Norman Lebrecht

Antonio Pappano on diversity, a new Ring cycle and defending Verdi from dodgy directors

Opera is not for the young: the Royal Opera House’s longest-serving music director talks to Norman Lebrecht

The horse beats me to the stage door by a short nose. Known as Tiz, it’s an opera specialist who comes up from Norfolk for 10 a.m. rehearsal and is driven back home each night. Tiz is on call right through the Fidelio rehearsals — unlike, as Sir Antonio Pappano points out, the star tenor who does not show up for the first act.

This is a fairly sore point, and I wait until late in our conversation to probe it. There has been a media hoo-hah about Fidelio tickets going to ROH friends, leaving hardly any for the general public. Pappano, the quiet man of opera, suddenly shoots up an octave.

‘That’s not particularly true,’ he cries. ‘In October, we released several hundred tickets. They were snapped up. We couldn’t sell Fidelio for love nor money the last time we did it. I don’t understand. Is it because of Jonas Kaufmann? Really?? He doesn’t sing until the second act.’

The notion that Covent Garden keeps its treasures for the rich cuts him to the quick. ‘We are going into 1,500 cinemas with Fidelio on 17 March. That’s a lot of people to reach. We are going into people’s houses, where they live. I try to fight with my TV programmes [the idea] that opera is only for elites and toffs. The best sound in this house is where the cheapest seats are. Get in there early and get a sense of community in this beautiful horseshoe.’

After a record 18 years as music director, longer than Haitink, Colin Davis or Solti, he is about to share thoughts about his future, the mere mention of which sends a chill through the building. Put plainly, Pappano is Covent Garden’s talent magnet. The reason Kaufmann, Netrebko, Terfel and co. turn up year after year, and never cancel as they do elsewhere, is that they love working with a guy who has coached singers since he was ten years old, assisting his father, a private voice tutor, in a Clapham council flat.

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