A Minute With - Royal Opera's Pappano: "No idea I'd be a conductor"

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Antonio Pappano was not born in Italy but his parents were and that, he says, explains a lot about why someone who never had conservatory training is now the music director of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

"Being in the business that I am, and doing a lot of opera, obviously the Italian DNA is very useful," Pappano, 53, told Reuters.

"If you grew up in an Italian family there's a certain theatricality about everything - what's on the table, why we have to eat it and every discussion somehow becomes an argument."

"It's just the way it is and you become sensitive to emotionality, and I think that is a door for opera - and the language is too."

Pappano was born in the English county of Essex, east of London to parents who had emigrated from the Campania area south of Naples. His parents kept on moving and he spent his teens and early 20s in the United States where he played piano in both recital halls and cocktail bars.

He was training as a rehearsal pianist, or "repetiteur", when singers he coached saw he had more in him than a gift for sight-reading. After a series of conducting posts elsewhere, he was named music director at London's Royal Opera House in 2002.

"I had no idea that I was going to be a conductor," Pappano, who takes up the baton this week for Verdi's rarely performed, 4-1/2-hour-long "Les Vepres Siciliennes" (The Sicilian Vespers), which is making a long overdue Royal Opera debut on Thursday night in the great Italian composer's 200th birthday year.

"Others saw in me something else, they said you play the piano like an orchestra, you've got to conduct and that was not what I had in mind at all ... I have no real training and anybody who's watched me conduct can tell that. But I have a lot of practical experience and I have a lot of knowledge about the art form. I get results somehow."

Here is what else he had to say about his reaction to the demise of his onetime employer, the New York City Opera, his take on what he calls the "polemic" in their joint birthday year over whether Wagner or Verdi was the greater composer, and his case for Verdi's big late work that took almost 160 years to reach the Covent Garden stage.

Q: You worked as a recital pianist in the 1980s for the New York City Opera which filed this month for bankruptcy. Could something like that happen here?

A: We have to be very vigilant and work very hard to keep supporters with us. We're doing very well ... (but) it's the nature of things it could happen at any time because governments are really strapped but also, not to let them off the hook, they have no vision either, no understanding that the arts are there to enrich us and people need art to make their brains grow, to make them better at whatever else they do.

Q: You got lots of experience as a recital pianist in America but what else did you take away from your time there?

A: America gave me this curiosity - I had the immigrant work ethic with this insatiable curiosity to want to do more, know more and do better and I think that's America, isn't it?

Q: The music world is celebrating the 200th birthdays this year of two major opera composers, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. You've conducted the music of both, so do you take sides?

A: I must say I'm not too positive about this polemic that's been set up by the press, Wagner against Verdi. They are two theatre men who went about it in completely different ways and both with either exalted or mixed results depending on the case. (In Verdi) there's a really direct emotionalism that works. The pathos is genuine without being complex ... It's perhaps more theatrical than the Wagnerian tendency to philosphise. I think that element is not there, he (Verdi) cuts to the quick.

Q: So why did it take almost 160 years for Verdi's massive tale about love and intrigue during a French occupation of Sicily to reach the Covent Garden stage? Is it a problem opera?

A: The second duet of father and son is very moving, very touching because it is reveals that the younger man is the son of the father and the theme comes back that you meet in the overture. It isn't the same kind of moment as the Grand Inquisitor and King Philip (a duet for two bass voices) in "Don Carlos" but the choral writing for double chorus, the mechanism of it is almost like a Swiss watch. You have the Sicilians against the French so it's quite a big chorus. It can never be huge enough, it's very expensive, but we have a lot of people." (Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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