I’d been invited to a Thanksgiving lunch at a beautiful stone farmhouse situated on a hillock rising above what in mediaeval times had been a lake but was now fertile farmland teeming with olive groves and vineyards. The view stretched out onto the Pisan Mountain on one side, the Apennines on the other and, between them, the full length of the Arno plain extended towards Florence.
“Herbert, let me give you a hand”, I said to the affable 88 year-old gentleman wearing dark glasses as he stepped out of the car. “Yes that’s my name,” he said, jokingly, “although in Germany they pronounce it with a ‘T’ at the end!”
We entered the house; Herbert Handt sat on a rocking chair by the log fire and we had an antipasto of salmon bocconcini, a glass of Montecarlo wine and then began talking – or rather, because I was in the presence of a very special person, I listened to Herbert talking as he described and reminisced on his richly eventful life.
Imagine a Lucca province almost dead musically with closed theatres, apathetic programmes, mediocre standards, poor musicianship – a Lucca with few of those activities which are listed in my monthly musical bulletin. It’s hardly imaginable when today this whole region has an embarrassing choice of what one can listen to and where one can go to listen to it.
When Herbert Handt, the fulcrum, indeed the motivating nucleus of what Lucca’s rich musical life is today, arrived in this region there wasn’t very much to attract music-lovers to Lucca. In the fifty year Herbert has made Lucca his home a marvellous transformation has occurred: a growth of performances, at least two generations of new gifted musicians, new venues, new compositions and all with a quality, unimaginable then, that has blessed this land.
In so many ways Herbert Handt is truly the Grand Old Music-man of Lucca.
Philadelphia-born tenor, and then conductor, Herbert received his training at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and subsequently in the Vienna Academy of Music. A cousin of the conductor, Otto Ackermann, (whose 1951 recording of” Der Freischutz” I picked up in a charity ship in London and which was the first opera vinyl LP ever to have been issued), it was the hope of getting an entrée into the European musical world through Ackermann that Herbert in 1949 boarded a cargo ship largely carrying potatoes to arrive, after a very rough and longer than expected journey, at Genoa to meet his cousin, only to find that Otto had given up waiting for him and had returned to Vienna.
Handt’s operatic debut at the Vienna State Opera was as a lyric tenor in the 1950’s and he has appeared in all the important European opera houses. In 1957 he sang at the Teatro Della Pergola in Florence in the premiere of Venere Prigioniera by Malipiero. During the Brussels World Exhibition of 1958 he participated in the premiere of Menotti’s opera Maria Golovin. Handt has also sung in the operas of Alban Berg, Busoni, Henze and Britten. He told me he was best in the operas of Mozart and those of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. He is especially famous for his Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, his Orfeo in Haydn’s Orfeo Ed Euridice and his Otello in Rossini’s opera.
Handt first appeared as a conductor in 1960 and created his own vocal and instrumental group which, on tours performed old and (then) rarely-heard Italian music in his own performing editions. This was before the eruption of interest which started with the “authentic” music performances in late-sixties Holland and now has spread to all parts of the world. In Lucca, Handt organised the Associazione Musicale Lucchese Opera Festival and founded the Lucca Chamber Orchestra and the Marlia International Festival. His recordings include outstanding performances of operas by Haydn, Mozart, Rossini and JC Bach, and oratorio by Handel.
For a long time resident in an artistically very vibrant Rome of the fifties and sixties, where he was a Fulbright scholar, and where he met his future wife Laura also on a Fulbright scholarship, Herbert then fell in love with Lucca (which he describes as a “Venice without the canals”) through his friend, the great Haydn scholar Howard Robbins-Landon who had bought a castle for peanuts at Castel Buggiano near Pescia. Encouraged by R-L, Handt bought his present residence just south-west of Lucca.
Laura, a distinguished sculptor who worked in the great Margutta’s studio, followed her husband to Lucca but her regrets at leaving Rome still remain with her. “It was so full of life – Lucca is nothing to it” as she told me.
Be that as it may the couple has done so much to reduce that “nothingness”. It would be an underestimation to say that the present musical life this city owes everything to Herbert’s energetic initiatives. His achievements in stimulating the musical life, in reopening such wonderful little theatres as Montecarlo’s’ Teatro degli Rassicurati, his encouragement of emerging talent, his immaculate entrepreneurship, not just in Lucca but in all parts of Italy, are a roll call of all that is valuable musically here today.
Talking with, and listening to, Herbert was so fascinating. The great musical names of the twentieth century are to him actual persons with whom he worked and was friends with. And such names! Stravinsky, Toscanini, Beecham, Nono, Abbado, Strehler… And most days he gets a phone call from Zubin Mehta who regards him as one of his most valued friends.
Why the dark glasses? It’s because Herbert Handt is blind. In 2008, he was mugged while on a family visit to Columbus.. The result was serious damage to the optic nerve. Five subsequent operations did not reverse the damage – indeed, they caused him to lose all sight. What bastards!
Despite this terrible incident (which we never mentioned) Handt is a light shining in the darkness, constantly illuminating the most beautiful things in life. He is truly the all-seeing eye of Lucca’s present richness in its musical life.
(Enjoying a first course of pumpkin soup and parsley)