Sir Antonio Pappano: 'I had no ambition to conduct'

Sir Antonio Pappano's boundless energy has propelled him from lounge-bar pianist to world-renowned conductor. Boyd Tonkin catches up with him in Rome

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Don't shoot – and don't patronise – the cocktail-lounge pianist. You never know what might become of him. Three decades ago, in a New England bar, that guy who slogs through the show-tunes to earn a bored smattering of applause might well have been Tony Pappano, from Epping and Victoria by way of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Today, on an early-summer morning in Rome, Sir Antonio Pappano – knighted by the Queen in 2012, and also a Knight Grand Cross of Italy's Order of Merit – talks in his office about his latest gig. In front of a 2,800 full house in the main hall of Rome's Renzo Piano-designed Auditorium Parco della Musica, Pappano has rounded off his latest season as musical director of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia with a barnstorming concert performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. "I'm not used to doing Italian opera in front of any Italian crowd," he says, relaxed and in jeans now but also pretty informal – and stick-less – during the concert. "My God! The emotional thing… it's like, ownership. I was also nervous about that. I thought they were going to start booing." In fact, "it was amazing". A casual listener might assume that a Verdi blockbuster and a Roman orchestra might bond like pasta and ragu, but no: "Opera is not this orchestra's bag by nature – they have the DNA; they just don't have the knowledge. So I had to work very hard on the Ballo to get the result I got".

The band played their hearts out; the chorus raised the roof. Wall-to-wall 'bravissimos' punctuated almost every aria from a cast of vocal 'powerhouses' led by Pappano with his usual bouncing, hyperactive physicality. "There was one moment where I gave them the sign to hush up because I'd already started the next scene," he recalls. But this showman won't curb anyone's enthusiasm. "I think the idea of applauding arias is absolutely great. It gives the audience an outlet and it was always meant to be that way… It does add to a circus atmosphere, but the emotional potency is fantastic."

In 2005, he added the Rome post – in charge of a venerable but, at that point, lacklustre institution that can trace its history back to Pope Sixtus V in 1585 – to the musical directorship of the Royal Opera House in London. (He took up that baton in 2002 and, despite rumours, shows no signs of trading it in for a move to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.) Either job would fill a busy conductor's plate. To do both – with unflagging commitment and a hunger for innovation – calls for heroic labour on a truly Wagnerian scale (last year saw him shoulder The Ring Cycle at Covent Garden). A post-midnight finish in London might be followed by a dawn flight and a mid-morning rehearsal in Rome. The super-conductor must need super-human strength. Does he ever find it all too much? "I don't… but my arms and my neck and my back do! My arm gave up in protest and I had terrible tennis elbow around Christmas… I tell you, that was no fun. That's the only thing I'm worried about, how to go forward. I'm making all these plans, the full schedule – whether my body can take the wear and tear, that's my worry."

On 19 and 20 July, Pappano and his Santa Cecilia band – transformed in repertoire and reputation since his arrival – will come to the Proms. Their second programme, a bicentenary mixture of Verdi's sacred music, also fills the latest of his regular recordings under contract for EMI Classics. Verdi's Four Sacred Pieces, due at the Proms, he describes as "a kind of Utopian music-making. It's on a very lofty level". In the great Requiem above all, the religious music of the famously anti-clerical Verdi is often deemed 'operatic' more than reverent. Pappano rejects that distinction. "The Italian religion is inflamed; it is dramatic… Verdi's reaction to the words: it's big, like he was. It's emotional. He had trouble with organised church. He didn't believe in it and he thought it was corrupt. But, always, his response to religious texts is spiritual and direct."

Soon after we meet he will record Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in Rome and, before the Proms, has to fit in several Covent Garden nights of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra as well as a concert version in Birmingham. The timetable alone would make your average tennis champ panic. Pappano, however, says that "As you gain more and more experience things become… I don't want to say easy, but easier. You don't waste a lot of energy – and I've wasted a lot of energy in life, although it's come out, hopefully, as excitement. The idea is to learn how to maximise your movements. I'm never going to become a stock-straight immovable conductor. That's not me. But you can focus." Slowing down does not in any way appeal, "because when you're involved with the material and with the people doing this thing with you, it's a very, very rich experience". All the same, "your body has to hold out".

An ever-whirring dynamo, Tony Pappano has arguably (by the age of 53) already done more as a populariser of his art than any media maestro since Leonard Bernstein. His TV outings – first Opera Italia!, then this year's guide to Wagner's Ring – originated when the BBC spotted that the still-youthful toast of the world's opera houses could not only beat and play, but talk. "The BBC decided that I had a flair for it after seeing me do some intermission features." Since then, "I've realised that I can talk simply but with knowledge to people – so they actually get the message without being scared off by that. I love opera, and if you can demystify some of it, it's not a bad idea". He has spoken in the past about the "fear" of classical music that erects an invisible barrier, whatever institutions might do to cut prices, open doors, and generally put on a face as friendly and accessible as Pappano's own. "You have to keep at it," he says about the mission to explain. "But in the schools, not enough attention is paid to the importance of music as something that can enhance everything else, and just open your brain to other things." Music lessons, he insists, should not bring with them a paralysing burden of expectation. "Not everyone has the kind of talent to be able to make a go of it. But what it brings to you in terms of appreciation – of science, maths, the physics of music – is just wonderful."

Pappano himself hails from a deeply musical family but not, in any sense, an artistic elite. His parents, Pasquale and Carmela, came from Castelfranco in Miscano in the southern Italian province of Benevento: what he calls "the un-Tuscany… the burned yellows of the middle south". On that ancestral ground he stages an annual concert in his father's memory. He was born in Epping in December 1959. His father, although a talented tenor and voice teacher, worked as a chef to make ends meet; his mother cleaned and sewed. Their tireless son sums up the migrant work-ethic he inherited as "both the greatest blessing and the greatest curse". He grew up in a Westminster council flat near Victoria and went to comprehensive school in Pimlico. Despite a passion for football, he started the piano aged six, and picks the moment that set his lifelong course: "For me it was the grade five report on piano, and I passed with distinction. That did it for me – that was the lightbulb moment."

In 1973, his father moved to Connecticut for a full-time job in music. Far from being "mid-Atlantic", Pappano's accent shuttles engagingly between inner London and New England, perhaps with some stronger Italian overtones these days. "I didn't go to music conservatory," he recalls. "I chose the path of experience." He worked with his father, as an accompanist for singers, a discipline he then pursued in opera houses in Connecticut and New York. He studied piano with Norma Verrilli, a crucial influence, and conducting with Gustav Meier. Meanwhile, "I did every freelance job known to man – as a pianist, accompanist, organist, you name it". Hence those thankless cocktail-bar stints. "That gave me a very good, rounded and realistic, view of what being a musician actually was – making a living.

"The key, for me, was that I played the piano well enough to get myself into situations where I could learn more about opera. I had no ambition to conduct… I loved playing the piano, and I loved being around conductors and singers." From New York City Opera he transferred to Frankfurt, still as a rehearsal pianist, and then became Daniel Barenboim's assistant at Bayreuth. His conducting debut came in 1987, with La Bohème in Olso. From the Norwegian Opera he moved in 1992 to La Monnaie in Brussels as music director: the springboard for stellar debuts in Vienna and New York and, in 2002, his ascent to Covent Garden as the house's youngest-ever leader. Behind it all lies that intimate conversation between pianist and singer; his American wife, Pam Bullock, is also a voice coach. "The traditional route for conductors is via the piano, working with singers in the opera house. That's how it worked for me."

When he later took on the task of reawakening the 'Sleeping Beauty' orchestra of Santa Cecilia, Italian and other music-lovers treated the appointment as some sort of ethnic homecoming. Again, Pappano challenges the cliché. In part, he was invited to Rome to bring some non-Italian capabilities to the position. "I've had a kind of polyglot existence – this combination of America, London and Italy: the three. And I speak French and German. This sort of merry-go-round of cultures and languages is part of me. And I have to bring these elements to bear at different times… I don't need to define myself as more Italian. My parents are Italian; my roots are Italian. It's an easy call. But there are elements that this organisation needs that are not Italian – and that's what I'm there for." In Rome, he reports, "we've built the public's trust, and loyalty, to a great extent. The warmth has increased. I say that because in Rome the public is famously, 'Well, show me'. Aloof. That has changed".

So, between Covent Garden and the Parco della Musica, that frenetic Pappano switchback will continue: "You'll hear about it if it doesn't!". But can he, does he, ever manage to relax away from music? "I'm a great eater, and a great appreciator of anything edible. And I love wines and I love to know about wines." Which accounts for the oft-remarked fact that a man who must burn calories on a multiple marathon-runner's scale does not much resemble a rake or a beanpole. "And I love reading now." He has recently immersed himself in Russian classics – Turgenev's Fathers and Sons; Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot – as well as Henry Fielding's "amazing" Tom Jones. "To say that you read in your spare time – I know it sounds basic. But for me, it's really, really fulfilling. Because it's done in silence. And that's the key: if you can carve out enough silent time. Because musicians are in a certain sense over-stimulated. I love studying, and I love reading. I don't have any noise."

So speaks the autodidact from Victoria and Bridgeport. Perhaps because he combined superlative talent with a modest background and a hard-grafting route to the top, Pappano still displays a striking humility in the face of his art, and the sacrifices it demands. The temptations of slapdash cynicism – far from unknown in the classical world, even at its very peak – seem to have bypassed him entirely. He says, almost offhand, that he makes "a conscious effort not to rest on any laurels but to give an energy to everything we do. And you'll get that back. If you deliver it, you'll get it back". From lounge bar to rehearsal room to grand-opera podium, Tony Pappano has always delivered.

Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the orchestra and chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia at the BBC Proms, 19 & 20 July; 'Sacred Verdi' is realised next month on EMI Classics