everything associated with cities (except automobiles, a passion) and adored his lakeside home in the bucolic town of Torre del Lago, Tuscany, where he could reach tranquility essential to creating his operas. Has the time come for classical music to combat the climate and nature emergency?

No doubt about it. Nature has always been an inspiration for any form of art. Music has something even more special: it does not paint pictures or write words. It evokes landscapes and feelings as soon as the first note vibrates in the air.

There is a vital liaison between music and breathing. Sound, the human voice, would not be possible without breathing. The composer transforms the rhythm, the harmonies, and the melodies into physical sounds. “The orchestra is a breathing organism,” you wrote in the book Il senso del respiro. As an orchestra conductor, it is as if you infused the breath through a mysterious podium dance with the upbeat and downbeat of the arm motions so that the orchestra gives life and soul to sound.

Yes, the gesture of a conductor is the physical representation of breathing. To produce a sound, any instrumentalist needs to breathe. And the conductor must help to inhale and exhale.

Titans of music, such as Arturo Toscanini, Victor de Sabata, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti and Daniel Barenboim, led the La Scala Theatre Orchestra. What influence do these legendary conductors have on your work and that of your musicians today?

These are music gods. No one can even think of reaching those peaks. They have all left a big, lasting impact on the orchestra: the sound and the texture of La Scala are unique.

Born and raised in Milan, you studied piano and conducting at the Giuseppe Verdi Milan Conservatory.  In 2016, at 32, you debuted at La Scala after a seven-year-long experience in London at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and then in Berlin. You divide your time between symphony and opera conducting, chamber music and piano performance. But you are also active in music outside the usual classical canon. In which area do you feel most comfortable?

My roots are at the piano; that’s where I come from and where I always go back. Whether I am studying a new score or preparing for a chamber music concert, the piano remains my environment. Musically, I am voracious and very curious about new languages.

You achieved great success at the MetOpera, New York, with Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at the start of the year. On that occasion, you said that you don’t like comparing yourself to giants of the past. “I don’t have to prove anything,” you said. You claim that a new generation of conductors is changing the conducting technique. Can you give us an example of what you mean?

The relationships with the orchestras have changed enormously over the last few decades. Today, the level of the instrumentalists is incomparably higher, and now the actual job has become more of mutual enrichment. Conducting an orchestra is now more of an osmotic exchange between peers, each of us is very aware of our role.

Has the fact that you are also very active in contemporary music changed your way of leading musicians when you infuse them with your aesthetic ideas developed around a classical repertoire composition before and during the performance?

Indeed, contemporary music plays a crucial role in my musical approach. The difficulty of some scores requires extra effort from everyone involved. Part of my job is helping my colleagues remember that we need to enjoy the actual process of making music as part of a communicative relationship between us and the audience. That applies to new music as much as more classical repertoire.

Are other concerts planned in the United Arab Emirates and Gulf countries? Will collaborations arise?

I had my Oman debut last September with the Rai Symphony Orchestra. We played Rossini and were very happy to share the sheer joy emanating from this great composer’s music with the Omani audience. We hope for more opportunities to come.

What projects do you have in the near future?

La Scala, again! A new production of Cherubini’s Médée on the centenary of Maria Callas’s birth and a contemporary piece by Fabio Vacchi, an exciting melting pot of opera and ballet.

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