Antonio Pappano: 'Music can make me Superman'

The musical director of the Royal Opera House is a laughing, wine-loving, life-loving testament to the power of opera

I love a nice requiem: sang in Verdi's, in purple polyester as a 15-year-old in a choir, revised for my finals to Fauré's, its plangent purity echoing my sad plight in being stuck inside, thrilled to Mozart's, as Tom Hulce's giggling Amadeus was laid, tragically, prematurely, to rest. But I'd never, until Sunday night, heard Benjamin Britten's, and I'd never seen Antonio Pappano. When he walked on to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, a diminutive figure sandwiched between Thomas Hampson, a beefy baritone who bears a passing resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Ian Bostridge, a Rupert Brooke look-alike with the air of someone who might, at any moment, be sent to die – with honour, aquiline features and chiselled cheekbones intact – on Flanders' fields, he looked like a Southern peasant in a suit. When he left, an hour and a half later, he looked like a god.

And he is a kind of god. This man, descended, yes, from Neapolitan peasants, can turn a wet November night into a journey to hell and back, a journey that gives you a glimpse of a heaven that may not be there, and of a hell, while war remains, that always will be. Well, OK, Britten played his part, and so did the words of Wilfred Owen and the Latin requiem mass, and so did Thomas Hampson and so did Bostridge, and so did Christine Brewer, a gargantuan soprano with a gargantuan voice, and so did the Tiffin Boys' Choir, and so did the Royal Opera House chorus, and so did the Royal Opera House chamber orchestra, but it was Pappano, since 2002 the music director of the Royal Opera House, who brought and held it all together.

For a rare concertgoer like me, it seems a mystery: how this solid little man (just over five foot) can stand in front of a sea of black dresses and black suits, dotted with poppies and, through a mere flick of a finger, and a wave of a wand, create something like magic. The back appears to quiver with concentration, the helmet of hair shakes, like a wig which has, thank goodness, been tightly glued on, and the arms move, sometimes jerkily, as in some Eighties German technoband and sometimes balletically, like those of a man in a trance. The music crashes and soars, recedes and then crashes and soars again, and then gives way to deadly calm. Alan Partridge would, I think, say it was a roller-coaster. Britten might have preferred the word catharsis.

Pappano likes the word "fantastic". He uses it a lot. Sprawled on the vast sofa of his office at the Opera House, to a background of black and white photos that speak of the great musical heritage of this great British institution, he looks less god, less Southern peasant, and more, in his black T-shirt and trousers, stage hand or what an American might call a "creative". He is an American, actually, or a kind of American. Born in Pimlico to Italian parents who came to London with £5 and hopes of a better future, he spent his first years in a council flat behind Victoria station. When he was 11, they moved to Clapham and then when he was 13 to Connecticut. His accent is transatlantic with a hint of London and just enough of the Italian-American to satisfy fans of The Sopranos.

"I first discovered Britten when I was in Brussels," he says. "I was there [as music director of Théâtre de la Monnaie] from 1992 to 2002 and one of the operas I did was Peter Grimes. It swept me off my feet, of course, and I went to do The Turn of the Screw, which is a completely different thing, this terrible, horrible tale. It was fraught with a sort of hidden menace and I thought: 'My God, the power of this thing.' It's the theatre of these pieces that got me, besides the music being completely at one with what was trying to be achieved theatrically, and I was hooked."

In the War Requiem, it's the interplay of the two texts, the Latin mass and the poems of perhaps the greatest war poet, Owen, that proves so devastating – or, to use Pappano's words, "fantastic". "It's within us," he says, "the noises of those words from the mass for the dead are somewhere in us if you're my age, in your forties, and it's a very, very powerful medium". Well, as a good Catholic boy – Pappano fishes out his gold crucifix from behind his T-shirt to demonstrate – they certainly were for him. But if he imbibed the wrath of God with his mother's milk, he also imbibed the music that fed and nourished him, the music that seems to be the air he breathes.

His father, Pasquale, discovered his own voice singing the "Ave Maria" in church in southern Italy as a child. He dreamed of studying music and somehow managed it, hopping between cooking in a restaurant in London and the conservatory in Milan while his wife, Maria, cleaned offices and took in sewing. By the time Antonio was at primary school, and taking his first piano lessons, Pasquale was working as a voice coach in the West End. At 10, Antonio started to accompany his father's students. He continued to help him until he was 21, when he went off to work as a repetiteur, first in New York, and then in Barcelona, Chicago and Frankfurt. At 26, Pappano was assisting Daniel Barenboim in Bayreuth. At 30, he was music director of Norwegian Opera. At 42, he was music director of the Royal Opera House, the youngest for 47 years.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that he has strong views on education. "We're growing a generation of test takers," he says, with one of those expansive arm gestures I recognise from the Albert Hall, "and people who are not used to thinking creatively. When you're in troubled times like this, you need people who think creatively. Music has got this elitist label and you can't shake it. We try to make it easy and access it for everyone but classical music is actually quite hard. If kids can just be exposed to it ... The Beatles are really, really important to know about but so is Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and Verdi and Puccini. Whenever kids come to the theatre and see these shows, the enthusiasm is amazing."

It's true that the Opera House is involved with some extraordinary projects with primary school children and teenagers and young offenders, but it's also true that this is not where most of the £26.3m of annual Arts Council funding goes. Opera, as everyone knows, is expensive.

On Saturday night, sitting through a truly electric performance of Strauss's Elektra, I was torn between primal passion and petty bureaucracy. As my heart thrilled to the epic drama on the stage, my brain (the brain of a former director of a small arts organisation whose biggest headache was Arts Council funding forms) was mentally totting up the cost of orchestra, stars, costumes, lights, apparently hundreds of singers and spectacular sets, and exploding.

I loved it all: the strange mix of pre-War pinnies and Edwardian gowns, and of Weimar office and classical ruins, the vibratoed screams of anguish resonating through the theatre, and the singers, bloodied after the final massacre, marching on stage to receive their bouquets. It was, in so many, many ways, another world. But as I watched the well-heeled "patrons" sipping champagne in the Floral Hall before, I couldn't help wondering why my taxes were paying for their Saturday night out.

"Well," says Pappano, responding to an accusation that he must hear 10 times a day, "I do believe that our society is measured by the quality of its institutions. Opera has always been an expensive art form ... We're getting money, but we're also sweating bullets. It's a great responsibility, to be able to express huge emotion and maybe that's why people come to the opera to hear voices and be lifted. It's probably not for everyone. Of course you have to put a price on it, and you do, but maybe it's a quality question, maybe you pay for quality. This is a national treasure, this is not just some outfit. This is a big deal."

It is indeed a big deal and one that has, over the past 15 years or so, attracted a lot of controversy. In the early Nineties, it was dogged by petty squabbling and in 1995 washed its dirty laundry in a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary, The House, which merely rubbed salt into the taxpayer's wounds. In recent years, and following its super-expensive refurbishment, it has calmed down. Pappano has proved a popular music director, with Opera House staff, visiting singers, directors, producers – and even with critics. And if anyone thought he would stick to the kind of repertoire you might associate with a southern European, they should be swallowing their opera glasses in remorse. The current season includes Don Giovanni and Il barbière di Siviglia, yes, but also Hänsel und Gretel, Lulu and Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

"I'm restless," he says, "and I'm curious, and I speak different languages, so I'm going to be attracted to French and German and English stuff and Italian anyway, but I'm a product of the 20th century, so I'm very attracted to the music of the 20th century. I like the new. I love the orchestra participation in the drama, because I think that lights a fire under the whole thing. That's the engine room."

In addition to overseeing the music programme at the Opera House, and the bureaucracy that goes with that, and conducting six productions in the current season, and concert performances, like the War Requiem, elsewhere, and doing recordings – most recently of Tchaikovsky and Respighi – for EMI, he is also, for three months of the year, music director of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. No wonder he works 16-hour days. And to top it all, no one will say a word against him. Even his wife, the American voice coach Pam Bullock, is quoted in Lucrece Maeckelbergh's book on Pappano (called, appropriately, Con Passione) as saying "It's not easy to find any bad characteristics about him." Goddamit, is the man a saint?

"She's changed her mind," he says, with a truly infectious peal of laughter. "Sometimes," he adds, "I can be obsessive." Well, yes. That's like the interview question when they ask you about your weaknesses and you say "perfectionism". Actually, you probably can't be a master of anything unless you're obsessive, and you certainly can't be a maestro. But can you also be a walking, talking, singing, playing, conducting, laughing, wine-loving, life-loving testament to the power of music incarnate?

"If you're rehearsing The Marriage of Figaro," says Pappano, "you're the happiest man in the world. If you're rehearsing The Ring, you're everything because there's everything in there. When we were doing the four operas together in the cycle, I felt like Superman."

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Antonio Pappano, classical music's Superman.

Antonio Pappano next conducts 'Les Contes d'Hoffmann' at the Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020-7304 4000), in rep from 25 November to 13 December

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