Antonio Pappano, 54, is bringing his Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome to London and Birmingham for three concerts this month.
Nowadays you get described as an "opera conductor and TV personality". Does it get any better for a classical musician?
I've never thought of myself as a TV personality! I'm not complaining. If it brings classical music out in the open and stops it being something to be fearful of, I'm happy. TV is about performance too – in my case it's about the communication of passion, emotion, belief.
We're used to you being in the opera pit as music director of the Royal Opera. Now you're doing a concert – one with a theme, the music of freedom.
I've chosen music from Beethoven's Fidelio and the Ode to Joy in his Ninth Symphony, as well as Dallapiccola's Il prigioniero, linked by the idea of political imprisonment and freedom. I'm particularly interested in programmes in some way connected with war. Most people of my generation haven't gone to war. We've been lucky. We're also doing Verdi's Requiem which, like Italian religion itself, is highly theatrical. It wails, cries, storms, explodes…
Who or what is the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia? Can we shorten the name?
No we can't shorten it! It's born out of a school in Rome named after the patron saint of music – dating back to 1585 and Pope Sixtus V. For the past seven years I've been music director and we've developed a wonderful chemistry – technically, musically. For me, given I spend so much time in the opera pit, getting so involved with the multifaceted aspects of opera, it's a far more intimate collaboration between musician, music, composer.
You could pass for an Italian (parentage) or American (upbringing) or a Londoner (birth and early childhood). Who is the real Antonio Pappano and where is he most at home?
I'm very flexible. I've had to be. All my life I've had to adapt – my parents were immigrants to London and then all of us, when I was a child, moved to the States and so we were immigrants twice over. I try to use everything I've seen, everywhere I've been, in my work: the American immigrant work ethic, the Italian theatricality, the British grit and professionalism. But I'm very much at home in London. I'm involved with a theatre I adore and the people in it. The Royal Opera House is a wonderful platform.
You've made a film with the Santa Cecilia orchestra called The Italian Character? Can you sum up the reality versus the cliche?
An orchestra is about teamwork. The cliche is that getting all these highly individual Italians to work as a team is the hardest thing in the world. That cliche is a bit worn out now, as any conductor who works with the orchestra will tell you: the opposite is true. There's a desire to work together.
Any connection in this respect with Italian football?
There's some truth in the idea that being a conductor is not dissimilar to being the manager of an elite football team. You've always got certain star performers with specific gifts who have to be handled in a particular way. You can't put them in a straitjacket. You have to focus them all while letting them have their freedom. If a player has a big solo coming up, you have to give them the space to explore the music. It's a difficult balance.
In Italy opera was always the art form for the masses. Why has it become elite – in the UK, anyway?
It's still a popular art form in Italy, though for the past 20 years or so Italian opera houses have been stagnating – money issues, union problems, a lack of adventure, bored audiences. I've said often enough that opera houses in Italy have to reinvent themselves. But people are fearful of change. If you look at the Royal Opera House in London, audiences are pouring in, upstairs too, where the seats are cheaper but the sound is better. This elitist label is tiresome. Opera is so visceral, so emotional – and so incredibly thrilling when it's good.
In Germany you are quite likely to go to the opera and see Angela Merkel in the audience. And in Italy all the top politicians turn out for the opening night of La Scala. Politics and music in England?
Not too good. I wish politicians would be open to what's going on in the arts – they could learn so much in every way. Theatre, opera, concerts are brain-openers as well as heart-openers. Instead they seem scared to show their faces.
Have you met the new minister of culture, Sajid Javid?
No! But I have been out of the country for more than a month…
What is a golden voice in opera? Most people would think this still means Pavarotti? Is it God-given?
Great singers are those who project their voice, but also their personality and the essence of what's behind the words they sing. That's why Pavarotti was such a star. My father was a tenor so I'm fascinated by the struggles and qualities of that voice range. The singers I grew up listening to – Corelli, Del Monaco, Di Stefano – and others like Plácido Domingo and José Carreras all had that dual ability. To ping the voice out and the emotion too: that's the package.
You've been outspoken on the question of young singers being pushed and then having to cancel…
Quite a few journalists attacked me for my remarks but not one singer. Life in general is more stressful than it ever was. Everything is more, more, more. With singers it's sooner, faster, louder. If something I said was heard, I am glad. The cancellations won't stop. I've had to cancel myself – when I had tennis elbow and couldn't conduct. It's to do with knowing when work becomes overwork. If I'm preaching, I'm preaching as much to myself as anyone.
Are you a workaholic? Do you fidget at the word "relaxation"?
I'm very good at relaxing! I've set up my life to be a workaholic but that means being able to switch off too. Reading, which requires silence and solitude, is my big thing, especially long novels. I've just finished Bleak House. And I've been reading the Russians – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev.
At least Turgenev novels are short…
Yes but wow, they are dense. Maybe I need that kind of escape…
As if you don't get enough in opera plots…
Maybe that's the way I like it!
I've heard you're quite keen on Beyoncé? And Tony Bennett and Bill Evans – your Desert Island Discs favourite. High art? Low art? Are you at heart a rock'n'roller?
I grew up in the 1970s so the names of bands like Earth, Wind and Fire, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or singers like David Bowie, are part of my life. My interest is only in good music. How singers survive… why they survive. But really, I don't spend all my day listening to Beyoncé.
You've spent quite a lot of time early in your career playing as a lounge-bar pianist. That old Broadway and jazz classics repertoire is in your bloodstream…
Yes, it's there in my background. You never know, if my conducting career goes down the tubes, you might find me there at the back of some cocktail bar, tinkling away.
Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of Santa Cecilia at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 16 May and the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 on 17 & 18 May