We are at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, in the Music Director Sir Antonio “Tony” Pappano’s office. There is a desk, a couch and many photographs of stage and operas, and on the upper wall four photographs of Puccini.
Maestro, is Puccini your favourite composer?
I think the elements that he combines in his art speak to me very strongly, an art that is made up of sophistication on one hand and raw theatricality on the other hand. The obvious influence that his later scores had on film music is underestimated. I believe he was a pioneer. I have so many composers I am close to, but I think Puccini can often bring out the best in me.
Is this because of your Italian background?
I think I am attracted not only because I have Italian parents but because I grew up in lyric theatre.
Because your father was a tenor?
Well, I heard my father sing and teach that music, and I have accompanied that music on the piano for so many years.
Why did you become a conductor and not a pianist?
Being in the world of the opera, most of my piano playing was for operatic production. Your advancement is not going to take you very far. I was very happy playing the piano and had no ambition whatsoever to conduct, but I was convinced by certain singers that I must conduct because I made the piano sound like an orchestra – and so I was given opportunities to start.
You talked about your affinities with Puccini, but when you were quite young, since 1988, you spent several seasons in Bayreuth – so what about Wagner in your life?
Well, I had a strong need to not be seen as simply an Italian talent. I wanted to learn the German language and I was curious about Wagner and Strauss. I desperately wanted to know more about them. Wagner opened my eyes, my ears, my mind to a completely different kind of theatre and a completely new world of musical invention – a very strong world. I loved to play Strauss operas on the piano, especially Rosenkavalier, Salome, Ariadne and Elektra. Playing the piano, when you have the direct contact with the music, then the music is absorbed so much more quickly. This was the case also with Wagner.
And what about Mozart and Beethoven?
As a pianist I had a steady diet of Mozart and Beethoven and I have conducted the Da Ponte Mozart operas quite often. They are extremely precious to me. They are a stratospheric combination of words and music.
Is Don Giovanni the number one opera?
I am not sure. I think that the most perfect opera of Mozart for its structure and theatrical appeal is The Marriage of Figaro. But this is perhaps just a matter of taste.
But Beethoven’s Fidelio?
I only conducted it once and desperately want and need to try again.
Is the Ninth Symphony Beethoven’s masterpiece?
It is difficult to say which is Beethoven’s masterpiece because each piece is developed from the smallest musical cell or molecule which is put through an inspirational process of expansion, contraction, conflict and resolution, thereby creating a masterpiece of elevated Olympian craftsmanship.
But if you had to conduct Beethoven in Santa Cecilia, where you are actually the music director, what would be your choice?
I twice conducted the Missa Solemnis and hope to return to it often. There is nothing quite like it.
And out of all operas at the Royal Opera House in London, where you are also the music director, what would you really like to conduct?
I have been very lucky, in twelve years I have conducted most of the pieces I dreamed of conducting. I still test myself with new repertoire, but I find myself drawn to repeat things that I think are important for my development.
Tristan, Meistersinger, Otello, Ariadne, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Fanciulla del West and Manon Lescaut, and Les Troyens. I also conducted The Ring of Wagner, many times.
Out of all of Verdi, only Otello?
There are three Verdi operas I am very drawn to: La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth.
You were born in England, your parents are Italian, you were raised in England and America, you have an American wife. Where are you from?
I don’t know exactly – all of the above.
But if you have London, then what about America?
I don’t have much musical contact with America – my mother and my brother live there, but because I am so busy with London and Rome I guest conduct very little.
But if you had to think of a new stage, what would be your dream?
I don’t dream of new jobs, I let nature take its course. If the time and the place are right I would consider a change, but at the moment I am very content where I am.
As a symbol of your double-belonging to Rome and London you were one of the very few guests to have lunch at the Quirinal Palace with HM the Queen and the President of the Italian Republic. They say about it that you made the Queen laugh, is that true?
Yes, it is true, but I am not going to tell you about it. But it was a huge privilege to be invited by President Napolitano to such a small and illustrious gathering.
But do you feel more at home in London or in Rome?
Very difficult question to answer. Contractually I spend six months in London and three months in Rome. What is interesting about the Rome relationship is that, together with the orchestra, we travel the world performing. That happens very seldom with the Royal Opera House. So Santa Cecilia has become my international vehicle.
But London is a much more musical city, is it not?
Let’s say that London is extraordinarily varied culturally, there is so much going on, especially in theatre and music – and now even the cuisine is catching up.
But even if London is very attentive to music, what did you recently say about it?
I said that most musical institutions have to justify their own existence to politicians and that the Opera House in some circles is considered elitist, which I believe to be ridiculous. Because opera, as in all live theatre, creates a community, a community sharing huge emotions that enrich us and make us think.
What do you teach to younger conductors?
There are many people who have an incredible desire to conduct, but the world of conductors is not an easy one. The combination of peerless musicianship, communication skills, sensitivity, and will and leadership ability is a rare cocktail. I think young conductors have to be able to look at a “partiture” from many different angles and rebuild it for themselves.
Not an easy career?
Charisma plays a part in this life. In a certain sense we are involved in show business.
How do you feel when you conduct?
When I conduct I don’t feel these feelings of power that are often associated with a conductor. I am in a state of disbelief of the richness of the emotional content, the poetry, the anguish, the pain, the joy.
What is the orchestra for you?
It is a multifaceted instrument, coloured not only by the different types of individual instruments played but also by the individuals themselves playing these instruments. I believe that to be a conductor you have to have the ability to relate to an orchestra on a human level.
What about the singers?
They are different one from another. You need to be a very good psychologist as well as a good musician to work with them. I admire them tremendously because the vocal chords are a very fragile instrument and so the risks are very high for a singer.
Is the public for music growing and alive among the new generations?
The future audiences will only be as plentiful as the investment we make in very young people today, by exposing them to classical music and other types of music.
You just opened the London Season with Anna Nicole, an opera by Turnage. How did it go?
It was fantastic, partly because the audience was made up of twenty-five year olds and younger, and prices were from one pound to twenty-five pounds. An extraordinary, unforgettable experience.
12th September, 2014
Featured image of Antonio Pappano © ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey.