Antonio Pappano: Local hero

For opera-lovers it's a great relief that Antonio Pappano, Italian but London-born, has just signed a new contract as Covent Garden's Musical Director. Anna Picard asks him about the highs - and occasional lows - of this high-pressure job

Antonio Pappano is famously the youngest conductor to have command of Covent Garden since 1955. Yet his was not the meteoric rise of popular fiction. Though small of stature, he cuts a powerful figure. There's bulk in those shoulders, and grit behind the affable pragmatism of a busy man. Were we to come to blows over the highs and lows of his four-year career at the Royal Opera House, I wouldn't fancy my chances.

Of the leading opera conductors of his generation, Pappano had the longest apprenticeship. While still at primary school, he was a professional pianist, accompanying his father's singing pupils in Pimlico. Pasquale Pappano, a tenor from rural Campania, studied in Milan before emigrating to England, where Antonio was born, then took the family to Connecticut when his son was 13. At Bridgeport Central High School, Antonio played cocktail piano for pocket money - the indispensible recording from his Desert Island Discs selection was Tony Bennett and Bill Evans's "Young and Foolish" - before working as a rehearsal pianist for Connecticut Grand Opera, then "deserting" the family business for work in New York, Barcelona, Bayreuth, Frankfurt and Oslo.

One lasting effect of his childhood is an accent Rory Bremner might have difficulty reproducing. Pappano's voice combines the clipped consonants of the Eastern Seaboard with the tangy vowels of working-class Westminster and the shadow of a Southern Italian drawl. Another is his informality. His off-stage uniform is the T-shirt and jeans of a baby-boomer, and he frequently describes himself as "boyish". His secretary at the Royal Opera House is almost motherly in her attentions, though her charge is nearly 47 years old, and the female staffers cluck and coo over the man they all call Tony. This is an integral part of his image as the Music Director who is prepared to roll his sleeves up. On the rare occasion he is not present at an opening night, you can be sure he will have seen the dress rehearsal.

It seems there was never any question that Pappano would be something other than a musician, though his younger brother, who runs an auto-parts store in Connecticut, slipped under the net. You might imagine some bubbling Oedipal resentment, perhaps a private wish to have become a sommelier instead. (His sole extra-musical hobby is collecting wine.) In fact, Pasquale Pappano was, until his death, one of the people whose judgement Antonio most valued. The other is his wife, Pam, a repetiteur. ("She doesn't speak in volumes. She's able to give small doses of the right medicine, and I just have to have the right ears for it.") And piano accompaniment, aside from serving as a stepping stone to a profession he had no initial ambition to pursue, only taking up the baton at the urging of singers Inga Nielsen and Robert Hale, remains a great passion.

One of his finest partnerhips was with the late Susan Chilcott, whose brief but brilliant career bloomed at La Monnaie, Brussels, Pappano's previous house. Now, with the encouragement of EMI, he is developing stronger links with Nina Stemme, the Isolde in his recording of Tristan, Matthias Goerne, the Wozzeck of his first London season, and Ian Bostridge, darling of the lieder circuit. Add these engagements to his commitments at Covent Garden and, as of last year, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and he is working "over 300 days" of each year. Why?

"It's an intimacy, a colour," he tells me. "There's a certain magic that you can create with the piano that belongs to the piano. The piano allows me to come to myself. Most times, you're telling everyone else how to play. You have to have some kind of outlet, otherwise, I don't know... The real reason I play, I think, is I'm looking for the few moments of incredible confidence when I sit at the piano. I'm a good pianist and all that, but I get very nervous because I don't play often. So when those nerves are away, when I'm confident, I'm really good. And I love to enjoy that, instead of it being sometimes the torture it is. I keep playing in the hope that one day it'll become easier."

So far, he has not attracted any accusations of over-stretching himself, and has brought the same lyrical intensity to Keystone Kops howlers such as La forza del destino, which he took over when Riccardo Muti abruptly quit, as he has to Wozzeck, Ariadne auf Naxos and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He describes with pride how he managed to have "a real vacation" this summer, touring Alaska, Napa Valley, Seattle, and Italy, though only taking four days off from studying scores. ("That's a big deal for me!" he laughs.) Whether he is conducting Gounod, Mozart, Britten or Wagner, he is consummately well-prepared, dealing with the question of orchestral sound "on a piece-to-piece basis". I guess it helps to have "a teenager's energy".

Under a Music Director known for his passionate support of Christoph Loy, Keith Warner, Robert Wilson and Richard Jones, Covent Garden has been criticised both for conservatism and radicalism. Pappano is vigorous in his defence of Warner's Wagner, pointing out that even the negative reviews praised the personenregie. "I've never been close to a Ring that wasn't shot down first time around," he says. "Everybody comes out of the woodwork with all this knowledge, but the Chéreau Ring was shot down, and the Bayreuth audiences? Oh my God..." He says he would love to bring back Aida were there singers prepared to embrace Wilson's choreography. "The right balance for people who are paying the prices that they are paying here, well, we're still trying to find it," he says. "The tradition here is that if you're doing Lucia, you gotta have the kilts and tartan. It's as though in the standard repertoire, people can't get past something that is not 'beautiful' or historical in that way. As to which one is me, I'm not an iconoclast in the standard repertoire, in this house."

This is a carefully qualified statement from a man with Italian blood in his veins. But he's not that kind of Italian. Until recently, he thought himself a typical Neapolitan, though not "all 'Hey baby!' walking down the street, ogling the girls, all pizza-this, pizza-that..." Then he began digging into his background and found that his ancestors weren't Neapolitan at all. "Historically, they were a people of their own, called the Sanniti", he tells me, spelling out the word, unasked, and offering a history of Sanniti resistance in the Roman Empire. "They're very hard-working, quite severe, non-demonstrative, quite dignified." Does that describe him? "Well, I always thought I should be more demonstrative. It's become part of my working method. But I'm a little quieter inside. I'm a little more brooding. I clam up. I'm not effusive in the Neapolitan way, and I think this comes from a certain austerity in the way my people are. They're wonderful people but they come from the earth. They're poor like crazy."

It's been some time since Pappano himself was "poor like crazy", but he has had plenty to brood about this year. After Götterdämmerung opened to mixed reviews, Tosca was his nadir. Angela Gheorghiu's disregard for the rehearsal process was widely reported, to Pappano's evident frustration. "The only thing I demand is respect," he says, his brow darkening. "Because I work hard, I know the music, and I'm very positive to everybody. If I feel that respect is not given - especially in defending what this opera house believes in - then I can go off. The moment you talk about music, then it's serious business - done with charm, done with a positive attitude, done with sweating, but respect. I've never gone off with the orchestra. Never. Tension is one thing. Tension is what I'm fighting for all day long. Dramatic tension. But not, um, capriciousness. I don't like to be put off-balance."

With New York's Metropolitan Opera allegedly grooming him for succession on the event of James Levine's retirement, the rumour mill went into overdrive when Pappano's contract came up for renewal. The consensus was that, stung by the constant criticism of his choice of directors and weary of being "dismissed in one sentence" in reviews of Götterdämmerung, he would not be staying. When I raise this, his response is one of shock. "Get outta here!" he exclaims, "No!" There is a long pause. "What is important is that I want the orchestra to tour and we do not tour," he says. "It wasn't a threat. It wasn't that if this didn't happen, I would leave - not at all! What did happen is I put my foot down and said we've got to make some space for the orchestra to do something other than playing in the pit. And that will happen. We have too few opportunities to make music that is not linked to a visual component. I'm trying to avoid getting in a rut, that's all." He throws his hands into the air: "It's an international opera house and it never goes out. It never goes out, and that's ridiculous."

With little official fanfare, he has since renewed the contract. And whether he manages to drag the orchestra out of the pit or not, he is building his profile on the podium. Next month sees the release of the first of a series of live recordings with the Accademia, an orchestra he describes as "like conducting a bunch of 'me's". It is, he says, "an amazing recording orchestra. All that Italian temperament, if you can harness it, jumps off the page. EMI has been fantastic. Finally, it's just me and an orchestra. I like doing it, I know how to do it, and I'm finding through the symphonic stuff, interestingly enough, how to find a real voice. Tchaikovsky was the right vehicle to start off with, those incredible melodies, that incredible sadness and tragedy. That project turned a corner for me - to try and find not just excitement and knowledge but warmth."

This week he will have to find something a little hotter than warmth as Anna Caterina Antonnacci, a singer whose screen-goddess glamour makes Anna Netrebko look like Anne of Green Gables, takes the title role in Francesca Zambello's new production of Carmen. It is, he says, a difficult role "because everybody has an idea of who they want Carmen to be, what they want her to look like, to sound like, how she has to act... You have to have that sexiness in you to pull it off." Will the orchestra sound sexy too? "Yeah. Sure. Of course. Anything that has to do with putting the mood across, the atmosphere, the person... Hopefully, in Carmen we'll come up with something that is interesting to look at, but with strength in the acting. I want the singers to be thinking, and acting. That's my main preoccupation. Because if that is backing up a wonderful production, it's a much richer experience."

After Carmen, he will be reunited with Jones for a double-bill of Gianni Schicchi and L'Heure espagnole, the first time London will have heard him conduct Ravel. His last production of the season is Fidelio, then it's full steam ahead for the three complete cycles of The Ring. "It's still going on in my mind," he says. "For me, a very important bridge was when we reprised Die Walküre, and I think I grew very much. I don't have a weighty Wagnerian presence as a person, and it takes time to find the room in the music. You can drown in that music. I've got a way to go to grow into these things more, to deepen. But I believe very strongly is that I've earned the right to do these pieces, because of the amount of time I've spent with them - as a conductor, as a pianist, and watching somebody else do it. When Barenboim first conducted The Ring he had to go through a maturing process. I'm in the middle of that."

So is conducting an art or a craft? He pauses. Then, "Oh, it's everything from digging ditches to praying, and everything in between. When you're studying as a conductor it's an amazing thing. Because more than any other musician you're working in silence. Or you should be. You drink in the material, and after you know the harmony you sit around at the piano for a bit, finding the concept of the thing, finding the truth. That's a beautiful thing, almost a spiritual thing. Music is art, but when you're a conductor you're getting other people to do it. A lot has been said about telepathy between a conductor and the musicians, and it's either there or it isn't, and there are nights when there is a kind of magic going on. But there's a lot of practical things too: banging in notes, no, do it again, no, do it again!" He laughs and shrugs, "It can be that mundane."

'Carmen' opens at the Royal Opera House, London, ( www.roh.org) on 6 December

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