Lunch with the FT: Antonio Pappano

We are having an early lunch. Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House, has blocked off the afternoon for a recording session at EMI’s Abbey Road studios in north London, and needs to be there by 2.30pm. The restaurant where we are to meet is five minutes away, but the choice is not purely one of convenience. L’Aventure, I discover during lunch, is Pappano’s favourite London dining place. He held his 50th birthday party there last December.

The midday sun is out and so are the tourists. Abbey Road, in the leafy suburb of St John’s Wood, has long been a place of pilgrimage for fans of the Beatles, who made most of their recordings there. The tourists are busy snapping pictures on the pedestrian crossing immortalised on the cover of the group’s 1969 album Abbey Road. But the studios’ status owes just as much to the great composers and conductors who have worked there since the 1930s – a tradition Pappano will continue at his recording session after lunch.

Pappano holds one of the most powerful positions in classical music. At Covent Garden, where he became artistic supremo in 2002, he controls the choice of operas and singers. Since 2005 he has played a similar role in Rome, as music director of the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Italy’s premier concert ensemble. He is also one of a dwindling number of conductors to have a recording contract. His recent EMI versions of Verdi’s Requiem and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (which this week each won a Classical Brit award) have set a benchmark for modern interpretation of these works.

We are due to meet at L’Aventure at 12.30pm but Pappano rolls up 10 minutes early in a chauffeur-driven car. He receives the welcome of an honoured guest: while we are being shown to the table in the window, he and the waiter chat in French and, once we are settled, Pappano enthuses about the restaurant’s intimacy and seclusion. “It’s a real hideaway. You could be in Paris or Rome,” he says.

Or New York, judging by the accents at the only other table in use. Such is the pace at which Pappano leads his life that you could hardly blame him for wondering which metropolis he is in. After this Abbey Road recording, he is due in Rome to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony. In coming weeks, he has concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra slotted between a run of operas at Covent Garden.

It takes some time for the menu to appear – no orders at L’Aventure before 12.30pm – but when it does, we both settle on salade niçoise followed by fish. Pappano says he and his wife Pam Bullock, a voice coach, eat simply at home: “I’m performing so often that I need to stay in good shape. The problem comes when I go to Italy. I’m open to all the natural ingredients they serve in restaurants there.”

As in his gastronomic tastes, Pappano is at ease with a wide range of musical styles – perhaps stemming from an unusual childhood that gave him all the practical skills for a career in music but little chance to identify with a national culture. The son of Italian immigrants, he was born in 1959 in Essex and raised in a London council flat. He was 13 when his father Pasquale, a singing teacher, landed a job in the US and the family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Unlike his younger brother, who showed little musical interest, Pappano spent much of his youth at the piano – assisting his father by day and playing in cocktail lounges by night. At high school he developed an enduring love of show tunes. His American influences come through in other ways – most noticeably in his informal manner and soft New England accent.

Pappano left home at 22 to become a rehearsal pianist at New York City Opera. He then had two apprentice jobs in Germany before being appointed music director of the Norwegian Opera in Oslo at the age of 30 and of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels two years later, in 1992. He was 42 when he landed the top position at Covent Garden.

His leadership style is said to be the opposite of dictatorial. Colleagues talk of a hands-on, hard-working boss, more approachable than many other top-flight conductors who can be charismatic but aloof. Today, dressed in a light jacket and open-neck shirt, Pappano is the epitome of chilled-out. He nevertheless turns down the wine list, explaining that alcohol is off-limits before a recording session. “I don’t drink a lot,” he says, “but some years ago I started reading about wine. I’m the workaholic type, and the people around me decided I needed a hobby. What I learned was that anyone can spend £100 on a bottle of wine and regard it as a guarantee of quality. It requires more subtlety than that.”

Looking for a segue from wine to music, I ask Pappano whether a good bottle can be judged in the same way as a good performance. “In both cases,” he says, “subtlety and elegance are what one is searching for, but like certain foods and wines, some operas hit you over the head.”

This is the impact Pappano hopes his new BBC Four television series will make. Opera Italia! takes him to the ducal palaces of northern Italy, where opera was born 400 years ago, and shows him rehearsing with today’s leading singers. According to the blurb, the aim is “to explore the central role that opera plays in Italian history and culture”.

I ask Pappano to name the defining ingredients of Italian culture. With no food to distract him yet, he is quick on the uptake. “Weather is fundamental,” he says. “But it’s not just the sun and warmth: it’s the way Italy embraces you with the importance of living. That’s what infuses its art with a sense of beauty. Thanks to Italians’ use of the voice to express beauty, they have come closest to expressing what we think of as human, because when you sing, the impulse is from inside.”

That may be true of the past, I venture, as we finally tuck into our sumptuous salads, but it bears little relation to the Italy of today. I tell Pappano it can be no coincidence that his televised survey of Italian opera stops around 80 years ago, after the premiere of Turandot, Puccini’s last opera. Surely he must recognise that Italy no longer has singers or composers of renown, and most of its opera houses are cash-strapped and artistically moribund. Does he not recognise the dislocation between Italy’s heritage and its cultural life?

Pappano is in a better position than me to judge. Aside from his work in Rome, he makes annual visits to Castelfranco, a small place in the Campania region north-east of Naples, to conduct a concert and connect with his family’s origins. His father was born there – and died on holiday there six years ago.

He says modern Italy may be flawed but not hopelessly so. “Any culture that has enjoyed tremendous success will eventually sit on its laurels: look at Greece and Germany. Italy takes its past for granted, but I see it as an opportunity – to make audiences realise culture is alive, not a museum.”

But, I ask, how do you achieve this when cultural institutions in Italy are subject to the worst kind of political interference? “Every country has corruption,” retorts Pappano, alluding to Britain’s parliamentary expenses scandal. “Italy suffers from extreme union demands and administrative incompetence, but there are plenty of people there fighting the corner of art and beauty, and they are not all over 75. I have a lot of gifted young Italians auditioning for my Rome orchestra. When I see their atteggiamento [attitude], it gives me hope.”

What Italy needs, he says, is a new style of cultural leadership, capable of nurturing talent and making it coalesce, “because one of the difficulties in Italy is how to create teams”. The other necessity is “a highly energised live experience” – by which he means the audience-friendly policies instituted by Covent Garden 10 years ago, involving increased productivity, talks and educational programmes.

“Audiences in the past were more educated [in the classical arts],” he says. “If a person read Tolstoy, D’Annunzio or Dante, they already had a treasure trove of cultural baggage. They didn’t need to have everything explained. If you do a world premiere today, you have to explain the background in the programme and talk to the audience about the music. That’s the only way to keep the buzz.”

I want to shift conversation across the Atlantic, but our salad plates are whisked away and another whiff of France arrives – mackerel and clams with fondue of leeks for Pappano, red mullet à la tapenade for me.

Some critics see New York as Pappano’s next career step, citing his leadership skills and musical catholicity, which could be useful in a flagship institution such as the Metropolitan Opera. Others question his appetite for the market economics of American culture after working for so long in subsidised European theatres, where artistic policymakers are less beholden to big donors. Having spent his formative years in the US, how dispassionately does he view the country now?

“It’s an immigrant culture, a culture in which the excesses balance each other out. What is democracy but the harmonisation of contrasts and extremes? It’s also a winner-take-all society and I don’t like that. America is many things. It’s about black and white, it’s about cities and farmland.”

Mention of farmland takes Pappano into an anecdote about a recent encounter he had with young British pianist Jonathan Biss on a Eurostar train between Paris and London. Pappano had asked Biss, newly returned from Kalamazoo in the US state of Michigan, if anyone had turned up to his recital – the inference being that the geographical expanse between the cultured western and eastern seaboards is one massive Hicksville. “He said it was packed. There had been a mobilisation. When Americans decide to get behind something, they are like no other people. Excess is what America does best – it’s ingrained – and it does have a positive side.”

Pappano believes the British regions are as much a victim of cultural stereotyping as Kalamazoo. Just as the world sees New York as the symbol of American culture, he says, London is assumed to be representative of Britain. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. London is such an amalgam of cultures that it has become a self-contained entity. One of the difficulties of having a bond to London is that when you work here, it’s so much about the work. The process of cementing friendships and feeling part of a community takes a long time. For me it’s a work in progress.”

That suggests Pappano does not yet feel entirely at home. It may also explain his mixed success in judging audience taste. His choice of directors, especially those representing the German tradition, has been heavily criticised: some reviewers (though not me) dismissed Christof Loy’s staging of Berg’s Lulu last year as too cerebral. Are the English by nature insular?

“They are less informed about what is going on in the rest of Europe,” he says. “English theatre tradition is based on a decorative need. It’s about singing and aesthetic beauty, not the intellectual angle. One of the challenges for someone running an opera house is balancing what the audience wants with what you think they need to be aware of. What I’m looking for is poetry and intensity of emotion. You can get that with pictorialism, but you can also get it with a deconstructed approach.”

There is not a morsel left on our plates. Pappano turns down the dessert menu in favour of a green tea. I opt for tarte fine aux pommes, so much more seductive-sounding than plain apple tart.

As our conversation turns to the Royal Opera’s recent Aida, to be shared with theatres in Norway and Spain, I voice my concern about co-productions, which enable companies to share their work and costs. Some stagings do not “travel” well because taste can differ from culture to culture – the Royal Opera’s Tamerlano, imported from Spain in March, being one recent example. Surely, I put to Pappano, the whole point of art is its individuality, rather than a homogenisation of style?

“Philosophically speaking, you’re right,” he replies. “What we’ve been talking about [over lunch] is cultural diversity, and we should celebrate that. But the reality of the world today is that everyone is screaming ‘access’ – it’s about getting a product to different audiences. To do that you co-produce. There are pluses alongside the negatives. The danger in collaboration is that it’s a watering-down of the individual. That’s why we prefer to initiate the show [and then sell it to other companies].”

Pappano has barely 10 minutes in hand before the red light goes on in the recording studio. We bid each other a quick farewell and, carrying a bag of musical scores, he sets off along Abbey Road, unnoticed by the crowd of tourists outside the studios.

‘Opera Italia!’, part of Opera on the BBC, begins on BBC Four on May 24.

‘Simon Boccanegra’ opens at the Royal Opera House, London, on June 29


Blenheim Terrace, St John’s Wood, London NW8

Salade niçoise x 2 £10

Fillet of mackerel with clams £11.50

Fillet of red mullet £11.50

Apple tart and ice cream £3

Green tea £2.50

Still water x 2 £7

Total (including service) £51.18

Showbusiness shows the way

The biggest challenge facing opera houses is to make themselves relevant to the culture and society surrounding them. The Royal Opera House has education programmes, live outdoor screenings and offers lower-priced tickets to attract newcomers. But it must also generate new work that appeals to a 21st-century public, instead of only recycling operas from the past.

Opera was conceived long before the emergence of popular culture. It is most at home in modestly sized theatres, free of amplification. It has always been the most labour-intensive art form, with a cost structure that sits uncomfortably in the modern world. Its golden age was the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when opera started addressing political, social and philosophical issues of interest to a bourgeois public.

To compete with today’s electronic media, opera has to think differently. Some companies have joined forces with the world of film. New York’s Metropolitan Opera scored a 2006 hit with Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly, and in 2008 Los Angeles Opera engaged Woody Allen to direct Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

English National Opera’s 2010-11 programme includes productions by the film directors Mike Figgis and Terry Gilliam. The ROH takes a different view: Antonio Pappano says “movie directors work with very realistic settings. The theatre begs for something less specific: it’s about the suspension of disbelief. The art forms are different. I don’t think we can compete.”

With Pappano’s encouragement, the ROH has instead chosen to stage a series of world premieres, designed to give it a leading edge. Next month it will unveil an evening of short works by three cross-disciplinary composers, including Jocelyn Pook, whose film scores include the 1999 Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut.

Next February it will show the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera, Anna Nicole, about the life of model/actress Anna Nicole Smith. At 26 Smith married an 89-year-old oil tycoon who died 13 months later, triggering an inheritance battle; her son Daniel, 20, died just after his mother had given birth to a daughter in 2006, and the following year Smith died aged 39, apparently from an overdose of prescription drugs.

Pappano says opera has traditionally relied on classical subjects, “which have nobility and a guarantee of a certain quality, but they don’t engage with the world we live in. Anna Nicole Smith represents all that’s wrong with celebrity, commercialism and showbusiness, but her story is about today. It’s important that we deal with these subjects in the theatre.”

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