Holidays with Maestro Mazzola

We spoke with Lyric’s Music Director Designate, Enrique Mazzola, about his holiday traditions growing up, what it’s like to conduct during the holidays, and asked him to share his holiday music playlist. Enjoy Maestro Mazzola’s holiday playlist on Spotify while reading more about our soon-to-be music director:

Listen to Maestro Mazzola’s holiday playlist!

LYRIC: Tell me about your holidays growing up in Milan. What were some of your favorite holiday traditions?

ENRIQUE: In Italy, we always had a Christmas tree and we also had a nativity scene, which we would wait to put a small figure of the baby Jesus until the 25th. In the beginning of January, we would add the three Wise Men with the candles. They would start somewhere else in the room, apart from the nativity scene, and every day the figurines would move closer and closer to the manger. It was a fun, beautiful tradition. I remember my mother, at midnight on the 24th, always asked us to go in front of the nativity scene together and sing carols. 

I also remember we would have some fun theatrics putting the gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve. Our parents would push us in our bedroom, closing the bedroom, and would fake Santa’s arrival! They went outside the apartment and buzzed the doorbell, and my siblings and I were locked away and would yell, “Ah he’s arriving, he’s arriving!” And we could hear “Welcome Santa, thank you for coming” and it was a sort of theater production! We would hear the door close and my parents would come open our door and we would run to the gifts. 

I have one brother and one sister, so there were three of us. And to be able to make everybody happy, the Christmas tree would always have a balance of gifts—one gift for everyone. But we too, we kids, were used to making gifts for everyone, which I loved. My brother and I were also singing in the children’s chorus of La Scala in Milan during the holidays! We were earning small money, something like 75 euros per month, so it was enough money to go out with mom to buy a small gift for dad, like socks, or to go out one day with dad to buy something for our mom. We used to have a Christmas Eve dinner, on the 24th, and then a Christmas lunch. But after lunch, we were too busy with gifts or new toys.

I spent my New Years at home until probably 15, and then started to celebrate with my classmates from the conservatory of Milan. We were really a strong group of students of composition, of piano, of conducting. We liked to spend time together.

LYRIC: In recent years, more often than not you’ve worked during the holiday season. What are some special holiday memories while you’ve been conducting?

ENRIQUE: Yes, since I’ve started my professional life, I don’t often get to spend the holidays with my family. The holidays start to blend together year after year because I am almost always conducting! I might have a premiere on the fourth of January, so I could be in rehearsals. One year I conducted The Barber of Seville twice on New Year’s Eve at the Deutsche Oper Berlin! That day was really hard and tiring because not only was it two performances, but it was with two different casts of singers and orchestra players, so I was the only one doing this big effort. I got home after that and was in bed by 11:30—I couldn’t even make it to midnight! It often happens like that; I’d be in rehearsal for something and we share New Year’s Eve with the cast.

But the funny thing about an artist’s life is that I often find myself flying places on the 25th of December…and I think my fellow artists/frequent flyers would agree that flying on Christmas is one of the best days of the year to travel!

I am excited to spend my holidays here in Chicago and see how the Chicagoans spend New Year’s Eve. In Italy, we have the tradition to have firecrackers—they make a lot of noise! So Italians go in the street to set them off, I’ve never done it because I care about my hands as a conductor and it is very dangerous. But Italians also do a lot of open-air concerts until midnight or later, and people stay in a bigger square dancing. I’m not as much into that when I’m working to make sure I stay healthy, but I’m interested to see what will happen in Chicago!

Enrique Mazzola conducting in Lyric's 2019/20 production of Verdi's Luisa Miller.

LYRIC: Do you have a specific opera that gets you into the holiday spirit or maybe makes you think of the holidays? 

ENRIQUE: If you take the first and second act of Puccini’s La bohème, it is very wintery, very Paris. I would sing in the second act of La bohème in the children’s chorus at La Scala during the holidays! The children are chasing a street vendor and would sing “We love the toys!” So it’s a very festive winter opera and one that I have a personal winter memory with from my time in the children’s chorus.

I have another personal winter memory from Massenet’s Wertherin the first act, the children are singing “Noel” because it is Christmas time. This one part of the opera is festive, if you ignore the tragedy of the rest of the opera! The imagination of a kid is so connected with the discovery of life’s tragedies, which opera will teach and show. My time singing in the children’s choir during the holidays is really, in a way, the start of my artistic life and love. I’ve been inside the opera world from an early age and I bring these positive memories with me still today.

LYRIC: Speaking of songs that have meaning to you, tell me a little bit more about your holiday playlist. Why did you choose these songs?

ENRIQUE: (laughs) Oh my God. I love “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” but I didn’t remember the Jackson 5 version! So when I found it, I was so excited. “Fancy Free” is a very beautiful ballad and quite unknown music by Bernstein. The Nutcracker creates a winter wonderland evocation in every number, yes? Tchaikovsky, winter, Russia, it’s all very beautiful. And then Bach’s “Magnificat;” this is a piece I conducted many years ago in Santa Cecilia in Rome and it is so joyful and spiritual. This piece exudes joy from the first notes and it’s a great listen during the holidays.

I bought the Norah Jones "Day Break" CD recently, even though it’s a few years old. But Norah Jones is very experimental as an artist and is always chasing new ways to express herself. And this album is sort of a coming back to her jazz roots. It’s, in a way, the most pure Norah Jones.

LYRIC: And Dire Straits, you like them as well?

ENRIQUE: Well, I’m a big fan of Dire Straits. I know that "Brothers in Arms" is more famous than "Love Over Gold." But for me, "Love Over Gold" has always been a very iconic album. I have to confess, when I was 13 or 14, my friends and I created a small rock band! And our goal was to be able to play the whole "Love Over Gold" album. So we put our money together to rent a small studio in some basement and instruments. We had no scores, and we would just listen and try to play! We would need something like one hour to prepare one minute of music. I know every second of this album; I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s part of my goal to always see music as separate from its genre. We divide music into categories like jazz, hip-hop, pop, or classical. Instead, it should be “the music you like” and “the music you don’t like.” Or better yet, “the music which is well done” or “the music which is not well done.” Mark Knopfler’s knowledge of the guitar is unbelievable; he mastered the instrument. But the whole group is really fantastic. I think the album is a piece of art, a really good piece of art. 

LYRIC: What are some of your favorite holiday dishes and treats?

ENRIQUE: I always loved panettone, which is an Italian holiday sweet bread with raisins and candied fruit, very typical in Milan! My love for it definitely reveals my sweet tooth!

Photos: Kyle Flubacker, Joe Mazza, Todd Rosenberg