On This Day: Antonio Pappano & Operatic Progress at the Royal Opera House And Beyond

By Francisco Salazar

He has described his work as a conductor to that of “football” manager. He hates the label “eliticism” when referring to the world of opera, instead seeing it as an art for everyone. He loves all kinds of music and was once a lounge-bar pianist.

If there is one thing that you can admire about Antonio Pappano, who was born on Dec. 30 57 years ago, is that he understands the potential for opera in the modern world. He knows it needs to evolve. He knows that it can have an impact in popular culture. And his actions to date since becoming the music director at the Royal Opera Convent Garden in 2002 have shown just that.

His work for one of the most conservative opera institutions in the world has shown a progressive quality that makes him one of the most exciting artists of our time. Here is a look at a few of his major innovations over the last few years as we celebrate his 57th birthday.

Live in Movie Theaters 

Together with the team of the Royal Opera House, Pappano helped launch the Live in cinemas series. He was not the pioneer of this movement, he found a way to expand it to a wider range of audiences. Where most opera houses only showcase opera, the Royal Opera House also presents ballet. Additionally the conductor experimented with opera in cinemas as the company tried out 3D. The company presented a 3D series that included Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Bizet’s “Carmen.” As part of exposing opera to more audiences the conductor and the team of the Royal Opera House have also provided live streams on YouTube allowing for more interactive experiences where viewers can comment.


Pappano has created a number of series that help educate the opera goer and the newcomer. From his “History of Opera” series to his introductions at the HD broadcasts, Pappano always gives some insight to the music that the audience is about to hear. Conductors are traditionally distanced from the public, usually let the music do the talking. Opera singers are usually the dominant personality in this world, their charisma leveraged to make the artform more popular. But Pappano, who is gifted with tremendous wit and a sunny demeanor, cares little for this tradition. His videos feature him getting into the nitty gritty of opera scores, performing sections for listeners and describing the musical texture or the theory around the composition. He also gives insight into his casting and insight into the rehearsal process, which was a big no-no in the past. These introductions allow the audience to immerse themselves more into the opera and understand what they are to see and who is creating the artform. His mission is to educate and he does s0 in a vastly entertaining way.

Experimenting with versions

In the world of opera, where tradition is tantamount, the decision to take risks and experimenting on established repertoire is innovative. His most famous example would be his work on Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” The opera itself has no definitive form as Verdi’s original version performed was radically altered in the following years. Of those numerous revisions, tradition has established the four-act Italian version and a variable five-act Italian “Don Carlo” as the standards.

And while many conductors have experimented with the music, Pappano brought back the original French version of the work for a famous recording at the Theatre du Chatelet starring Roberto Alagna in the title role. And then just a few years ago he opted for yet another version of the opera which re-instated its opening scene, a new ending, the famed “Lacrimosa” passage after Rodrigo’s death and the mask scene that kicks off Act 3 of the opera.

On a smaller scale, he also performed a version of Verdi’s “Macbeth” that re-instated the baritone’s final aria “Mal per me che m’affidai.” Other conductors had done this on recordings, though rarely in performance.

He also brought back the 1869 version of “Boris Godunov” to the Royal Opera House last season, breaking with the tradition of performing the 1874 version at the house. It is essential to note that the 1869 version was performed there by the Kirov Opera under Valery Gergiev in 2005, but the production last season was the Royal Opera House’s first time doing the work in decades.

The conductor also reintroduced the Ballet in Gounod’s “Faust” in 2004 in David McVicars production. The ballet is almost always omitted alongside the Walpurgis Night scene that accompanies it.

Additionally, he is credited for having brought Verdi’s rarely performed work “Les Vespers Siciliennes” to the Royal Opera for the first time in 2013. The conductor performed the work in its original French text as opposed to the Italian version conducted around the world.

Pappano’s experiments are a distinct signature of a conductor always looking for a fresh way to showcase a classic opera, thus infusing it with new life and perspective.

World Premieres 

Pappano is also credited for bringing two world premieres to the Royal Opera House. The first came in 2008 with Harrison Birtwistle’s “The Minotaur.” The opera made its world premiere on April 15, 2008. He also made sure to bring it to the movies so audiences could experience the work. For the opera he lined up an all star cast that included Christine Rice and John Tomlinson. More importantly he is bringing back the work to the Royal Opera House this season and keeping it alive.

In 2011 the conductor brought Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Anna Nicole” to the Royal Opera. He brought Eva-Maria Westbroek to the lead role and the opera was broadcast on the BBC bringing in 67,700 viewers. It was later released on DVD and like “The Minotaur” was revived in 2014. The opera was so popular at the Royal Opera House that the New York City Opera decided to present it a few years later.


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