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“Scheherazade is a strong woman—I find it a true blessing to be her voice”


“Scheherazade is a strong woman—I find it a true blessing to be her voice”

Interview with Luciana Mancini

Even as a child, Luciana Mancini was enchanted by the story of Scheherazade. Singing Ravel’s song cycle has brought an amazing reconnection to her. Although storytelling cannot be the same without an audience, music is capable of taking us on a fantastical journey to Scheherazade’s dreamworld even in the pandemic. Luciana Mancini sings with the Budapest Festival Orchestra on January 30 in Budapest.

It is not the first time that you sing with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. What is your history with and connection to Iván Fischer and the BFO?

Well, my father is a violinist and passionate about his profession, I have known about the orchestra, and Ivan Fischer is a musician I have heard all my life. When I was invited to sing L’Orfeo by Monteverdi it was a big honor that I would never had said no to. Then there was a very warm connection, not only with Ivan, but with the orchestra as well and when I got this second invitation I didn’t think twice, it was a certainty that I wanted to be part of this project, also because of the amazing music!

How many times have you been in Budapest?

When we worked together with the Monteverdi opera last year, I spent three weeks in Budapest. I loved it. Everything and everyone were very lovely. The work was very intensive, so I didn’t get to know Budapest so much.

This time my stay is unfortunately very short, but if we manage to work around the pandemic, hopefully I’ll be back later in the year for another, longer, project, and hope to take the boat along the Danube again, walk around the lovely streets downtown and eat more cinnamon rolls!

Have you ever worked with Michel Tabachnik too?

No, and this is another big honor! I’m looking forward working with him and discover new things in the score, which is very complex and multilayered and the Maestro, being a composer himself, I’m sure has lots of things to tell, that I, despite the long quiet hours at home, because of lock-down, have not discovered myself. This score, Ravel’s Shéhérazade is a very complex, I’ve had a lot of fun studying it. I had long months to dwell into the score and the story, but still, I’m sure that I will find new things.

How do you connect to Ravel’s Shéhérazade personally and emotionally?

I have a very dear and special connection with Scheherazade. As a child, as most children, I liked stories very much and my parents would read stories to me and my siblings almost every night, so I knew many of the stories of the One Thousand and One Nights. But it was not until I was 15, and had to spend three weeks in bed, that I discovered Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights... Then I actually swallowed a whole six volume, brilliant edition with wonderful translation that my father had bought for us, years earlier, to read when we were older. I would spend hours in her fascinating narrations, feeling as I was an invisible third audience (apart from the Sultan and Scheherazade’s little sister) and remember enjoying listening to Mahler’s Symphonies meanwhile! I fell prey to storytelling, so much that I actually did my masters on this topic.

It was later that I found out that Ravel had set Scheherazade. It was an amazing reconnection with her! Now, as a grown-up woman, I see so much more hidden inside Scheherazade’s situation, of course. As a child we don’t really think about her being trapped in her destiny. In the second song of this cycle for example, she sees her Master sleeping, and ceases her moment to daydream and drift away in her fantasy world through the sound of an enchanted flute, which she in the end, imagines flies to her in the form of a kiss. She is fantasizing about the world outside, in freedom. In the first song she also dreams away in her fantasy and when she “comes back” to reality, she seems so disappointed, but sweetly finds comfort in at least being able to share her stories with those who want to dream about other worlds and realities as well. Today, being so much more aware of so many other women’s fate, I have this sub text as well, an awareness of her as a victim. A strong woman who is finding refuge in her dreams, enjoying her near world. That is her escape. I find it a true blessing to be her voice.

Do you have a favorite of the three songs in Ravel’s cycle? A moment maybe you especially love?

Going back to what I mentioned before, I think what I love the most is to get to tell stories and, in this case, in first person! It is Scheherazade dreaming of herself traveling through all the places she tells stories about and seeing the characters and situations herself. I love being a storyteller to the audience. It gives me a more personal way to connect with the audience, looking them in the eyes, a chance to “talk” to them directly. Now there will not be an audience. But that made me think about it deeper and realizing that, well, actually Scheherazade is not telling these dreams to someone, but to herself. It gave it another inspiration, to dare to sing it to myself, to the night, out to the moon - that will be full!! I will take the listener with me to their own fantastic unlimited visions! I think that is my favorite part. The connection to the audience’s own fantasy!

As for the songs themselves, I think my favorite is the first one - Asie. It is so full of colors, so full of exotic and beautiful and even emotional descriptions, textures and climax. And her wit at the end, where she even gives away, one of her narrative tricks... But I also love how she starts all quiet and calm describing her sleeping Master and then suddenly, like a child she says “but I am not sleeping! I’m awake! And again, boom! She drifts away in her imagination again! I think I connect the most with those to, but could never leave out the third one, because that is where she shows a glimpse of her disappointment and inevitable frustration. It’s like the three dots at the end that should make the audience think beyond.

You mentioned that there will be no audience this time to look in the eye. How do you cope with this situation caused by the pandemic? What was your survival strategy in 2020?

In regard to this piece, I am actually very thankful, because if there was an audience, maybe I would have felt tempted to tell them the story, but that wouldn’t be right, because Scheherazade is alone. It helped me to understand earlier that it’s a different type of narration. It’s an inner journey and an inner storytelling, going along her fantasy as Scheherazade is dreaming.

As for COVID and 2020, I remember the first concert I did without an audience. I thought it might be very strange and fake and unsubstantial. But on the contrary: it was music in itself, together with colleagues: the musicians and of course the cameramen, the light technicians... There are always so many people involved. I do miss the audience, because I miss sharing the present moment as we live it in a live concert, furthermore music as sounds in general is vibration, it’s not the same on screen – but it doesn’t take away any pleasure from me. I’m longing so much for the audience but not because I want to look at them or want them to look at me, I just want to share this experience. But for me it’s really enough to make the music come alive together with my colleagues in a wonderful acoustic, hope we can soon fill the halls again and bathe in the sound together!

Funny note is that I also realized with the previous streaming experiences that I don’t actually need the applause after. I used to be afraid that maybe I had become an “applause-addict”, but to my great relief, I am not, I get the addictive rush purely from performing a piece from beginning to end, experiencing the “present moment” of the magic of sound vibration, together with wonderful colleagues!

I also think that everybody was working in such a crazy rhythm, it was crazy. I didn’t even have time to get nervous before a concert because it would be from one concert to the other. I think this stopping made us appreciate so much more the whole ceremony, the whole ritual of a concert. It has made us more aware of how precious our work is.