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Balancing Act

Running the Royal Opera House isn't easy, but Antonio Pappano has done it for the past ten years with style and grace. The popular music director sits down with JESSICA DUCHEN to take stock of his tenure and share his insights on Wagner, Verdi and the resistance confronting high culture in Britain today.

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Portrait by Johan Persson/ArenaPAL
© Johan Persson/ArenaPAL 2013
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© Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2013
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© Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2013

The operatic mega-year of 2013 is underway at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Antonio Pappano — the company's fifty-three-year-old music director, whose name sounds like a fanfare — has hit the ground running. With the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi and the centenary of Benjamin Britten to celebrate, opera-lovers are flocking to the ROH, where festivities began with the complete Ring cycle. "Tony" Pappano, who has been knighted in the U.K. and Italy, has another anniversary to mark — ten years in his post. During that decade he has become one of Britain's best-loved musicians, his skills ranging from fronting opera documentaries on TV to creating an atmosphere of familial cooperation inside the ROH. His versatility as a conductor lets him perform anything from core Italian repertoire to cutting-edge commissions. Eloquent and down-to-earth, he can pack an extraordinary punch in terms of energy and charisma. 

I caught up with Pappano in November while he was in Rome, where he has held a second significant post since 2005 as music director of the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. At Covent Garden, he had just completed the third Ring cycle — an experience he found both exhausting and exhilarating. "I've lived with this music for more than twenty years," he remarks, "and with experience you reach the point where it's one piece, not four — where you can feel in your bones that you no longer distinguish which of the four operas you're in. It's fantastic, because you're dealing with a form that's sixteen hours long, and your development as a musician in your ability to encompass it, digest it and turn it into living drama for the audience is a phenomenon like nothing else."

Working at Bayreuth — where he spent six summers as assistant to Daniel Barenboim, plus three conducting — made an enormous difference to his ideas about Wagner. "First of all, the mystery of the invisible orchestra in that pit," he says. "But I think the most important thing was the knowledge of how to wrestle with these works. You learn how to rehearse over a long period of time and how to bring together every part of the art form — drama, music, vocalism, diction, the conviction of how the singers explain the text to each other and to the audience. This is something I work with every day in every work, Wagner or not. That workshop atmosphere, I think, is the only way. It's opera — it's not religion. You get your hands dirty. You deal with the struggles of keeping stamina, pulse, dramatic tension, tempi and time-management. And it makes you a better musician and a better theater person."

Though Pappano's Wagner has drawn praise — notably his account of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg last winter — it is surpassed by his reputation in Italian opera. Talk of Wagner draws from him a discussion of struggle, but mention Verdi, and joy pours forth. "What's amazing about Verdi is his own development over so many years," Pappano marvels. "He carried a huge amount of baggage — the bel canto tradition and its stranglehold on opera composers. Verdi turned that around, first by finding stories that needed deeper voices, and which were more political, but driven by the personal and dealing with much larger ideas. Therefore his theatrical element was stronger than that of his predecessors. It also led him to a more declamatory way of writing for the voice." 

The chief challenge of performing Verdi, however, is finding the right singers. "There's a great difficulty in finding Verdian instead of Wagnerian singers. Despite that declamatory style, the bel canto technique remains the basis of Verdian singing. And people's techniques are often not finished enough. The relentless acceleration in singers' ambitions to tackle heavier repertoire has gotten out of hand in the last ten years. Because the emotional demands are so heavy, a singer's throat has to know what it's doing in order to deliver great vocalism with tremendous dramatic conviction. It takes a mature technique to do that. And these days everything's being filmed, and there's a pressure for everyone to look great. Cinecasts are fantastic, but they do create difficulties around what voices should be singing which repertoire." Still, a feast of Verdi is ahead for Covent Garden under Pappano's baton: first comes Don Carlo, starring Jonas Kaufmann, then, in June and July, Simon Boccanegra; farther ahead, there is a major new production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, in French, that Pappano says should be "the theatrical event of the season."

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Conducting the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia at the BBC Proms, 2007
© Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2013

Pappano was born in Epping, northeast of London, in 1959, the son of a singing teacher. After a childhood divided between Italy and the U.K., he moved with his family to Connecticut when he was thirteen. He became a rehearsal pianist for New York City Opera when he was only twenty-one; his professional life brought him back to Europe via a variety of posts, not least the one in Bayreuth and stints as music director at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels and the Norske Opera in Oslo. This potent mix, he thinks, has fed his versatility, musical curiosity and love of languages. (He also speaks Italian, German and French.) "I love that polyglot existence," he says. "There's nothing like it." 

His studies, unusually, were private — piano, composition with Arnold Franchetti and conducting with Gustav Meier. "I was a practical musician from day one," he says, "playing in church, a cocktail lounge, for choirs, for my father's voice students, and eventually working in theaters. I don't know if it's the right way to go — but it was the right way for me." John Allison, editor of Opera magazine and critic for the Sunday Telegraph, feels that Pappano's "singer-friendly, singer-sensitive approach" is perhaps his greatest strength. "More than anything, Pappano is a singer's conductor," says Allison. "He makes it possible for singers to give of their best when working with him." 

British mezzo-soprano Christine Rice echoes this sentiment. "I think he is going to be the legendary name of our generation, and longer." She has worked extensively with Pappano in repertoire ranging through Ravel, Shostakovich and Respighi, and in Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, in which she sang Ariadne at the premiere in 2008. "He's the most extraordinary conductor and human being. It's the generosity of spirit he has, the humanity. He's a great colleague and a great collaborator. He absolutely understands the marriage between the stage and the music. If he's looking for a particular impetus from you, he makes it clear why you need to come in with a certain amount of energy, or lead a phrase, or let him lead it. You feel he will allow your voice to bloom and sing the part at its absolute best."

Pappano assumed his post at Covent Garden in 2002, taking over from Bernard Haitink. Though his appointment was widely welcomed, he acknowledges that the adjustment was not easy. "It takes time to get to know your audience, and it takes time as a music director to get to know your forces," he says. "I probably made quite a few mistakes, and it took the first five years to reach a point with my orchestra where there was a greater understanding. The first key moment was when we did the Ring cycle for the first time. And the second one was when we did the Ring cycle for the second time, just now!" 

Allison feels that Pappano's tenure has been "a big success" on both sides. "I don't mean this in a backhanded way, but his finest achievements have not necessarily been in the pit," he says. "It has made a tremendous difference to the ROH to have such a hands-on music director." Haitink had been far less so. "From the start, Pappano was very much a presence in the house, attending other conductors' rehearsals and performances, and he has made a positive difference to most areas of its operation," Allison adds.

The first five years were about learning; the second have been about building togetherness. "Now we can go forward with a sense of discovery," says Pappano. "I think there's a very exciting period ahead for us. We're a family at Covent Garden — it's palpable. Now we are offering more and more new things. In the past, we'd established a pattern of not having enough new productions — for various reasons, financial and otherwise — but now we're taking more risks. I'm very happy about it."

These risks increasingly involve new works. Thomas Adès's The Tempest (2004) was written for Covent Garden and is a major addition to the international contemporary repertoire. A very different work, Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole (2011) divided critics, with some terming it the first "tabloid opera." On the ROH's schedule this season are the U.K. premiere of George Benjamin's Written on Skin (March) and a revival of Birtwistle's Minotaur (January), five years after its initial hearing. Covent Garden commissioned Birtwistle's opera just as Pappano was beginning his tenure, and he conducted its world premiere. He praises its power and lyricism. "Birtwistle has captured the mystery in the inner soul of this horrible, monstrous but ultimately sympathetic creature, the Minotaur itself." Sadly, Pappano had to withdraw from the revival, stricken with acute tendonitis after the intense demands of 2012. 

For 2020, Pappano says, his team is planning to commission four operas from four different composers on "topics of today, built around today's society." Contemporary engagement, he feels, is absolutely necessary if the art form is to stay vital and fresh. "You can choose a great book or play and turn it into an opera," he says, "but I think that's the easy way out."

These days, there are no easy ways out for the arts in Britain. With government subsidies slashed and private sponsorship feeling the financial pinch, every organization has to intensify its fund-raising game, the ROH included. "Each institution has jealously to guard the quality of what it does," Pappano advises. "It has to build up a loyal family of believers, and be open and inform people, not be insular or complacent. I hate the word 'access' and prefer 'information.' It's about demystifying something that people might be afraid of, when it's actually something so beautiful and has such a visceral impact." Pappano's enthusiastic advocacy has proved invaluable, not least in various BBC-TV documentaries on opera. "Let's face it, society is not as informed as it used to be," he reflects. "Opera today is too often considered 'elitist' — which is rubbish. We live in an information age. So give information! Tell people what opera's really about — a beautiful thing that evokes a very rich, emotional and poetic world."

This is particularly necessary in today's vituperative political climate. At one performance in Pappano's Ring cycle, several cabinet ministers were spotted in the audience, notably the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, a committed Wagnerphile. The tabloid newspapers pounced. "The paparazzi got to them, and suddenly they're not coming near the opera house, because they were accused of taking time off from running the country!" Pappano fumes. "This is absolutely ridiculous

"Recently, I went to my orchestra in Italy to open the season. On the first night the President of the Republic was there. He came to shake my hand while I was onstage and applauded the orchestra and the chorus. On the second night, Mario Monti, the Prime Minister, did the same thing and came to the dinner afterwards — so I was able to talk to the Prime Minister. In Italy, politicians are celebrated for coming to a cultural event. But in Britain, if you do so you're considered an elitist, highbrow snob. These two things occurred within a week of each other. I think we should celebrate culture, and I was really annoyed about what happened in London." There's a danger, he adds, that the popular press's anti-intellectual agenda could deter the government from supporting the arts. "In the end, it's going to threaten the existence of institutions that are supposed to be there for the duration."

Speculation has been rife as to whether Pappano will stay at the ROH beyond his current contract, which expires in 2016. Where he might go next is far from obvious. Pappano himself groans, "I can't bear the thought of starting again! But I believe that for now, where I am is where I should be. I always think that as another year passes, I'll find illumination as to what will happen when I change the rhythm of my life. But I haven't yet." spacer 

JESSICA DUCHEN is a music journalist and novelist based in London. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine 

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4