To hear him speak is to hear an art song, and when he raises his baton over the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, listeners are imbued with centuries of tradition, so steeped is he in Italian operatic literature.
To the delight of San Diego Opera audiences, Maestro Müller has returned all but one season since he made his conducting debut with “Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc)” in 1980.
“In spite of my name, I am full Italian,” says the maestro, who was born in Trieste and lives at least three months each year at the Milano home he shares with his wife, Giovanna, and at their home in the Italian Riviera. Nearby are grown children and three grandchildren. He speaks of his loved ones bel canto, and it is apparent that music and family are his life.
“‘Giovanna d’Arco’ was my American debut,” he says. “The conductor should have been Giovanni Gavazzoni, but he cancelled no more than a couple of weeks before the production.”
Tito Capobianco, SDO artistic director at the time, phoned Müller and asked him to name possible replacements. The year before the two men had met in Buseto at a competition for Verdian voices, Capobianco representing America, and Müller, La Scala. After Müller listed conductors, Capobianco said, “By the way, maestro, would you be available?”
Müller said he would love to come but had to organize things for his absence at La Scala. A few days later Müller phoned Capobianco and said, “Here I am. I am coming.”
The opera gods were smiling. A young agent attended “Giovanna d’Arco” and signed Müller, resulting in an extensive American career that includes the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera Chicago and the major houses in Philadelphia, Seattle and Houston, to name just a few.
Müller returned every year. Then Capobianco left.
“Ian Campbell apparently loved me and asked me to continue the relation with the theater. I was happy, because I loved the city, and I loved the theater, and I was enjoying it… every, every, every year.”
When Müller first appears in the orchestra pit, one can tell the audience loves him. “It’s reciprocal,” he said. “I love them, and I do what I can to give to San Diego my experience in the Italian repertoire.
“Before conducting, I was an assistant conductor, and I worked with so many good old conductors who know the tradition. What I’m doing is not because I listened to recordings, it is because I really learned on the stage, in the theater. I worked with conductors especially in Italy, but not only in Italy. I also learned from bad conductors, for what not to do, you see? My philosophy is that you must become dirty of theater and music; you must do mistakes before you learn how to do things.”
Müller’s big break came in Florence, when French conductor Georges Prêtre, who was scheduled to open the Maggio Musicale with “Mose in Egitto,” dropped out. Mueller stepped in, so impressing Claudio Abbado that he hired Müller to be his assistant at La Scala.
The maestro places emphasis on a good psychological connection with the singers, hoping thereby “to put them in the condition of giving their best.”
“He’s a great model for people who work with young artists,” said Geisel Director of Education and Outreach Nicolas Reveles. “It’s not about hiding your gift or protecting your ‘secrets,’ it’s all about communicating those secrets.”
Rising soprano Priti Gandhi, a former member of the SD Opera Ensemble who made her Caramoor Festival debut as Rosina in 2008, said, “I was fortunate to work with him quite a bit over two years. He personally cared. He remembered what I sounded like the last time he’d heard me. It made me feel very comfortable, like I was in the right hands.”
Whenever time allows, Maestro Müller conducts a master class in San Diego.
He thinks American singers are coming along very well. “America is doing good things for the new generation. I cannot say the same thing for other states [countries].”
Müller, who has been director for two years of La Scala’s school for young artists, said that there the good singers must make their debuts in other theaters and then return to La Scala. “Here? No. They are well supported and they have many chances. If someone is a talented singer with a good technique, a good musicality and a good instinct for acting, he can be sure to have a career in America.”
The 2008 season worldwide marked the 150th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s birth. Müller conducted lots of Puccini in the States, including a “Boheme” in Orange County and “Butterflys” in Cincinnati and Detroit. During the 2009 season in San Diego, he conducts three Italian operas: “Tosca,” “Rigoletto” and “Madama Butterfly.” He returns to conduct “Nebuchadnezzar” in 2010.
Müller remarked that his public in San Diego is different from that in other countries, to say nothing of La Scala, where boos and catcalls are commonplace. “I think in San Diego people are always too nice… Sometimes I would appreciate a more severe reaction.”
It’s likely that we will continue to reap benefits from Müller’s presence for many years to come. At 74 he is in robust, good health.
“I feel the energy, the love and desire to do better and better,” he said. “My wife and the theater are the main reasons for this.”
“Rigoletto” opens March 26 for five performances at the Civic Theatre. For information, call (619) 570-1100.