San Diego Reader: So one question I’ve never been able to ask any singer and will probably never be able to ask again is what was it like to work with von Karajan, you were very young at the time, yeah? You sang Leporello on his DG recording?
Ferruccio Furlanetto: The first meeting with von Karajan was for an audition which was, at that time, extremely hard to get. I remember that I was already represented, in this country at least, by Columbia Artists at that time, which was and still is a big company. I asked this fantastic old lady that was taking care of me, Nelly Walter, if it would be possible for me to get an audition, and I didn’t succeed.
In the same year I started to work in Europe with Michel Glotz, who for my luck, did 35 years as a recording producer with Karajan. He got the audition in a matter of 24 hours. So I remember that I was going on my way into Germany, Kassel, for my first King Philip [from Verdi’s Don Carlo, a role Ferruccio has performed at SDO].
I had this audition with Karajan which was very adventurous because it was planned to be at 1 p.m. so at noon I was already there warming up, very tense, and then at 1:00 nobody showed up. At 2 p.m., zero, at 3 p.m. finally, I saw this man for the first time come in through the corridor. He was tiny with a beautiful head of hair. He said to me in Italian, very good Italian, “Oh yes, I remember we had an audition. I’m in rehearsal for the Verdi Requiem, give me some time, I will be back.” To make it short, I had an audition at 9 p.m. that day, which was good. Which was absolutely good because all my tension, my nerves, were gone — I was so fed up. And he came, he brought me to the main stage where there was the shell for the Verdi Requiem.
Reader: Was this in Salzburg?
FF: Salzburg, in the grosses festspielhaus. And he said “what would you like to sing” and I said “I’m going to sing Don Carlo because I’m going to do my first”. So I was there with the pianist and god himself out there in the last row and asked for the Don Carlo. We went to his studio and he said “the voice is very interesting, I love the color and everything, the intention and interpretation of course are different from what I would like, do you have a tape recorder?”
“The cassettes of my Don Carlo with Ghiaurov, Carreras, listen to it and tomorrow at 12 p.m., you come back."
So I did listen. I entered the studio the next day and I had 45 minutes of singing lesson or let’s call it a coaching for this specific aria. Karajan, he was at the piano, I was singing. At the end he was full of compliments and I remember him saying, “Now unfortunately for the next three years I have only German repertoire but I will remember.”
In the meantime he got sick, and quite serious, and so I thought I can’t imagine if Karajan will remember. Exactly three years after he asked me to do, chance that he was very much looking forward to be the concert meister in a religious ceremony at the Vatican, the Mozart Coronation Mass inside the St Peter’s Basilica with everything, laserdisc, whatever there was and then the Leporello in Don Giovanni.
How was it to work with him? If you think today, and also in the recent past, wherever there was a preeminent conductor leading the theater, he was never interested in inviting any good other one. In the Karajan times, at his festival, you had Bernstein, Giulini, Solti, the younger generation like Jimmy Levine, Ozawa. Salzburg, in those years, was the Olympus of music, as never any other place in the world. You had the best conductor, the chorus, the best singers, the best directors.
So everything was absolutely amazing and I will never forget because the Coronation Mass was the first official thing. The year after that I was at the Easter Festival, which was his [Karajan’s] private toy, done with his own money, no state money. There were two performances: generale and premier and generale was like on theTV and people were coming with tuxedo because it was on the TV. That year I was there for the Bruckner Te Deum and the Mozart Coronation Mass again. I was also covering King Philip [from Don Carlo]. I thought that even if Jose Van Dam would have been sick, I would never go onstage because Ghiaurov could have jumped in or Raimondi or young Sam Ramey.
I saw the night before the real show and Van Dam was properly kaput, but I went to bed so tranquil and serene because I thought c’mon, tomorrow there will be Mr. Ghiaurov singing and everything will be great and so I slept like a rock. And at 10 a.m. they called me at the hotel and said can you come to the theater because you are singing. So I went, they wanted me to see the video, and I had to be in a certain position, then I went to warm up a bit, I mean I was sleeping until an hour before, so I went to warm up. While I was there they came with the contract and then took me get the costume adjusted because Van Dam was quite short. Then the wig, which I bought afterward and have used ever since, even here in San Diego.
Then a quarter to four they took me already dressed and made up to Karajan’s office. He told me, even now I will not forget because it’s something absolutely unusual, he said “remember in this place, be careful for the cue but don’t look at me because you’re on the television. Then you sing the aria as you did at the audition and I will accompany you, no conducting ever.” He said that. I mean, I remember, “you sing it as you did and I will accompany,” I have never had a conductor do that. And that changed my life in twelve hours because the morning after the world knew that I existed and had been chosen by Karajan himself. So that was Karajan.