Interview with Francesca Dego: Violin as Italian Opera Diva in Paganini and Wolf-Ferrari Concertos

May 16, 2018, 11:35 AM · The "Wolf-Ferrari" -- it sounds like a fast and feral Italian race car, doesn't it?

It's actually the name of an early 20th-century Italian composer, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, who wrote a violin concerto that has become the centerpiece of a new recording by Italian violinist Francesca Dego.

But like so many things associated with Francesca Dego, even just the name suggests the romance of Italy -- the birthplace of opera, of the violin's historically finest makers, of Paganini, of high fashion.

Dego's resume does the same. She plays on two fine Italian violins - the "ex-Ricci" del Gesù as well has her own Ruggeri. She is married to Daniele Rustioni, a conductor primarily of opera. And for her concert attire she has become something of a fashion connoisseur, recently becoming the first female classical musician to be dressed by the Italian fashion house Versace.

Francesca Dego
Francesca Dego. Photo by Davide Cerati.

Her life's path is closely tied to one of Italy's most famous-ever violinists, Nicolo Paganini. For example, at this point, she has given some 70 performances of Paganini's popular Violin Concerto No. 1.

"That's quite a bit for one concerto!" Dego laughed, speaking with me over the phone from Italy last month.

By contrast, she is just one of just a handful of violinists who has performed or recorded the Wolf-Ferrari -- a concerto for which Dego has become a primary champion. In her recent recording, Dego paired the Wolf-Ferrari with the oft-played Paganini, and she has also been performing it live, including an upcoming performance on June 4 in Tokyo at Suntory Hall.

Both concertos speak to the drama of Italian opera, something close to Dego and her Italian heritage, not to mention her opera-conductor husband Rustioni, with whom she recorded the album with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Dego was born in northern Italy to an Italian father, a writer and university professor, and an American mother from New York. Her father, an enthusiastic amateur violinist, noticed that she had perfect pitch when she was a toddler and could easily rattle off the names of various notes. He tried starting her on the violin at age three, "but I was cartwheeling around and rolling under the table," she laughed. "They stopped and tried again a year later, and apparently that made all the difference." Starting at age four with her father as her first teacher, Dego quickly progressed beyond his teaching. When she was five, the family spent time in California, where she studied with Michael Tseitlin at the Fairbanks School of Performing Arts in San Diego, where she also played her solo debut at the age of 7, performing the Bach Concerto in A minor. Her other mentors have included Daniele Gay, Salvadore Accardo, Itzhak Rashkovsky and Schlomo Mintz.

For Dego, the Wolf-Ferrari Violin Concerto was something of a revelation: "It's very post-Romantic in a way, and you wouldn't expect it to be written in the middle of the 20th century," she said. Certainly its lush tones stand in contrast to the troubled times during which the concerto was written, in 1944, during World War II.

In fact, it's the kind of piece that was brushed aside after the conclusion of the war. "There was this avant garde that decided that anything that sounded like it was nostalgic or looking to the past was just not that interesting," Dego said. "So composers like Wolf-Ferrari -- and even (Ottorino) Respighi or (Mario) Castelnuovo-Tedesco -- they really suffered from this (prejudice) because they were tonal. Their music wasn't appreciated any more because it wasn't considered up-to-date to use that kind of language in a world that had gone through so much."

But today much of that music is being re-discovered. Several years ago, Dego was asked to choose a lesser-known work by an Italian composer for a program in Russia, and that is when she came across the Wolf-Ferrari.

"I actually came across quite a few wonderful pieces, and lots of them had little recording history whatsoever," Dego said. "Of course there are very wonderful exceptions: one is Heifetz's and Perlman's recordings of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's "Prophets" Concerto (No. 2). And there is a Zimmermann recording of the (Ferruccio) Busoni Concerto which is wonderful. So there are some of the Italian 20th-century works that have been recorded."

"The Wolf-Ferrari? Not so much," she said. "There's a recording by the dedicatee (Guila Bustabo), and it's kind of live and it doesn't give a great idea of the piece. The rest are smaller projects done in subsequent years, but I think this is only the fourth recording in total, that actually exists. It is quite unknown, and I actually had some trouble even deciding if I should do it or not! It's interesting how much we rely on listening to pieces nowadays, instead of looking at a score, to decide whether to play it or not. Of course, it's not like that with new music, but for everything else, we just expect to have a top recording to listen to, and that will give us an idea of the piece!"

What made her decide to commit to learning and performing the Wolf-Ferrari?

"Well, I listened to everything that there was, and I had to imagine a bit," Dego said. "I phoned the publishers, Casa Musicale Sonzogno in Milan, who had been the historic publishers of this composer. They were very helpful and sent me the score and parts right away. Of course they were quite keen on anybody being interested in the piece in the first place!"

"I started studying it right away, and I was interested in the story behind it because it's one of the few concertos dedicated to a woman -- quite an interesting character herself," Dego said. "She was actually American, Guila Bustabo, she was pretty well-known at the time."

"Guila Bustabo fell into disgrace after the war, though." Under the guidance of her career-driven mother, Bustabo continued touring in Germany and Nazi-occupied territories during the World War II. When the war concluded, her indisputable ties to Nazi-sympathizers cast a shadow on her reputation.

"Her falling into disgrace didn't help the piece at all, although Wolf-Ferrari had no ties with fascism; actually he went away from Italy during the war," Dego said. "But it's interesting how often this can happen; often when a piece disappears, it's not really due to its worth, but instead it can be for totally different reasons, not only political, but just bad luck."

One piece that has not disappeared from the repertoire is Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1. But Dego feels that the piece's reputation as a vehicle for technical wizardry is a bit of a misunderstanding. For Dego, it's all about the drama and language of Italian opera.

"I think that one of the biggest mistakes violinists make in playing Paganini is thinking too much about the violin, and too little about Paganini's inspiration, which was 90 percent Rossini and other opera composers," Dego said. That also goes for the orchestra. In that particular opera tradition, little is written in the score, and the orchestral accompaniment appears deceptively simple.

"In fact, the orchestra often kind of falls asleep on it," she said. But embedded in that simple writing is a rich language that actually requires keen attention to detail and a knowledge of the tradition. "Paganini is very precise in his violin writing, but his writing for the orchestra almost looks like it's not complete." For orchestra players in the time of Paganini, they would automatically interpret the operatic nuances. "It was a code that made sense to them at the time. They understood all the different kinds of accompaniments: what would be long, what would be short, what articulations and bowings. There were just things that for them, doing opera, made real sense."

"Being used to singers, who can be much freer than violinists, can really help," she said. Though the notes in the orchestral part of Paganini may seem easier to play than other repertoire, the phrasing and rubato is a subtle art. "You don't get to play out as you would in Tchaikovsky or Sibelius -- it's really about a different kind of language." With the solo violinist cast as the diva, an orchestra with experience playing for opera singers will likely play the Paganini with more sensitivity, having cultivated those instincts.

This is why Dego was thrilled to record the piece with an experienced opera conductor, her husband Daniele Rustioni. Though they've been married a little more than two years, since 2015, their relationship began many years before that, when both were at the Milan Conservatory, where he was finishing his conducting studies and she was finishing her violin studies.

"We really grew up together," she said. "Daniele does a lot of opera; he is the director of the Lyon Opera in France. He's conducted at the Met, at the Royal Opera House at La Scala in Milan, so his big thing is opera. When I decided to record the Paganini and to couple it with Wolf-Ferrari, I knew that both are extremely theatrical and operatic pieces for the violin -- the violin is basically the diva in both of them. So I thought it would be wonderful to get Daniele to do it because he has so much experience with repertoire like Rossini, Italian opera. Both pieces are really closely connected to that whole atmosphere, that whole cultural background, the whole sound of the Italian language and of Italian singing of opera."

And working with your spouse?

"We sometimes work together, though we haven't done it that often," Dego said. "But we had performed the Paganini various times, about five or six; and of course he'd heard me perform and play it a lot, too. He really knew how I played it." Many times, a recording session has such limited time, allowing only a brief meeting between soloist and conductor and just a few days for the recording. "Everything goes so quickly," she said. "Of course, everybody comes very well prepared, but it's difficult to go very deep in things, especially if people haven't even worked together already when they start recording."

In this case, they had the unusual opportunity to work out the fine details in advance of the recording session. "We even marked up the orchestral parts ourselves, so the orchestra got our parts with my bowings," Dego said.

This is not Dego's first recording of a work by Paganini - in 2012 she recorded the Paganini 24 Caprices, playing on the very same del Gesù violin that Ruggiero Ricci made the historic first-ever recording of those same works.

BELOW: Francesca Dego performs Paganini Caprice No. 4 on the "ex-Ricci" del Gesù:

"It was extremely touching, for a violinist, to play on this kind of an antique instrument," Dego said. "They always have such a soul, and it's so connected to previous owners. Even something in the sound -- you can kind of recognize it. And the fact that this was the violin used for the first-ever recording of the Caprices, and I was recording the Caprices myself on the same violin, and seeing this photo of Ricci on the front of the recording, with this violin -- it was amazing."

How did that violin come into her hands? It actually has to do with that first concerto by Paganini, which she was performing in London when her teacher at the Royal College, Itzhak Rashkovsky introduced her to the violin dealer Florian Leonhard.

"Florian happened to have this del Gesù there," she said. There are actually two ex-Ricci del Gesùs; the other was played for a time by Midori. Leonhard leant her the violin and "it was supposed to be a two-week loan for a concerto debut," she said. "Then Florian came to the concert and basically just said, well you can hang on to that, it's okay. Pretty amazing! So that's how that started."

Having a very famous violin valued at more than $10 million turned out to be an adventure.

First, the enormous responsibility proved to be pretty stressful. "I was very young, and I was going around with this extremely valuable piece of art," she said. "I would wake up in the middle of the night and go check if it was there, In fact, I started sleeping with it next to the bed so I wouldn't have to get up every time I got these panic attacks. So it's quite a big feeling of responsibility."

Also, "del Gesùs are pretty rare, and the violin wasn't mine, so it often had to be taken for exhibitions or to be shown around the world," she said. "I couldn't have it 100 percent of the time, and often I'd get phone calls saying, 'I'm sorry, the violin has to be in London in two days, but that's fine, we'll give you a Strad, don't worry!' But of course it isn't that easy to just switch violins constantly! So at a certain point we started looking for a violin I could have the whole time. It took some time, but I finally just completely fell in love with this Ruggeri, which I eventually bought." Now she plays principally on her 1697 Francesco Ruggeri violin, occasionally performing with the ex-Ricci. The Ruggeri is the violin she used to record the Paganini and Wolf-Ferrari Violin Concertos.

Not only has Dego found her way to some high-quality Italian fiddles; it would seem she also has a taste for high-quality Italian designer dresses, something that evolved simply from being in the right place at the right time.

"In Italy, we're kind of small, as a country," she said. "The art, music and fashion worlds are closer together -- you come across the same people at the theater, or at a concert." One evening, at a concert reception, Dego was introduced to a famous Italian soprano, Carmen Giannattasio, "and she introduced me to the first designer I really became so familial with, Antonio Riva. All the dresses in the booklet and on the cover of the CD are his, as well as that nice dress on the cover."

Francesca Dego
Francesca Dego, in the dress by Antonio Riva that appears on her Wolf-Ferrari/Paganini CD cover. Photo by Davide Cerati.

"He really loves the idea of connecting fashion to something like classical music, because of course it's a very high kind of art," Dego said. "So he started lending me dresses for concerts, and when I got married he made my wedding dress. So that became a friendship, and he's a very well-known and wonderful designer here in Milan."

After that, she found herself at an after-concert party in Paris, where an Italian-French actress asked her if she knew anyone at Versace. The actress thought Dego and Versace would be just a perfect match. "I sort of thought, 'Right, sure, you can ask them,' -- thinking that was clearly post-concert wine talking!" But the day afterward the actress called: "I've spoken to them, they'd love to dress you!"

She went to Versace, and so now she sometimes appears in dresses by Versace.

"It's not something I was looking for, but I really love fashion," Dego said. "I think it can be art, definitely, and as an Italian I'm very proud of Italian designers. So if I do have the chance to wear them on-stage -- if it's something that's obviously comfortable and in line with what I think a concert dress should be, then why not? So that's basically how it happened. In both cases, I was introduced by different kinds of Italian divas, one a singer and another an actress!"

You might also like:


May 16, 2018 at 11:09 PM · Wolf-Ferrari is fairly well known for his opera "Susanna's Secret" - I've played the overture.

May 17, 2018 at 01:23 PM · Lovely violinist. One wonders why isn’t she playing in the US more (if at all).

May 17, 2018 at 03:41 PM · What bow did she use in the recording?

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

Miroirs CA Classical Music Journal
Miroirs CA Classical Music Journal

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Classic Violin Olympus

Coltman Chamber Music Competition

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Jargar Strings


Violin Lab



Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine