Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House in London, has been at the top of the opera profession for almost two decades. The ‘singer’s conductor’ talks to George Hall about how Daniel Barenboim brought him to Bayreuth, his disastrous debut at Covent Garden and how the company is responding to the coronavirus crisis
At the end of last year, Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director since 2002, turned 60. As a prime creative figure at one of the world’s leading opera houses, he has overseen dozens of productions during his successful tenure of 18 years. But at the moment, he and the institution itself are facing one of the gravest challenges in Covent Garden’s long history.
As with all performing arts institutions, the impact of Covid-19 has been severe. The final performances before lockdown – La Traviata on the main stage, Handel’s Susanna in the Linbury Theatre – took place on March 14, with Covent Garden officially closing its doors two days later.
On an individual level, Pappano lost the final performance of the highly successful, star-studded new production of Fidelio. “That was going into 1,500 cinemas worldwide, so it was a real shame,” he says.
The remainder of the season was subsequently cancelled, including – all under the music director’s baton – a new staging of Elektra, plus revivals of Tosca and Madama Butterfly, as well as a recital by another big star – Anna Netrebko – whom Pappano was due to accompany at the piano, “all of which leaves a bitter taste in my mouth because next season I’m not performing at the Royal Opera House”.
The 2020/21 season is a sabbatical year for the hard-working conductor, who is due to return for the two following seasons and will then definitively leave, though one can be certain that he will return as a guest.
Moving from the UK to the US
Antonio Pappano is the child of Italian immigrants who came to the UK in 1958. He and his younger brother were born in the UK, but in 1973 they left for the US, where their mother’s family had installed themselves.
Why had his parents come to the UK in the first place? “The small village where they were born is called Castelfranco in Miscano – in the Campania region, inland from Naples. It was a pretty tough life there in the 1950s. Most of the young kids left, a lot of them going to northern Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Australia or America, but many of them came to London.”
He continues: “My parents didn’t live in London right away because they found jobs as a housekeeper, butler and chef in a fancy house in Epping – hence I was born in Epping Forest Hospital. Eventually they found a council flat behind Victoria Street, which is where I grew up.”
How did he begin as a musician? “My father was a singer who had a facility for teaching. I started playing the piano at six, and by the time I was 10 I was playing for his students. It became a sort of family business. I did that for 12 years.”
I started playing the piano at six, and by the time I was 10 I was playing for my father’s students
So, Pappano grew up to the sound of voices – not all of them singing opera. “To make ends meet, my father had to take all kinds of singers. I used to play Italian art songs, pop songs, anything that was current, so right from the beginning I had an idea of music being very wide.”
When he was 13, Pappano moved with his family to Bridgeport, Connecticut. “Just down the road was Verrilli’s piano shop, and there I met this lady, Norma Verrilli, who would become the most important influence in my life – an incredible musician, a wonderful pianist and teacher, who also played the harpsichord and clavichord and had an early-music group.
“Norma’s teaching involved a lot of sight-reading, playing two pianos, and – I had a little bit of this from my father’s singers – playing show tunes because Norma was big into that, too. It was a crazy mix.”
Meanwhile at home he was continuing to do a lot of accompanying. “I would run home after school every day and get home at 1.32pm, and we’d often be teaching until 9pm at night.”
Unusually, the young Pappano opted out of the conventional conservatoire training. “It was decided that I wouldn’t leave home but stay and continue with Norma. To be honest, at the time, the idea of leaving home was something that I could not imagine. I don’t think I was ready, actually.”
What was your first professional music job?
Playing the piano for my father’s voice students.
What is your next job?
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The defining details of different cultures.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t choose something that’s too long.
If you hadn’t been a music director, what would you have been?
Probably something to do with languages.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I have the same pre-performance meal.
But singers he was playing for were already passing his name around and he was soon being spoken of in high circles. “At some point I got a call to audition as a répétiteur for the New York City Opera. I landed the job, and of course that meant leaving my father with nobody. To this day, I feel guilty about that moment, though I remember my mum pushing me and saying: ‘You’ve got to do this.’”
Working with Barenboim
When he went to work at New York City Opera, he met several singers who said: “Oh, you play the piano like an orchestra. You’ve got to conduct.” He started to come back to Europe as a répétiteur, travelling (among other places) to the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, which was strong on Wagner and Strauss. So he took some German lessons.
“I went to Frankfurt, too, and from Frankfurt I was called to play some auditions for Daniel Barenboim because he was casting the upcoming Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He was auditioning singers, but he said: ‘You’re coming with me – we’re going to Bayreuth.’ So that’s what happened.”
Pappano did six summers at Bayreuth, playing The Ring, Tristan and Isolde, and Parsifal. “I also did other stuff with him on tour. Being close to that kind of mind, that firing on all cylinders, I just became drunk on that,” he says.
He was then supposed to go with Barenboim to become his chief assistant at the Paris Opéra. “The next three years of my life were fixed, when all of a sudden the deal fell apart and bang, it was gone.
“That was the day my career really started. I’d never had ambitions to conduct – in fact I couldn’t conduct my way out of a paper bag – but I was a good musician and always very communicative. Little by little, I saw that I could work with orchestras as if I were working with singers – as a coalition, if you like, with a suggestion here or there, finding technical solutions to musical problems, or musical solutions to technical problems. Through a recommendation I got a management, and all of a sudden, little things started coming in.”
It was in Oslo in 1987 that he really took off. “I conducted my first Bohème, which showed me what I had become without my even knowing it. I went to the first piano and staging rehearsal, and all of a sudden I took over everything – I was telling them how to move, I was telling them how to sing, I was telling them the whole business.”
He continues: “All my fascination to do with what opera really is – this communion with the pit and the stage being absolutely joined – came out, and it shocked me as much as anyone. I still wasn’t technically adept, but I was getting experience, and through my enthusiasm and my knowledge of the scores themselves, I got other work.”
In 1990, he was appointed music director of the Norwegian Opera. “What I learned there was to hone an atmosphere of family, which has been very important for me here.” Then, two years later, he was poached from Norway by La Monnaie in Brussels. “I stayed there for 10 years, conducting many important productions and developing a very wide repertoire, and then I came here – a job I couldn’t say no to, although I didn’t know much about it.”
His second Covent Garden debut
That was in 2002, though he recalls his previous – disastrous – Covent Garden debut in 1990. “John Pritchard had passed away, and I was to jump in for him with La Bohème and a very young cast. Jerry Hadley was the tenor, but he conked out after performance one and I had a series of seven different tenors in the first seven shows.
“Nobody knows that piece better than I do, but the situation was just too much for me. I have never read the reviews, but they tell me that they were stinkingly awful. I was never invited back, so who would have thought I would become the music director?”
Yet, when the Royal Opera House was looking for a successor to Bernard Haitink, they went to see him conduct Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. “My name was on a list of five. All of a sudden I got the job.”
What was it like when he arrived? “You have to realise that the love and admiration that the orchestra had for Bernard Haitink was something that I could never, ever compete with, even to this day. I came in with Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, a piece for chamber orchestra, which was a good way for me to get to know all the soloists. I felt I just did my job, but it’s not even a question of what I felt – you know what needs fixing, and because of my upbringing I was the polar opposite of Bernard in every way. I just got on with it.
“My relationship with the orchestra was slow to warm up, although from the beginning we were very cordial. Now, after 18 years, I feel it’s a very natural relationship. They know me inside out, and I know them inside out, so they know my weaknesses and my strengths.”
My relationship with the ROH orchestra was slow to warm up. Now they know me inside out
What does the music director at an opera house actually do? “You’re guiding the musical level, the quality of the ensemble, working with the orchestra and laying down certain principles, not only for the piece you’re working on, but in general.
“You should also be aware of personnel issues, to really care for and nurture your musicians and your choristers. You have to set the example for the level of energy that is expected. I think I’ve made the orchestra more aware of the dramaturgical content of what it is they’re playing – why it is they’re playing this way, or that way. You don’t have to be intellectual about it – these guys are extremely emotionally intelligent. You just give them a clue and bang, they’re off.’
The singer’s conductor
Pappano (photos above and below: Sim Canetty-Clarke) is also known as a singer’s conductor – the world’s greatest opera singers clearly enjoy working with him. “When singers come to the house and they’re put into a staging, they have their own armoury of things they do, vocal habits they’ve nurtured over many years. I think it’s a conductor’s job not only to have a very clear concept of the piece you’re conducting, but to see and hear the strengths and weaknesses of the singer and guide them to their best performance. Sometimes that means working with them vocally, sometimes it’s working with them as actors, so they relish the words. That for me is hugely important, and to watch their performance growing all the time.”
With his long experience at the top of the operatic profession, what changes has he noticed in the opera world generally? “I think Verdi remains the ultimate challenge,” he responds. “It’s so linked to its time, its own aesthetic. If you try to modernise Verdi, it often backfires. What’s in vogue is always to show what’s out on the street, or what’s on the news, and to put that on the stage. I think that people are intelligent enough to feel the echoes in today’s society without having to turn something that is supposed to be set in the 16th century into today’s world. But whenever the stage director is really musical, and also really cares about the words, then I know I can work with that person.”
There’s also the question of what the public actually wants. “I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but the public is stubbornly needy of beautiful sets. Maybe it’s to see that they’ve got their money’s worth.
“I don’t need to see the whole castle and the table and all the accoutrements that might be there, but some people need that. I am more interested in the veracity of the acting and the singing, and the quality of the singing and high musical levels. So that’s the conflict we deal with. How do you put on really convincing opera without necessarily spending a bomb on an expensive production that theatres frankly can’t afford any more, and that aesthetically is perhaps a little passé?”
When asked about the highlights of his career so far at Covent Garden, Pappano responds: “‘I had the opportunity to work on Keith Warner’s Ring over a long period, and depending on who was singing and who was involved, I think the production grew in stature over the years. I could point to Verdi’s The Sicilian Vespers, which was a tour de force, although Stefan Herheim’s aesthetic manner of storytelling was completely new to me. The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk of Richard Jones. I loved the Christof Loy Ariadne. Certain productions because of the cast: The Barber of Seville – the one on DVD with Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez and Ferruccio Furlanetto – and La Forza del Destino, with everybody firing on all cylinders. I had a tremendous fondness for the Willy Decker production of Peter Grimes, which I originally did in Brussels and brought here.”
Another production he loved doing was The Minotaur. “Having Harry Birtwistle around this building and sitting next to him and seeing what he was really interested in. He paid me the most wonderful compliment when he said: ‘God, you make it sound like music.’ ”
Despite the present situation, Pappano is aware of what the Royal Opera House is capable of achieving. “I’m working in what I think is certainly the best opera house in the world, but there’s no question that this is an institution that never rests on its laurels. We have certain challenges, including financial challenges, but we’ve got an army of people who really love this place.
“You’re always trying to get it right. It never stops, and the minute you think you’ve nailed it, forget it. You just keep plugging away.”
Dealing with Covid-19
Meanwhile, the institution’s response to the worldwide crisis is at the forefront of his thinking. I suggest that there must be a lot of emergency planning going on at the moment. “What’s going on is that we’re talking about plan A, plan B, plan C, because everything is changing from week to week. I think the important thing is to make a decision that is not in any sense rash.”
So there will be modifications to the beginning of next season? “Probably, but it’s not a done deal. If and when we open, it will be under incredibly strict government guidelines: it’s safety first, that’s a given.
We have to reopen properly. We mustn’t panic and jump the gun – it’s got to be done safely
“But we also have a lot of people who will be out of work. We have to consider the livelihoods of a lot of people. We have to consider the emotional toll that this will take on people, the need for community. That’s all being studied. Models are being talked about involving social distancing. Believe me, myself and my colleagues are discussing this at length every day.” Pappano himself has waived his salary during this difficult period.
Even at this time, audiences remain a vital consideration. “First of all, I want to thank people for following us on the web – such as our Facebook page and on YouTube. I’ve been busy doing these little educational clips called #OurHousetoYourHouse – it’s a programme that we’ve devised to keep our relationship with our audience alive. We’re streaming operas and ballets, we have this Create and Learn programme for young people, and we will continue to put content out there.”
The big question is how and when to reopen. “We have to do it properly. We mustn’t panic and jump the gun – it’s got to be done safely.”
Meanwhile, the ROH technical and costume staff have been making and donating personal protective equipment. “It’s wonderful to see how people really feel unified with the rest of the country and the rest of the world. I think the spirit of music runs through the veins of everybody who works in the opera house, and therefore the spirit of looking out for each other – it’s there, and we’ve stuck together as a team, and that’s very important.”
Born: 1959, Epping
Training: Teachers included Elaine Korman, Norma Verrilli, Arnold Franchetti and Gustav Meier
• Ariadne auf Naxos (2002)
• Wozzeck (2002)
• Le Nozze di Figaro (2006)
• Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (2007)
• Der Ring des Nibelungen (2007)
• The Minotaur (2008)
• Il Trittico (2011)
• Les Troyens (2012)
• Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci (2015)
• Semiramide (2017)
• Otello (2017)
• La Forza del Destino (2019)
• Fidelio (2020)
• Knighthood for services to music (2012)
• Knight Grand Cross of Italy’s Order of Merit (2012)
• Gold medal award of the Royal Philharmonic Society (2015)
Agent: Nicholas Mathias, IMG Artists
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