A Changing of the Guard at the Royal Opera

After 22 years as the music director at the Royal Opera House in London, Antonio Pappano has a tried-and-true recipe for creating traction around the art form.

“The choices you make and the energy which you share with audiences will keep them coming,” he said.

The British-born conductor, 64, has left his mark on the house through a strong work ethic and an in-depth understanding of the voice. His final production is a David McVicar staging of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier,” starring Jonas Kaufmann, that is onstage through Tuesday. He then leads the company on tour to Japan, from June 22 to July 2, with productions of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Puccini’s “Turandot.”

Pappano, whose parents were Italian immigrants, gravitates naturally toward the works of that tradition. But he has also championed everyone including contemporary British composers, Russian repertoire and Wagner. Through 2027, he will return at intervals to the Royal Opera to conduct all four installments of a “Ring” cycle staged by Barrie Kosky.

Parallel to the Royal Opera, Pappano served as the music director of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, a position that he relinquished last year. The next phase of his career will be dedicated to the London Symphony Orchestra, where he will officially take over as the chief conductor in the 2024-25 season.

On Thursday, his autobiographical account, “My Life in Music,” will be released, including extensive descriptions of his operatic work in London, Rome, Oslo and Brussels.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

It must be an emotional moment to depart from the Royal Opera after over two decades.

This place will always be my home in a certain way. As music director, you have to create a family. And we’re all very close. The interconnection of trust is like a chain.

Opera takes a lot of good will and preparation. It also costs a lot of money. And then the miracle happens.

What values would you say that you’ve instilled as music director?

I believe that an opera performance should be something unified — so that what’s going on in the orchestra pit and onstage make complete sense together. The [Italian] word “maestro” means teacher, to imbue the musicians with a sense of direction, purpose and sense of stylistic appropriateness for each piece, whether that’s Mozart, Shostakovich, Puccini or Wagner.

So I’ve stuck my nose in a lot of different repertoire. It’s been fantastic for me, and I think it has benefited the house. The love for opera is very strong — the desire to create something that’s dramaturgically interesting, where the music is jumping off the page. That’s been my job, anyway. And I think that people have appreciated that approach.

Not insignificantly, your father was a voice teacher and your wife is a vocal coach. What role has coaching from the piano continued to play in your activities?

I grew up in the opera house, working as a répétiteur for many years. So I come from that very traditional background and really worked from the inside.

Working with singers in the young artist program has been very important to me. Because whether I’m at the piano or giving master classes, the idea is that a young singer can be confronted with someone who is on the one hand challenging them and, on the other hand, offering a lot of experience.

It’s amazing how resilient they become when they learn to listen to what is being asked of them. Things like: What are the eyes doing while you’re singing? Are you expressive enough? Too expressive? All those things make up a performance.

I’m always a coach, basically. That’s also what I do with the orchestra. But that means a lot of different things: refinement, drama, tenacity. And flair, because we’re in show business.

Some of the things you talk about are of course becoming a bit of a lost art.

That is true because a lot of conductors start very young. Many are extremely talented and that’s been amazing to watch. But of course, to become a real conductor and especially a conductor of opera, it requires knowledge and appreciation of singers — and knowledge and appreciation of the text. You’re not just conducting notes; you’re conducting words.

What are some of the challenges facing opera in general?

Opera is and was always very expensive. Right now I’m in a country where some arts institutions have fallen by the wayside; others are being starved of support. It’s very frustrating, and I’ve called it out loudly as unacceptable and misguided — also from an economic point of view because there is a huge infrastructure of employment around what we do.

Of course for classical music, it’s become more and more difficult because for governments the art is below last on the list. There’s no or very little exposure to young people, so it’s left up to those with means to give their kids piano or violin lessons.

Orchestras and opera houses have to work so much harder to get the message across because that message is not going in on the ground floor, in schools.

Can you tell us what you have planned for the London Symphony Orchestra?

I’m focused quite heavily on British music that I love very much. Right before the pandemic, I did two [Ralph] Vaughan Williams symphonies with the orchestra, which I’ve been conducting since 1996, mind you, so we’ve had a regular relationship. The London Symphony of course premiered a lot of these works.

Being from Italian parentage and born in England, also having grown up in America, I have very eclectic taste. But for now, I’ll be focused on that.

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