Antonio Pappano: ‘I happily embrace diversity – just don’t blame us for having been bad people’

Antonio Pappano: ‘I happily embrace diversity – just don’t blame us for having been bad people’

Conductor, pianist and music director of the Royal Opera House Antonio Pappano pictured at Metropolis Studios – Rii Schroer

Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director for the past 20 years, is looking back, the day after another big first night in Covent Garden, at the myriad challenges of the past two decades. “I think in my first years, the challenge was to consolidate my relationship with the orchestra. It took time to follow someone who was so beloved as Bernard [Haitink] because I am a very different musician.”

Haitink was universally admired as a conductor, but he focused on his own work with the orchestra, accepting (and ignoring) productions when they did not appeal to him. Pappano – who leaves his role in 2024 – is, on the other hand, immersed in everything. “I am chasing the singers, involved in the productions, and I think it took the orchestra a while to understand what I was about, my focus on getting the whole thing to be good, not just the orchestra being fabulous. That weighed on me a bit, but it gave me something to aspire to. I was able to measure it by the [Wagner] Ring cycles that came every five years or so – we grew much closer together.”

The challenges to opera have accumulated in the past few years. Pappano reels them off: “Ticket prices, it’s too expensive to put on, the accusation of elitism, which I think is rubbish,” and, most immediately – diversity. Pappano points to greater diversity on stage (“which had mainly been a white person’s domain”) as an achievement, but this is less the case in the pit. “The orchestra, that’s a more specialist thing and it depends on education; we’re not in charge of that, the arts have been placed to one side [cuts are happening on the National Curriculum and in higher education], so how can you expect a greater diversity in musicians when only people who can afford lessons are trained in music?”

There are then the cultural issues that have swirled around the portrayals of race and nationality in opera, raising questions of white people’s ability to inhabit these roles without causing offence. Covent Garden spent a great deal of time making its staging of Madama Butterfly more culturally specific and sympathetic, only to be criticised for not going far enough in its casting. “The discussions around Otello and Madama Butterfly and those pieces are much more delicate, and are part of today’s political discussion. I’m having to learn, which I have, talking and being open to both sides on the subject of diversity, and I am happy to go with the times on this, as long as we are not being blamed for having been bad people all these years.”

At 62, Pappano is still as endlessly energetic and curious as ever, the most communicative advocate for the art form of opera, as his two admired BBC TV series a decade ago demonstrated. There’s an Italian ardour that animates him – his parents were both Italian, although he was born in England and is these days a committed Londoner, along with his American wife Pamela, a pianist and vocal coach. When I ask how he manages to make it all work, he says disarmingly “more and more I use humour. And the darker the situation, the more humour manages to relieve it. We had difficult times in the last seasons with the pandemic, the cast of Cav and Pag totally disappeared. We made it work outstandingly well, but nerves were frayed.” Cav and Pag are the short operas Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, usually performed together, for which Covent Garden had a series of singers drop out, including their star signing, Jonas Kaufmann.

Antonio Pappano: ‘I happily embrace diversity – just don’t blame us for having been bad people’

Madama Butterfly performed at The Royal Opera House in 2011 with Helene Schneiderman as Suzuki and Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio San – Alastair Muir

A decade ago, Pappano made some outspoken comments about the capricious behaviour of young singers. I wonder whether his attitude has changed. “What I was talking about back then was a series of cancellations, of, frankly, unprofessionalism. Nobody knows better than me how difficult it is to be a singer in an opera house and I have done everything in my life to support them, but it has to be in the context of ‘we’re all in this together’.” More recently, he says, “I’ve been lucky. Until the pandemic hit.”

Our talk about diversity leads on to the eternal question of opera’s accessibility. Covent Garden is today going some way to combating such concerns. They are launching Royal Opera House Stream, a new streaming service on a monthly subscription basis where you can access productions from the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet archive. Forty-five archive productions will be available from today; with new films of performances of Wayne MacGregor’s new ballet The Dante Project and Rigoletto also being unveiled this month.

“Streaming went into high gear during the pandemic and it’s now a part of our lives,” says Pappano. “This is what we think will bring people into the idea of opera and keep them enamoured of the whole emotional world of the theatre. Most importantly in this new scheme, we have stuff around the operas – you have interviews with the singers, with the directors, you learn about the history of the piece.” In all, 85 behind-the-scenes short films and interviews will also be available on the site.

However, Pappano has an unsurprising caveat. “This is in no way, please God, to replace the live experience in the opera house, but we have to accept that there are people who are still afraid to come into the theatre post-pandemic, and of course there’s the frightful prospect of what energy prices are going to be this winter – this is a way to continue to communicate with our audience, wherever they are.”

Is there a danger it reduces live opera attendance? “That was a fear with cinema relays, and it actually did impact on the Met [in New York] because people used to travel from New Jersey or Connecticut but with all the expense of the babysitter, the parking, the dinner, it cost a fortune to come in and it was easier for them to see it in the cinema. But our audience is different geographically; our cinema relays did not reduce attendance. We’re optimistic it will grow.”

Antonio Pappano: ‘I happily embrace diversity – just don’t blame us for having been bad people’

Conductor Antonio Pappano on stage during the Opening Ceremony of the 124th IOC Session at The Royal Opera House in 2012 – Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Pappano moved to the United States when he was 13, and was classically trained as a teenager. Was he destined to be a conductor? “I stepped very gingerly into that area. There were plenty of people who thought I could do it, I was at the New York City Opera for a while, and I assisted Daniel Barenboim in Bayreuth.” Had Barenboim taken over the Bastille in Paris, Pappano would have gone with him. But that fell through, and Pappano found himself launched into a freelance world, stepping in for an ailing Christoph von Dohnányi in Vienna, and was then a very successful music director for the theatre of La Monnaie in Belgium for a decade before being spotted by Covent Garden in 2002.

When he finally relinquishes his Covent Garden post in summer 2024, Pappano’s era will be remembered as musically outstanding, one in which he cultivated the great singers but also achieved a major creative engagement with directors. One shortcoming has perhaps been limited engagement with contemporary repertory.

What ambitions does he have for these next two seasons? “[Strauss’s] Elektra I gave away three times to others over the years as a way of attracting big conductors, so I’ll do that with Christof Loy in Jan 24, I think [that will be] my last new production.

“I am embarking on a new Ring with Barrie Kosky starting next year [with Das Rheingold in September 2023], one opera a year. Here’s a director who is so at the top of his game at the moment, and he’s the one piece of the puzzle that’s missing for me.” Kosky’s Carmen has been a particular audience hit of recent years.

It’s a mark of how valued Pappano is now in the house that Covent Garden has committed to this Ring cycle, which will continue into the years of his successor, who is still yet to be announced. The rumour mill has focused around Daniele Rustioni, who for a while was Pappano’s assistant, and is currently music director of the Ulster Orchestra, since the leading British contender Edward Gardner counted himself out by taking on posts with the London Philharmonic and Norwegian Opera.

Antonio Pappano: ‘I happily embrace diversity – just don’t blame us for having been bad people’

Elektra performed at the Royal Opera House in 2013 – Alastair Muir

In autumn 2023, Pappano becomes chief conductor designate of the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, fully taking up the reins when Simon Rattle leaves for Munich in autumn 2024. Pappano will maintain his home in London and his links with an enthusiastic audience that is likely to follow him.

Will he miss the theatre? “The LSO have such flair and, dare I say it, a theatricality of their own. I’ve been conducting them since 1996; I’ve built an understanding with them. I do believe music-making is about storytelling with or without visuals.”

Pappano is above all a passionate advocate, and whether for an opera company or for an orchestra, what he will bring them is a sense of identity.

“We’re in challenging times and I think with the generosity of performers, making the case for a group of musicians is the important thing, it’s the criteria by which an orchestra or any artistic body will be judged. Audiences may love it or may not, but they will be able to recognise that there was a point of view here, an energy at the end of the day.”

With the inexhaustible Pappano at the helm, you feel energy will never be in short supply.

Royal Opera House Stream

Telegraph subscribers can enjoy three months’ access to Royal Opera House Stream for £1 per month.

Subscribers can also join Sir Antonio and soprano Danielle de Niese online as they perform and speak to Ben Lawrence on October 26.

To find out more, visit https://extra.telegraph.co.uk/events/pappano-de-niese

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