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Upon landing in Liège in 2007, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, of noble Torinese stock but born in Rome, may no longer have been a fresh-faced youth but he already had a solid reputation behind him: he had just successfully shaken up a venerable institution, the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, where he had been appointed superintendent five years earlier. His mantra was all about youth and the opera: the young, and sometimes very young people he managed to attract with his pricing policies, his entertainment for school pupils and his carefully-crafted programmes. He left Bologna at the height of his glory: sell-out performances, rapturous praise from audiences of all kinds, from seasoned concert-goers to first-timers. After facing off international competition, he had just been appointed General and Artistic Director of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège. This set tongues wagging back in Italy: what was he going to do there, amid all that rain and hail?

Stefano Mazzonis knew exactly what he was doing; as someone who relishes a challenge, he also knew that the Opéra Royal de Wallonie is the greatest cultural institution in French-speaking Belgium, with a budget totalling 19 million euros and over 200 people on the payroll; he also knew that Liège, surrounded by Flanders, the Netherlands and Germany is the last Latin bastion en route to the North and that it has a well-established community of people with Italian roots. An idea had formed and he rolled the dice…

Ten years later, his record is impressive: the 1000-seater hall is full every evening, the Opéra Royal de Wallonie draws close to 100,000 spectators every season, of whom almost 30% are young people; a third of the audience comes from Flanders, the Netherlands and Germany, the operas are surtitled in three languages and can be viewed online via Culturebox.fr or Mezzo, which has proven hugely successful.

And yet, this man who learned music at a very early age and who seemed destined for it, in a reversal of fortune, found himself having to learn a “real” trade: law. Stefano specialised in telecoms, then also went on to work for Cofindustria, the influential Italian employers’ organisation. But his passion nagged away at him and he couldn’t stop himself from launching into television and radio Sunday concerts, with classical music and opera always high on the agenda, which would become an institution in Italy. One thing led to another and, slowly but surely, people came calling and his first production took place in 1983, which toured in France, Germany, Belgium and beyond.

In Bologna and Liège alike, he continued to stage operas from the Italian repertoire: Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Donizetti… His wager was simple: leave Wagner to Germans, the contemporary and the bold to Brussels’ La Monnaie, and Liège would show Italian: the classical, classically-performed, with the costumes and plush décor…

To mark the reopening of the Liège Opera’s magnificent Italian room after renovation works in 2012, Stefano Mazzonis called upon the filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael to produce Stradella, an early piece by César Franck, which had never been played before. In an on-stage pool, the singers slowly drown from one act to the next in a performance that lingers long after it finishes…

It turned out he had a real fondness for musicology: unearthing dusty scores and forgotten operas, too-long overlooked, which he produces or brings to Liège for production, and which are often picked up by operas all over the world, such as Verdi’s Jerusalem, Rossini’s La Gazetta, or William Tell by André-Modeste Grétry, with the heart of the Liège-born composer still beating from within a statue standing opposite the opera. Like a metronome for Stefano Mazzonis, and like an operatic aria gently ringing through the Northern mists…

Thanks to Patrick de Lamalle