NEW YORK, NY.-
Among the ample attractions of the Metropolitan Operas forthcoming performances of Richard Wagners Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which runs Tuesday through Nov. 14 with a cast including Michael Volle as Hans Sachs and Lise Davidsen as Eva, is the long-awaited return of conductor Antonio Pappano.
There are few more reliably inspired conductors at work today than Pappano, who has been music director of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London since 2002 and of the Orchestra dell Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome since 2005. Yet Meistersinger will be Pappanos first appearance at the Met since his debut leading Eugene Onegin in 1997.
The run comes at a turning point in his career. Pappano, 61, will leave Covent Garden in 2024, a year after he does the same in Rome. But he wont be moving far. He will head just a few tube stops east to replace Simon Rattle as chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra at the much-maligned Barbican Center, which is to remain that ensembles home after Rattles plans for a new hall were shelved. The surprising but welcome appointment will unite Pappano and an orchestra with which he has had a good relationship for decades, one heard to spectacular effect on a recent recording of symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
I asked Pappano to choose a favorite page from Meistersinger, an opera about the balance between tradition and innovation in art, set amid a singing contest in 16th-century Germany, and to talk about how he intends to balance the two in his new London post. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Has your absence as a guest conductor at the Met simply been a case of being too busy?
A: Well, I didnt conduct any opera elsewhere either! I take the music directorship job very seriously, in the sense that the idea is to create a musical family, a family in general. With all the competition that there is for peoples attention, for fundraising, even for survival for classical music institutions, the job has become much more than just conducting.
I had to cancel a Met production way back, and Peter Gelb was very honorable about it, so I felt I needed to pay him back somehow. So many of my colleagues are privileged to work with the chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, why not me?
Q: Why did you choose to return with Meistersinger?
A: It fit into a slot where I could do it; sometimes its as banal as that, frankly. But of course I leapt at the chance, because its a piece I love. Its life-enhancing. Although you dont guffaw when youre watching this opera, it is a comic opera, and it does have a lightness, a spring in its step, that I find is physically and musically very healthy.
Its a piece about tradition and the guarding of that tradition, keeping the flame of certain truths that have been established over hundreds of years. But its also about whether a community or an individual is open to change, ready to admit some new force whether it be a person or phenomenon speaking a different language and yet somehow using the same alphabet to open up new doors of understanding, of poetry, of passion. You have a community of masters who, when they hear Walther introduce himself at the singers contest, at first say, No, this guys crazy; its blasphemy what hes singing. Yet Hans Sachs understands that this is something new.
Q: Thats where your chosen page comes in. Its taken from Sachs Act II monologue, Was duftet doch der Flieder, in which he reflects on Walthers radical, rule-breaking song, and the commotion it caused.
A: Sachs is musing after the trial, and the melody of Walthers song is repeating itself over and over again. Sachs says, I cannot hold on to it, nor yet forget it, and if I grasp it wholly, I cannot measure it. But then how should I grasp what seemed to me immeasurable? No rule seemed to fit it, and yet there was no fault in it. It sounded so old, and yet was so new.
Here you have the greatest poet of his generation, Hans Sachs, a cobbler by trade but a genius in writing songs in the old tradition, recognizing the power of the new, and not throwing it away, or ignoring it, or becoming aggressive. It becomes his job to convince everybody not to be afraid of the new.
What a wonderful metaphor for society. At one point, Sachs says, You just have to listen more carefully. Wouldnt that be great, if we could listen to other people more carefully, and not pummel them before theyve even had a chance to express themselves?
Q: This is also one of the simplest pages musically. It doesnt have the contrapuntal richness of the rest of the work; its as if Sachs is really listening, like its an earworm.
A: Wagner puts Walthers song in slow motion, with different harmonic settings, and Sachs speaks over it with this descending bass line; the song is boring deeper into his conscience, into his soul. Meistersinger is a clever piece, in that way theres an artificiality to it, because its so craftily put together. Its when things are simple that Wagner wants a message really to come through.
Q: Meistersinger is often treated as a fraught work. How do you think about its historical associations, especially the few minutes at the end, when Sachs warns darkly of the need to defend holy German art from external threats?
A: Theres no question its nationalistic, but its not Nazi. I think thats important to remember. What Wagner is saying is that society, or outward forces, are going to put our traditions our way of doing things at risk, and so we have to be strong in defending that. Now, he uses what to us are more than nationalistic words, and thats unfortunate because of the history of the Second World War. But everybody, I think, defends their culture, their country, their beliefs in different ways. Youve got to say that in classical music, the Germans have had a lot to give.
I dont go into a deep depression when Im conducting that moment. The words Sachs uses at the end were prompted by Wagners wife, Cosima, who felt that it needed to be underlined. The whole color of the piece changes for two pages; its weird; it becomes melodramatic, even, so you can tell Wagners heart was not in it, really.
Q: It doesnt sound like him?
A: No. You know what it sounds like? It sounds like Italian opera. It sounds as if its not to be given undue weight. Thats my feeling.
Q: Speaking of tradition and innovation, where do you intend to take the London Symphony, an orchestra with such a long tradition of its own?
A: Ive been spending a lot of time thinking about what I would bring, but the fact of the matter is that Ive been bringing Tony Pappano to the orchestra since 1996, when I first met them at Abbey Road Studios to record Puccinis La Rondine. They know me inside-out, you know?
I want to play that to my advantage. I will have been with my Italian orchestra for 18 years, and I did a lot there. London is very different: much less conservative, much more adventurous. So Ill be going out of my comfort zone, but with sheer delight, especially to celebrate something that I really, really love, and thats English music.
Q: Is there anything you havent achieved at Covent Garden that you would still like to, in the three years you have left?
A: Ive been digging ever deeper into the Italian repertoire. You would think that was a given, but no. Im going to be doing pieces for the first time, like Turandot. I just conducted Rigoletto to open the season; I hadnt conducted it in 29 years can you imagine?
The Italian repertoire needs more help, because its much more difficult to find glamorous conductors for it. So its important for me as music director to make sure that it is as supported and as celebrated as it should be. The repertoire of most houses is mainly Italian, because thats what sells the tickets, but I want it to be done on a very high level.
In 2023, I will start a new Ring with Barrie Kosky as director. That will go further than my tenure as music director, but its something that will keep me close to the house. You dont just throw away 20-odd years and move on. Ive been very happy where Ive been working. So dont fix what aint broke.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times