Interview Conductor Antonio Pappano

Antonio Pappano

Antonio Pappano © MusacchioIanniello / EMI Classics

The London-born Italian maestro picked up another honour at the inaugural London Music Awards recently. As music director of the Royal Opera House he has a busy summer ahead of him. conducting Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut' and Strauss's 'Ariadne auf Naxos'. Here he talks to Warwick Thompson about how his Italian heritage - the 'operatic gene' - feeds into his music.

Most kids in the 1960s ran home from school to kick a ball about or stare at the goggle-box; Antonio Pappano, however, hurried from his London primary school most days to work a full evening shift accompanying his father’s singing pupils. At the age of nine, he knew La bohème and Aida by heart. It was an unusual childhood, but a fantastic training for a future conductor.

‘With hindsight I feel that I missed out on the typical teenager’s sense of freedom,’ he says. ‘But then again, I wasn’t plagued with the typical teenager’s restlessness. I had already found my direction in life.’

And what a direction. He’s currently music director of the Royal Opera House, where he soon conducts a new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. He’s also maestro of the brilliant Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. He guest conducts all over the world, too, and his recordings are regular award magnets. With such a list of triumphs already behind him, one would guess that this 54-year-old’s to-do list must be pretty short – and it is. ‘The biggest achievement right now would be to have more time off,’ he deadpans.

A flair for opera

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The acclaim that the Italian-English-American Pappano generates derives from a rare combination of skills that make him ideal for opera: he’s superb with singers (all those childhood evenings); his orchestral skills are dynamic; and he has sixth-sense theatrical instincts. But his phenomenal drive and musicality come at a cost: ‘Sometimes I can be a pain in the ass,’ he says when we speak on the phone. ‘I try not to be, of course. But I know what I want to achieve, and what is possible, and I push people to make it happen. I try to do it in a manner that is positive, but you know how these things are – sometimes you have to cut to the chase.’

Maestro Pappano is always friendly, but carries himself with the square-shouldered gait of someone who’s always prepared to plant his feet and fight when he needs to. He laughs a lot, but fires up with intensity when talking about music. He’s a perfectionist whose very molecules seem to vibrate musically.

A passion for tension

He often uses the word ‘tension’ when talking about music, as in the tension-and-release of an orchestral climax. But he acknowledges a deeper artistic tension in himself, too, beyond the occasional frustration which might flare up in a moment of temper (‘That goes with the territory,’ he explains, ‘but it always blows over quickly’). It’s a tension between his love of lyricism, and his need for structure. ‘A piece of music should never be just about the “nice bits”. It’s about how everything joins up, how it becomes a whole entity, how you make it feel inevitable. I always struggle to find that balance. But when I do – when the head and heart are working in tandem – the result is beautiful.’

He says that the lyrical side of his nature has its roots in his Italian heritage. ‘I think all Italians, somehow in their DNA, have an operatic gene. It’s a flair for drama, a flair for showing off, a flair for individuality. All Italian musicians tend towards the lyrical. No question. Just the way it is,’ he says.

Since he took over the Rome-based Santa Cecilia orchestra (and chorus) in 2005, he’s been teasing apart this genetic heritage. ‘I had very little to do with Italy – musically speaking – in my past. So I’ve learnt a lot about myself with the orchestra, about how hard it is for a Latin musician to get the balance with structure. I’ve been discovering what my roots actually are, and finding out how their Italian brand of passion matches mine.’

Passport from Pimlico 

Pappano was born in London in 1959 to parents who had emigrated from southern Italy. After 13 years in Pimlico, the whole family moved to the USA, to the small town of Bridgeport in Connecticut, where Pappano continued to work with his father. A successful audition for the job of répétiteur at New York City Opera was the moment of ‘leaving the cocoon’ – skipping the usual music college route – when he was 21, and the beginning of his independent operatic career.

The Danish soprano Inga Nielsen, a huge admirer of Pappano’s keyboard skills, soon offered him the opportunity to conduct one of her concerts with orchestra in Jutland. He learnt the craft the best way: by doing it. ‘My conducting had a conviction I hadn’t previously suspected,’ he says. ‘I was surprised to learn that I could uphold the music, and transfer my ideas about it to others.’ A meeting with Daniel Barenboim, who further supported and encouraged Pappano, was another major turning point. He became assistant to Barenboim at the Bayreuth Festival, then made his conducting debut in Oslo in 1987 and his Covent Garden debut three years later. He was appointed Music Director of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels at the age of 32. In 2002 he became music director of the Royal Opera, and was knighted in 2012.

The child in me

Through all his successes, he hasn’t lost touch with the child who played for his father’s pupils. Indeed, in The Italian Character, a recent documentary about Pappano and his Santa Cecilia Orchestra, some of the players affectionately mention the word ‘childlike’ about Pappano. ‘I’m flattered by that,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I like to be silly, and then sometimes I’m focused. When I’m at my most natural, and not overly stressed, I tend to be carefree and happy-go-lucky and full of the joy of music.’

Stress, however, is part of the job; so, too, are a drive for perfectionism and a certain workaholic itch he has in his make-up. How does he cope with it? ‘I think energy begets energy. What you give as a conductor, you usually receive, and that is incredibly stress-relieving. It renews you, somehow.’ I happen to know he’s a passionate connoisseur of wine, with a serious cellar. How else does he relax? ‘Dinner with friends. Reading. And – being quiet: no music. Sometimes you need silence so that you have something with which to compare music.’

His biggest achievement – to have more time off – is on the cards, too: he’s already booked a long break for summer 2014. With no music.

Jonathan Kent’s new staging of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut conducted by Pappano at the Royal Opera House, London, opens 17 June.