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`I knew when I read Solti that it was the job for me'

Stephen Fay talks inspiration with Antonio Pappano, the new music director of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano, who becomes music director of the Royal Opera House in 2002, had an uncanny experience last summer. He was reading the autobiography of Sir Georg Solti, who had become music director in 1961: "I got to the chapter on Covent Garden," he says, "and when I read it, I felt I was going to be offered the job. It came into my mind that this is for me. This is what I want."

Pappano is music director at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. It is a prestigious position, but other names, like Christopher Von Dohnanyi, Simon Rattle (always rumoured, never available) and Mark Elder were ahead of his on most shortlists for the Opera House. Pappano heard nothing until December, when he was finally interviewed. "I didn't hear anything for over a month after that, and then I heard a lot," he says. The formal announcement that he would succeed Bernard Haitink came last Wednesday.

Solti's compelling memoir must have suggested to Pappano that, as aspiring young men, they had plenty in common. Both learned conducting in opera houses by working as repetiteurs with singers. Both loved the theatre; both had an explosive temperament, a reluctance to suffer fools gladly; both were perfectionists.

And they liked the idea of working in London. When Solti was offered the job, the great German conductor, Bruno Walter, told him: "The English will love you. They love talented people - but you'll hate the climate." Pappano's talent has still to be judged by the Covent Garden audience, but at least he is used to the weather. He was born in Epping, lived in London until he was 13, and first visited Covent Garden as a boy to see Visconti's legendary production of Il Trovatore.

Solti is the hardest act to follow, but the choice may well prove to have been inspired: "He's got the stubbornness of the English, with the charisma of the Italians," says Anne Evans, who sang a memorable Isolde for Pappano in Brussels.

Pappano does not yet look the part. He has a shock of black hair, deep, dark brown eyes, and a quick and easy smile. He is fresh-faced and stocky; he dresses neatly in a grey sports coat and flannels. In the US, they think he talks with an English accent. Back here, the accent sounds American, but discreet. He speaks fluent Italian, French and German.

Scenes from the life of Antonio Pappano:

In Castelfranco, in the Campania region to the east of Naples, Pasquale Pappano, the son of peasant farmers, is a talented enough tenor to be admitted to the Milan Conservatory. His wife is from the same village, and in 1958 her emigrant sister suggests they join her family in north London. Pasquale teaches at the Trinity College of Music. His son, who is born in 1959, is at the age of 10 already accompanying his father's voice students. At 12, he gets high marks in his exam results from the Associated Board in London when he is a pupil at Pimlico Secondary School: "That was the turning point. I knew then I wanted to be a musician. It was like switching on a lightbulb."

When his family moves to Connecticut, Pappano finds a piano teacher named Norma Virrella: "There was an immediate rapport. She really created me." (Anne Evans says Pappano can make the piano sound like an orchestra.) At 21, he is an assistant at the New York City Opera. He wins the Julius Rudel Award for young conductors. Beverly Sills, the diva who runs the place, offers him a performance of Bellini's Norma, with no rehearsals. "Instinctively I knew this was not right. I said `No' - much to her chagrin. I protected myself."

Aged 22, Pappano is coaching a Danish soprano, Inga Neilsen, who pushes him into conducting her in a number of concerts in Scandinavia where they like what they hear. He makes his debut as an opera conductor, aged 28, in Oslo with La Boheme. He becomes music director of the Norwegian National Opera in 1990.

He fears being labelled. "The name Pappano has the Italian repertoire written all over it. When I started conducting, I couldn't go near Wagner. So I learned to speak German and I worked there, and in Barcelona where they perform a lot of Wagner. If you have a musical personality, no matter where you come from, you can bring something to any kind of repertoire."

He finds a mentor. Daniel Barenboim, who is conducting Wagner's Ring in Bayreuth, hires Pappano to assist him: "Somehow he knew I was innately operatic, and I could translate his ideas to singers. Perhaps he sensed my curiosity about music, and my willingness to learn."

At 32, he becomes music director in Brussels, where Anne Evans finds that he works line by line, note by note. She enjoys rehearsals: "He's got strong ideas of what he wants."

Pappano's confidence makes him prima donna-proof. Perhaps because of his age and parentage, he is one of the few conductors who works amicably with opera's golden couple, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. "We speak Italian together."

Pappano also studies by listening to records, and the conductor who impresses him most is Herbert Von Karajan: "That sound! But what's so special about him is that he conquered every part of the repertoire. He was the greatest Italian opera conductor, and one of the great Strauss and Wagner conductors."

At 39, Pappano thinks he has got the Covent Garden job at the right time: "I'm not too young, not too old." It's what he wanted. He is in the mood to succeed.

Pappano is in the process of reviving his British citizenship. How about "Arise Sir Antonio"? In about 10 years' time.