It’s late April, the height of the spring music season. Surely, Annalisa Pappano and Marcus Küchle, the golden couple of “serious” music in Cincinnati, will be hopelessly tied up in important musical undertakings. But when I call them to arrange a time to speak about their careers and lives, they suggest Saturday night.
“We didn’t have any plans,” says Küchle, as we stroll through the airy foyer of the couple’s massive, late 19th century brick home in East Walnut Hills.
They are busy, though, really busy. But then, you expect that of successful professionals in their 40s. What’s most intriguing is how these two even managed to get together. Their musical passions are so different from one another’s that it’s hard to imagine them co-existing.
He’s a champion of new music, of pushing – or pulling, perhaps – opera into the 21st century. She, on the other hand, is devoted to early music. For her, 16th- and 17th-century composers like Claudio Monteverdi, Richardo Rogniono and Jacopo Peri are not relics of past cultures. They are very much alive.
If it’s true, as they say, that opposites attract, Pappano and Küchle are living proof of it.
In many ways, his day job as Cincinnati Opera’s director of artistic operations has cast him as a wheeler-dealer in all things operatic. He’s responsible for the million and one invisible details so crucial to what he calls the “ultimate team sport.” He is organized and logical and smart. And he wants to be involved in everything.
“What can I say? I’m an omnivore,” he says with a laugh, but he’s serious. It doesn’t matter whether he’s negotiating contracts with singers and designers, practicing on the Shigeru Kawai grand piano that dominates the home’s front room, or engaging in some hardcore woodworking to rebuild the crumbling front porch. He wants to know it all. And he wants to be at the center of the action.
After all, why focus on just one thing when your brain longs to tackle 10 problems at once? Or 50?
At the moment, his most pressing issue – other than preparing the cedar for the porch restoration – is the June 17 world premiere of Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce’s “Fellow Travelers.” It’s new. It deals with issues that are complex and contemporary.
“There are many important questions we need to be asking ourselves,” he says. “What value do we bring to this community, for instance? How do we matter to people? How can we be relevant in people’s lives? Those questions are not always answered by the mainstage productions. Leaving the opera house to meet all those people is where there are big opportunities for opera. I would like to contribute to that.”
Pappano is in the thick of it, as well, with teaching viola da gamba at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and as artistic director of Catacoustic Consort, the early music ensemble she founded in 2001. At the moment, she is preparing for Catacoustic’s world premiere performance of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s opera, “La Fête du Ruel,” on June 4. Commissioned in 1685 as an homage to Louis XIV, the premiere performance was canceled and never rescheduled. Now, 331 years later, Pappano is giving it the audience it never had.
Pappano speaks quietly, even hesitantly. Her voice is soothing, but her words are carefully chosen. Perhaps it’s a hallmark of someone who plays music few people understand.
She was a 16-year-old violinist from Richmond, Ind. – home of the nation’s first high school orchestra, she proudly notes – when she got a scholarship to Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan.
“I took this course called Shakespeare’s Music,” she recalls. “They stuck this viola da gamba in my hands.”
The instrument had strings. But she had no idea what it was. That quickly changed.
“I just fell in love with it,” she says. “My teacher was such a joy. And I felt so relevant playing it. I felt like I had found my voice.”
That had never been the case with the violin. She was a talented player. But her teacher in Richmond had encouraged her to “talk” in other ways when she played, to hold her body differently.
“My teacher knew it wasn’t working,” says Pappano. “But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t my personality. I couldn’t fake it.
When I played the viola da gamba, though, it felt like . . .” She emits a blissful, heavenly sound. Not a sigh. This sound is too emotionally charged to be a sigh. This is one of those moments when words really aren’t enough to describe a feeling.
She not only had found her instrument; she had found her calling.
How was it possible to bring together two people with such strong and different passions? We know the basics. They knew of each other back in graduate school at Indiana University. In fact, their teachers’ studios were across the hall from one another. But they didn’t meet.
After graduating, she played. A lot. He scored an internship and then a full-time job with San Francisco Opera. Independently of one another, they moved to Cincinnati, where they finally crossed paths at an ArtsWave gathering.
“I had heard some of her advertisements and seen some of her email blasts before,” says Küchle. He’d heard a radio interview, too. “I wanted to learn more about her. So I went up to her and said . . .”
“He said he wanted to be on my mailing list,” she says, giggling furiously, as if it was the cutest pickup line a man had ever used.
Before long, they were going to concerts together. And dinner. And more.
They married in December 2010, first at the courthouse in Cincinnati, then three weeks later in Maria Himmelfahrt Church in the spa town of Bad Wiessee, in southernmost Germany.
It took some time to get to that point, though. When they started living together, Küchle was preparing for a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Cincinnati Pops and the late Erich Kunzel.
“I didn’t mind it,” says Pappano. Küchle’s eyebrow arches slightly. “It’s just that pianists have to practice. A lot. And they are loud. And we had a small house. And a big piano. The piano took up a quarter of the house. So you really lived with his music.”
She’s on a roll. But then she stops. Remember, this is a woman who speaks carefully. She tries the humorous approach this time.
“Really, I don’t mind Gershwin. I love ‘Rhapsody.’ I grew up with it. What I did mind was the Pops – ‘Flashdance’ and the ‘Forrest Gump’ theme.” The room is quiet, except for my laughter. It’s not tense. It’s just that Küchle is smart enough to stay silent.
There’s so much he could have said. But he leaves it for Pappano to confess that, as a girl, she used to dance around the house to the “Flashdance” theme. And that she staged neighborhood shows on the back porch lip-synching popular hits and doing magic and making paper jewelry.
“I remember doing ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,’ ” she says, laughing. He laughs, too.
This is, clearly, a happy home. A good place to raise their 4-year-old daughter, Claudia, an aspiring cellist who Pappano describes as “a spectacular handful.” In the course of their time together, both have changed. Or, more accurately, they have learned to accommodate and appreciate the other’s work.
She has learned to accept his love of Rachmaninoff.
“I think that’s the essence of who he really is,” she says. “He’s a Romantic pianist.” And then, she adds, “Really, he does everything well.”
And she has opened his ear to early music.
“In early music, we have different ways of thinking of tuning,” says Pappano. “Flats occupy a different place than a sharp. So B-flat would be in a different place than an A-sharp.”
It sounds like a fine point, something only a musicologist could appreciate. But it’s more than that. It’s a difference that makes the music sound different.
“I remember he came to some concerts when we started spending time together,” she says, then does a hilarious imitation of him grimacing and groaning when he listened to the music.
“He would say, ‘This is so out of tune.’ But now, because his ear is used to this equal way of tuning, he doesn’t even think about it.”
Without missing a beat, Küchle chimes in.
“It’s true,” he says with an enthusiasm almost as great as his wife’s. “The tuning is another form of musical expression.”
She smiles at him. It’s a look of affection, to be sure, but also of admiration.
“He never would have said that before,” she says. “I don’t think he is aware of how much he has grown. His ear has grown. His understanding has grown.”
Today, Küchle says, it’s sometimes difficult for him to hear Mozart or Haydn played by modern orchestras. The instruments are wrong. The size of the orchestra is wrong.
“The instruments weren’t meant for that,” says Küchle. “Sometimes, when I hear a Mozart piano concerto, I feel there are too many people on the stage. They need to send home half of these people. There’s too much sound coming from that stage. It’s about having the right tools for the right job.”
Indeed, that seems to be the mantra for this household. The right tool for the right job, whether it’s the right piano for Rachmaninoff or the correct viola da gamba for a William Byrd fantasia. Or, for that matter, the proper router for detailing the wood on the front porch.
“Being married to Annalisa has made me realize there are different tools out there that are more appropriate for different types of music,” says Küchle. “And there are different ways to be expressive outside of the 12 equal tones. You need to open your ears and your mind to that learning experience. There is so much wonderful music in the world. But if you close your ears to it, you will never really give yourself a chance to hear it.” ♦