After 24 Years, a Conductor Returns to the Met Opera

Among the ample attractions of the Metropolitan Opera’s forthcoming performances of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” which runs from Tuesday through Nov. 14 with a cast including Michael Volle as Hans Sachs and Lise Davidsen as Eva, is the long-awaited return of the conductor Antonio Pappano.

There are few more reliably inspired conductors at work today than Pappano, who has been the 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 Pappano’s 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 won’t 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 ensemble’s home after Rattle’s 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 “Die 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.

“It does have a lightness, a spring in its step,” Pappano said of “Die Meistersinger,” “that I find is physically and musically very healthy.”Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

Has your absence as a guest conductor at the Met simply been a case of being too busy?

Well, I didn’t 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 people’s attention, for fund-raising, 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?

Why did you choose to return with “Meistersinger”?

It fit into a slot where I could do it; sometimes it’s as banal as that, frankly. But of course I leapt at the chance, because it’s a piece I love. It’s life-enhancing. Although you don’t guffaw when you’re 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.

It’s 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 it’s 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 singer’s contest, at first say, “No, this guy’s crazy; it’s blasphemy what he’s singing.” Yet Hans Sachs understands that this is something new.

Michael Volle as Hans Sachs and Lise Davidsen as Eva in “Die Meistersinger” at the Metropolitan Opera.Credit…Richard Termine/Met Opera

That’s where your chosen page comes in. It’s taken from Sachs’s Act II monologue, “Was duftet doch der Flieder,” in which he reflects on Walther’s radical, rule-breaking song, and the commotion it caused.

Sachs is musing after the trial, and the melody of Walther’s 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.”

From ‘Was duftet doch der Flieder’

Thomas Stewart, bass-baritone; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Kubelik, conductor (Arts Archives)

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.” Wouldn’t that be great, if we could listen to other people more carefully, and not pummel them before they’ve even had a chance to express themselves?

This is also one of the simplest pages musically. It doesn’t have the contrapuntal richness of the rest of the work; it’s as if Sachs is really listening, like it’s an earworm.

Wagner puts Walther’s 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 there’s an artificiality to it, because it’s so craftily put together. It’s when things are simple that Wagner wants a message really to come through.

“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?

There’s no question it’s nationalistic, but it’s not Nazi. I think that’s 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 that’s unfortunate because of the history of the Second World War. But everybody, I think, defends their culture, their country, their beliefs in different ways. You’ve got to say that in classical music, the Germans have had a lot to give.

I don’t go into a deep depression when I’m conducting that moment. The words Sachs uses at the end were prompted by Wagner’s wife, Cosima, who felt that it needed to be underlined. The whole color of the piece changes for two pages; it’s weird; it becomes melodramatic, even, so you can tell Wagner’s heart was not in it, really.

It doesn’t sound like him?

No, you know what it sounds like? It sounds like Italian opera. It sounds as if it’s not to be given undue weight. That’s my feeling.

“There’s no question it’s nationalistic,” Pappano said of the opera’s much-debated final scene, “but it’s not Nazi.”Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

Speaking of tradition and innovation, where do you intend to take the London Symphony, an orchestra with such a long tradition of its own?

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what I would bring, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve been bringing Tony Pappano to the orchestra since 1996, when I first met them at Abbey Road Studios to record Puccini’s “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 I’ll be going out of my comfort zone, but with sheer delight, especially to celebrate something that I really, really love, and that’s English music.

Is there anything you haven’t achieved at Covent Garden that you would still like to, in the three years you have left?

I’ve been digging ever deeper into the Italian repertoire. You would think that was a given, but no. I’m going to be doing pieces for the first time, like “Turandot.” I just conducted “Rigoletto” to open the season; I hadn’t conducted it in 29 years, can you imagine? The Italian repertoire needs more help, because it’s much more difficult to find glamorous conductors for it. So it’s 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 that’s 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 it’s something that will keep me close to the house. You don’t just throw away 20-odd years and move on. I’ve been very happy where I’ve been working. So don’t fix what ain’t broke.

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