Fifteen years after the fact, Susan Woelzl, New York City Opera's director of publicity, still remembers the piano-dress rehearsal vividly. From the dark of the pit, the accompanist had shot off the Candide overture like a blaze of Roman candles. The last chords had scarcely died away when Harold Prince stopped the action and called for a spotlight. "Let's see who's in the pit!," Prince cried. Up stood the company's junior répétiteur, Antonio Pappano (generally known as Tony), all of twenty-two years old, who commuted daily from Bridgeport, Connecticut, with a sandwich packed by his mother. "Kid," Prince proclaimed, "you are going places."
Today, scores in hand, going about his backstage business, Pappano could still pass for some loyal mainstay of the music staff -- a font of knowledge, the ensemble's secret weapon, forever anonymous to the world at large. Thick-set yet elfin of stature, his features soft and round, Pappano in fact answers to the titles of music director of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and principal guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic. This season marks his Met debut, in the new production of Eugene Onegin, a score new to him in a language he does not know. Risky? To a degree, but in the expansionist phase of a career, risk is the price one pays for opportunity. While Russians dominate the Met cast, Pappano is relying above all on cues from Tchaikovsky, in whose match of words to music he finds the same flow as in the immortal Italians.
Pappano has risen to his present heights not by way of conservatory and competitions but strictly by private instruction and on-the-job experience. Generations ago, plenty of the most powerful maestros came up by more or less this route, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Georg Solti among them, but nowadays, their example seems a bit antique. Rather first in some cow town than second in Rome, said Julius Caesar, anticipating contemporary attitudes: to get to the top (in the big time), start at the top (anywhere you can).
Pappano had little formal training for his profession. The bio on file with his management lists as his conducting teacher Gustav Meier, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In fact, they met no more than five times, if that often, when Pappano visited the Tanglewood conducting program as an auditor one week. "But he had an effect," Pappano stresses. "He taught me to make gestures for a reason -- to get music, and not just gestures to get technique." Mostly, though, Pappano believes in the traditions he himself has followed. "For a conductor, training must come from the bottom up," he insists. "The theater is a fantastic training ground. You have to learn how to rehearse, from the first day of rehearsals to the premiere. Some conductors don't know how to do that. The musicians are looking to you to be brought along, to be inspired, not to have their time wasted. The theater teaches you to deal with the technical problems of working with big forces, a chorus, at a distance -- and to give music profile and character, which is what it's all about."
Pappano's speech flows in a murmur that sounds a touch diffident at first -- deceptively so, for the views he takes are clinical, delivered without concern for spin. He will take his hat off to one artist as a "trouper" without failing to add that the vocal material as such is unexceptional. Another he singles out for ease in dispatching one of the most treacherous roles in the repertory, noting, however, that the artist scarcely looks the part.
He turns the same cool eye on his own achievements. Take his baptism by fire in March 1993 at the Vienna State Opera, when Pappano took over a new Siegfried from the ailing Christoph von Dohnányi seventeen hours before the final dress. "That rehearsal was tougher than the performance," Pappano recalls. "I was thrown to the lions! I did it to myself." Did what to himself? "Said yes. But it was very exciting in the second act when I felt I was winning the musicians over." Well, his interlocutor points out, the company needed him. "They could have taken twenty other people," Pappano replies. Fair enough. But how many would have been asked back?
To judge from his dance card, past, present and yet to come, Vienna chose well. As a guest, he has made his mark at English National Opera, Covent Garden, the Berlin State Opera, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Next year's agenda brings a new I Vespri Siciliani in Vienna, and in 1999 Pappano returns to Bayreuth, where he served as Daniel Barenboim's assistant for six years, for his conducting debut in a new Lohengrin.
Interspersed among all the operas have been symphony dates with the principal orchestras of Oslo, Paris, Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles, as well as the La Scala Philharmonic, and contracts are in hand for debuts with the London Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic. Much as he loves the theater, Pappano moonlights with a passion in the concert hall: "It's fantastic to have to communicate clear ideas in four rehearsals instead of six weeks."
Like most conductors who have paid their dues in Germany, Pappano has gone before the public without rehearsal, as in his opera debut: a single Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Aachen in 1987, about which he retains no memory. The tempo of symphonic life, of course, draws on skills hard to hone in the theater. Though Pappano does not elaborate, he conveys the impression that his first outing with a major American orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, was rocky. Subsequent engagements in Cleveland and Los Angeles, however, came off to the evident satisfaction of all parties. American orchestras of top rank, Pappano has found, require a special facility. "Now I'm ready. Before, I wasn't ready. I don't say that to be coy -- it's just the truth. It's easy to become a Eurosnob, but the level of American orchestras is frightening. The possibilities are limitless. But you need a certain shorthand."
Assignments like Pappano's, secured at so comparatively tender an age, would seem the trophies of a grand master in rare command of the game. But Pappano disavows the strategic mindset: "I have fantastic projects. It took a few years to weed things down to new productions with major directors and artists I want to work with. I've been lucky, which hasn't always been the case. I've never looked at a job as a stepping-stone. What's important is that I'm doing pieces I want to do. My ambition is pieces, not my career as such."
Though obliquely, his comment on last year's celebrated Paris Don Carlos at the Théâtre du Châtelet bears witness to the truth of that statement. Directed by Luc Bondy and sung in French by an all-star cast, the production was anticipated with an eagerness bordering on hysteria. Camera crews and reporters hovered over every rehearsal. Pappano's part in the proceedings received no small share of the ensuing accolades, but apparently he was not entirely happy.
The distinctive beauty of his contribution (judging from the dress rehearsal and the live recording on EMI) lay in the aptness and variety of mood, from the gloomy grandeur of the monastery to the shady ease of the grounds, from the moonlit romance of the palace garden to the sun-drenched barbarism of the auto-da-fé. Especially gorgeous was the layering of public rejoicing and private despair at the close of the Fontainebleau act. Individual personalities, especially Karita Mattila's transcendent Élisabeth, registered powerfully. But mostly, the feeling seemed symphonic; rarely if ever did the orchestra help articulate key points of the action: it concerned itself not so much with text, so to speak, as with texture.
Though Pappano likes to imagine stories in symphonies and often finds symphonic qualities in opera, this assessment touches a nerve. Not that he quarrels with it. "Text! The way I work with singers ... that's what I care about! It was hard to work in real peace with all that media attention. The event was more important than the content.... I think I conducted the opera much better the second time, in Brussels. The same production, but with a real opera orchestra in the pit.... There was a very different intimacy, a different sense of detail. The Paris Don Carlos was atypical."
Yet it is the Paris edition that survives on EMI's CD and video. For more representative documentation of Pappano's style, turn to his studio recording of La Bohème with the Philharmonia Orchestra, also on EMI, released almost simultaneously. No less sensitive to atmosphere than in the Châtelet Don Carlos, Pappano here elicits from another all-star cast an ensemble performance that is sharply pointed, moment to moment, yet unaffected, spontaneous, involving at every turn.
Born in England to Italian parents, the elder of two brothers, Pappano landed at age thirteen in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where his mother's parents had already settled. "It was our first stop," he notes, "and we wound up staying there." (Though he carries an American passport, his accent appears never to have crossed the sea, or maybe long years abroad have brought it back.) Luck led the youngster to the piano teacher Norma Verrilli, unaffiliated with any school, to whom he ascribes in large part his formation as a "well-rounded musician," widely and deeply read in repertory of all sorts, able to read anything at sight, capable of accompanying instrumentalists as well as singers. And not above picking up a decent piece of cash in cocktail lounges, such as the now defunct Red Coach Grill in West Haven, at an age when he would have been denied service at the bar.
By day, too, Pappano's skills were much in request. His father, Pasquale, is a voice teacher, and for some dozen years, it was Pappano fils who accompanied the students. "I'd look out the window and think, 'Everybody's playing outside, and I have to work,'" the younger Pappano recalls, while acknowledging the value of the experience. "I learned about breathing. I learned about loving singing. If you don't, as a conductor, it'll show."
After a dozen years on the piano bench in his father's classes, Pappano found employment with Connecticut Grand Opera, first as pianist, then as backstage conductor and chorus master. "I did everything" is his succinct résumé of those brief seasons. At Connecticut Grand he came to the notice of the conductor Imre Pallo, who recommended him to New York City Opera, during the reign of Beverly Sills.
"In those days, and possibly even today, City Opera had the best music staff anywhere," Pappano remembers. Comparable to Vienna? To Bayreuth? "No question," he affirms, speaking from experience of those houses. "I'm not saying I made it that. I was the junior member in a team that was pretty sensational -- John Beeson, Robert DeCeunynck, Diane Richardson.... European experience brings another dimension, maybe. But these are people who know the operas, who speak languages. That's not so common as you may think. To have people who live in the theater ... it's extremely valuable. Coaches are drying up. It's hard now for singers to learn a role well."
Pappano found one especially appreciative customer in bass-baritone Robert Hale, who studied Scarpia with him. Hale's wife, the Danish soprano Inga Nielsen, was another. At her request, he received his first conducting engagements, accompanying her in concert appearances the length and breadth of Scandinavia, from South Jutland and Aalborg to Tivoli. "Surprisingly good orchestras," comments Pappano. The approval, apparently, was mutual; they invited him back on his own.
Nielsen was instrumental, too, in bringing her protégé to the notice of Norwegian National Opera, where after an auspicious debut with La Bohème in 1987 he took over as music director in 1990, a tenure Pappano cut short upon the arrival of an intendant with whose policies he could not agree. An anticipated post as assistant to Barenboim at the Paris Opera was ended before it began by the first Bastille bloodbath. Instead, Pappano landed very happily in Brussels, where he and his wife, Pamela Bullock, a pianist and until recently head of the Théâtre de la Monnaie music staff, make their home. Since assuming the reins in 1992, Pappano has won ovations for repertory including Peter Grimes, Salome, Pelléas et Mélisande, Un Ballo in Maschera, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde, with Ariadne auf Naxos, Otello and The Turn of the Screw soon to follow. In concert programs for the Monnaie, he has accompanied vocal recitals and explored the symphonic literature, ranging from Mozart to Berlioz and on to Debussy, Bartók and Shostakovich in his first season alone.
Probably the most unexpected item in Pappano's Monnaie repertory, however, was a Schoenberg triple bill consisting of Erwartung (with Anja Silja as the Woman) and Verklärte Nacht (choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker), plus the eight-minute Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (Accompaniment for a Movie Scene). Writing in The New Yorker, Paul Griffiths framed his praises in triplicate, citing the "consistently sweeping, surging, searching account" of Erwartung and the "authority, drive and passion" of Verklärte Nacht.
Four and a half decades after Schoenberg's death, the challenge of his scores is one that plenty of busy mainstream conductors gladly leave to the experts. Pappano has no patience for such faintness of heart. "I'm allergic to the word specialist," he says. "Music's music. A conductor may be better in Verdi or Wagner than in something else, but the thought of narrowing my musical horizons that way scares me. I wouldn't feel like a musician if I conducted just Verdi and Puccini -- just because I have an Italian last name. I treat Schoenberg as expressive music. No one writes more expressive markings. I'm not saying it should sound like slurpy romantic music, but it should sing. It's twelve-tone or atonal sometimes, but I think the idea is lines. You even see that on the page. The music isn't just clusters or arbitrary notes. Try to make the notes sing! If you approach it that way, it's much more powerful."
Three composers Pappano has left all but untouched so far are Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. "I'm dying to do Barber of Seville," he confesses, "but I think that lately bel canto is very difficult to do well. You need a fantastic meeting of minds with special types of singers. The orchestra sounds simple, but to me it's the hardest to direct. Maybe I'm a little scared of it.... And there are many things I'd rather do. I'm very choosy about what I perform. I tend to be attracted to what I think is great music. I try to stay away from music I don't think is great. It sounds pretentious, but it's true. Some people make careers doing unknown works. It's safer. I think if you stick around masterpieces, it doesn't necessarily make you a great musician, but something will rub off on you. They change your life. Other stuff doesn't."