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“Music makes us better people”

He is regarded as the best Puccini conductor of our day: Antonio Pappano, 54, on the orchestra as a substitute for family, his love of pop music and the poetry of Heinrich Hein

Thilo Komma-Pöllath (Interview)

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Mr. Pappano, famous conductors are usually jet setters. Where do you feel at home?

My parents are from Castelfranco, Italy, but they never stayed in one place. First they went to England, where I was born, then they moved to the United States, where I grew up. I used to need to move on every couple of years, too, but now I have an orchestra in Rome and an opera house in London, and these two cities ground me in some magical way. I have evidently found a way to lead an normal, middle-class life (he laughs).

You probably receive offers from all over the world. Do you have trouble turning things down?

Many of my colleagues are constantly giving guest performances somewhere in the world. That doesn’t appeal to me. Italians are very dedicated to “la famiglia,” and although my wife and I don’t have any children of our own, I need something to draw from for my work. My two orchestras have become my family.

Do you regret never having had children?

My wife would say that I am still a child ... But seriously: Our child is our career. Music is our life; it is so incredibly challenging. Being talented and having the opportunity to perform before a large audience brings with it great responsibility.

Antonio Pappano conducts the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London

When you were young, you accompanied your father, a voice teacher, on the piano. Many child prodigies regret that they never had a childhood. Do you?

I wasn’t a prodigy. When I was young, I was interested in pop music and playing soccer. It wasn’t until I was twelve and started doing well in my piano class that a light went on upstairs. I started accompanying my father’s students on the piano, every day for twelve years, often late into the night. I missed out on a lot, but I was happy because I had found my calling.

“I wasn’t a prodigy”

What did you miss out on?

Spending free time with friends from school. I was almost always with adults. Today it's the other way around, I spend most of my time with young people. They give me lots of energy. Recently, though, I ran into an old school friend and took him to his first opera, The Trojans by Berlioz. My god, five-and-a-half hours, and very difficult material. But he enjoyed it! Time never gets lost – you just discover new things and learn something about yourself in the process.

What has music taught you?

When you are alone with music, it's like standing in front of a mirror from which Brahms or Beethoven peer, asking: “What do you have to say? Where are you now? Where do you want to go? Show me!” I look deep inside myself when I am working on symphonic music. Maintaining a continuous dialogue with myself over the last forty years has formed me as a person and helped me to grow.

The many sides of Antonio Pappano: opera conductor, jazz pianist, pop music fan

Are you a different person today?

Music has a special power to make each of us a better person. It starts in early childhood when a mother sings her baby to sleep. Music is absolutely necessary in our wild, cold, dangerous world. But I'm not a snob. Bowie or Beethoven, either one, I have no preference.

You once said pop songs that explain love in two minutes are the most important American invention of all.

Love is the wonderful thing that pop and opera have in common, whether it takes two minutes or five hours to explain. I played all the great songs when I was young: “All The Things You Are,” “Tenderly” “My Funny Valentine,” Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson … T.Rex and Earth, Wind & Fire were the most important bands for me as a young man. And crowning all of them, of course, The Beatles, but that came later.

“Bowie or Beethoven, I have no preference”

You never studied at a conservatory, but started out playing in piano bars in the small town where you grew up.

I was just 15 when I played at the Red Coach Grill, a cocktail lounge in West Haven, Connecticut. I didn’t take the usual route and go to Vienna to study, but I have observed and performed with many conductors, and learned a lot.

What was it like to receive all the female attention you naturally must have, as a young pianist in a piano bar?

I was no ladykiller. I flirted with no one and kept my eyes firmly on the keyboard. But of course I noticed the special aura I had as a piano player. My fingers were fast and I played well. I was good.

Antonio Pappano became music director of the Royal Opera House in London in 2002. He conducted Verdi’s I due Foscari with Placido Domingo in 2014

You are music director of both the Royal Opera House in London and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. In a documentary, one of the musicians said: “We are not the most perfect orchestra, but we touch people’s souls.”

The goal is perfection but it has to have character. Music is full of history, it has ups and downs, secrets, passion… You have to share all of these nuances, introduce them to the audience. There are too many perfect performances that fail to move listeners because the artist has nothing to say. For me, that’s the biggest sin.

“The goal is perfection but it has to have character”

But young people, in particular, don’t seem to be interested in classical music.

Young people cannot learn to love it because they hardly get an opportunity to get to know it. Classical music is supposedly only for the elite? I’m sick of hearing that, it’s such nonsense. Opera is live music with lots of people. It’s like a rock concert – it’s just that the music is different.

Is that why you no longer use a baton?

I started having trouble with what’s called conductor’s arm, which is at least as painful as tennis arm. A conductor’s problem areas are the shoulder and neck muscles, and mine are as developed as those of a boxer or a weightlifter. I get prescriptions for massage, but I should really do my stretching exercises more regularly. I noticed how much freer I became when I stopped using a baton.

“My neck muscles are as developed as those of a boxer”

Is music addictive?

Yes, it’s like a drug. Rehearsals are very intense, and at some point you start craving them on a daily basis. They become your rhythm. I was very lucky to be allowed to enter the world of “real” music, by which I mean doing opera and working with great singers. I cannot get enough of it.

Antonio Pappano’s career followed an unusual route – and today he no longer conducts with a baton

Are you able to switch off, or is your head always full of music?

When I read poems by Heinrich Heine everything goes still. There’s total silence. German is a beautiful language and at the same time very clear. Take the word “handschuh” (glove, literally hand shoe) for instance. It’s a silly example, perhaps, but it perfectly illustrates my point. German is the language of poetry.

Please imagine for a minute that you could travel to a place you love and choose any composer to accompany you. Where would you go and who would you take along?

Every year, my wife and I spend a week on Mustique, a relatively remote and pretty exclusive Caribbean island, where friends of ours have a house. All my tension falls away when I’m there. Over the last few years I’ve always taken Johann Sebastian Bach along and studied the St. Mathew Passion or the B-minor Mass in the tropical heat. Bach is the ultimate genius. His compositions are structural and architectural perfection, but filled with soul, love and faith. Unfortunately there’s no piano at the house, but if there were, my first choice would be Schumann. There’s no better place to dream along to Schumann than Mustique.

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