Coaching an orchestra, living an opera

Posted: February 13, 2012 at 2:06 am

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The Irish Times - Monday, February 13, 2012


ON MY WAY to meet Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where he’s been music director since 2002, I pass him in the street. A few minutes later, when we meet in his office, he is wolfing down breakfast. It isn’t his first breakfast, he tells me, but it is essential that he gets charged for the energy he is about to expend when he takes that morning’s rehearsal.

His energy is apparent at all times. He’s one of those talkers who can articulate the construction of a sentence a couple of times before settling on exactly what he’s going to say. The ideas sometimes come in a tumble. He’s soft-spoken, with a genuinely mid-Atlantic accent. He was born in England in 1959, a year after his family relocated from Italy, and when he was 13, his family moved again, to the US.

Conducting was never an ambition he nurtured. His father taught singing (as well as being in the restaurant business), and Pappano became a pianist, working in partnership with his father. “I was very happy playing the piano. My father was a voice teacher, I played for his students. For 12 years we were a team. And then I left the fold and went to work in different opera houses, as a repetiteur, as a musical assistant, pianist.” The pressure to conduct came from other people. “They saw in me the possibility that I could conduct, from the way I played the piano. Some friends, they brought me in front of the orchestra, and I did some concerts. I could conduct, one, two, three, four, but I was rubbish.”

He obviously wasn’t total rubbish. “I could communicate something, and I had a spark. So it was something I did every now and again. But then I realised I could almost coach the orchestra, and I came to it more willingly.”

There were a couple of important turning points. “The lightning bolt for me was in 1987 when I conducted Bohème for the very first time. I walked into the room for the staging rehearsals, and I started taking over the direction, telling the singers what to do, no, the acting was wrong, and this and that. I just saw that this is what I was meant to do. The theatre was so much a part of me. That was the moment I knew I had to conduct.”

But his bread and butter was still as a pianist; he was working as Daniel Barenboim’s assistant and was supposed to move to the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris, where Barenboim was to become music director in 1990. “There was some political turmoil, and he ended up not doing the job. So all of a sudden I found myself with my calendar open, and surprisingly it just got filled. Bang! Things came very, very quickly, and I started certain relationships that just flowered and blossomed. All of a sudden, I realised I can do this.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing. “I had a disastrous debut [in Covent Garden] in 1990, when I jumped in for Sir John Pritchard, who had recently passed away. It was a difficult situation for many reasons. There were many cast changes. I had come here too young, it was too soon. This happens. But all’s well that ends well. Twelve years later I became the music director. In those 12 years I was at Brussels as music director of the opera. I invested a lot of time in places where I was fixed, and in every sense, in creating musical families. Because I think that’s the environment I work best in.

“In 1997 I did a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra which started a relationship which to this day is going on. We have a wonderful closeness. My continuing relationship with the LSO has to do with wanting to nurture and keep nurturing something that is a constant in my life. When I got the job in Italy with my Rome orchestra, the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, about six years ago, there was a hiatus with the LSO. All of a sudden, I’d got into another marriage with this orchestra. And I’m here, in Covent Garden, too.

“The investment in time, and loyalty, and creating environments where people understand what it is you’re trying to do, is very, very important.

“Opera is a complete, very complex artform. When all the disciplines are put together and it works, there’s nothing like it. It’s fantastic. Also, how you communicate to the orchestra what they’re playing about – there is nothing opera musicians like more than having a clue as to why they’re playing the notes they’re playing. I love that relationship with them, trying to make the orchestra as theatrically aware as possible. And to sound different with every piece. That there’s not a house sound that you apply. They have to reinvent themselves all the time. That’s very important to me.

“In terms of the symphonic repertoire, it’s opened up a world to me. I had some experience before, but nothing like what I’m doing now. The broadening of my knowledge, and the possibilities in terms of expressing emotion without words has been important for me. The deeper experience is trying to say it without words.”

Key recordings 

Massenet: Werther . Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Thomas Hampson, LSO (EMI Classics)

Verdi: Requiem . Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (EMI Classics)

Mahler: Symphony No 6. Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (EMI Classics)

Antonio Pappano conducts the London Symphony Orchestra at the NCH on Monday.

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Coaching an orchestra, living an opera

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February 13th, 2012 at 2:06 am

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