Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti returns to Covent Garden this month to conduct the new production of Aida, directed by David McVicar. Earlier appearances in the house have included Turandot, Il trovatore and Madama Butterfly, all within the last few years.

He’s in demand all around the world and five months ago took up the post of music director at San Francisco Opera, where’s he’s already having a major impact. “Under his baton, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra sparkles, shimmers, storms, and, most importantly, sings” said the S F Examiner of an early performance.

Luisotti was born in the Tuscan city of Viareggio, studied music as a child, with lessons on the church organ, and by eleven was the director of the church choir. He later trained as a pianist, with secondary degrees in composition, trumpet, and voice.

What comes across talking to him, as I did following a late rehearsal for Aida, is an absolute passion for music and also great humility. He sees himself as a servant of the great composers, with little personal ambition other than working at what he loves.

I asked him about the forthcoming production of Aida at the Royal Opera House.

How do you feel about Aida as one of the late quartet of Verdi operas? Is it on a par with Don Carlos and the Shakespeare operas?

I know why you’re asking this. Many people say that Don Carlos is on a different level from Aida but I don’t agree. Verdi found his way three times in his life; he “became” Verdi three times. He created 20th Century Italian music. Without him there would be no Puccini and even, to some extent, Wagner. He was trying to create something new, out of which Wagner came.

Where do the phases of Verdi’s development begin for you?

The second was Trovatore, Traviata, Rigoletto, Ballo and, I believe, Don Carlos. The third phase began with Aida and went on to Otello and Falstaff.

So, a trio of final operas, rather than the more commonly accepted quartet?

People often think he went backwards with Aida. I don’t think so. He was forging ahead, towards Otello and Falstaff. This may scandalise some people but I think Don Carlos is from the romantic period and Aida is much more modern.

It’s an opera of contrasts – there are the grand scenes but most of it involves just two or three people; it’s almost domestic.

It’s very domestic. He had to put in the triumphal scene to satisfy people, as a grand opera, but it’s really about the intimate scenes.

How do you think the opera would have turned out, if he hadn’t had to include the march and ballets? That would have made it very modern.

Yes, very. It’s nearly all scenes with two or three people – Aida and Radames, Amonasro and Aida, Amneris and Radames. Aida isn’t about elephants and camels and spectacle, although many people think it is.

Would I be right in thinking that David McVicar isn’t going down the route of grand spectacle?

It’s certainly not Ancient Egypt the way we think of it! The power struggles of Church and State are very strong. We see that in the world today. In Italy, the Pope is enormously powerful. Politics and Religion are very much with us now and they are very important to Aida. People follow anyone who says he’s connected to God. Still. The end of the opera is decided by the priests not by the King. It’s about today as much as it’s about Ancient Egypt.

That power struggle is very evident in Don Carlos as well, isn’t it?

Of course. They are more alike than they may seem to be.

How have you found David McVicar to work with?

Very good. We’ve worked very closely. He’s a musician as well, of course, so that helps.

I’ve heard that you like to get up onstage and get very involved in rehearsals.

I’ve attended every rehearsal. I can’t just attend musical rehearsals and stand by for the rest. So, I become intimately involved and we create it together. David is very intelligent. We discuss everything together. And we both work very closely with the singers. We are doing Aida, not a postcard of Aida. There are too many postcards at the opera today. It’s off-putting for younger audiences.

A conservative audience would say there aren’t enough “postcards” in the opera house today.

For me, “modern” means to do what Verdi, Strauss, Puccini, Wagner want. You can’t reproduce tradition. What we have today is the score. These great men are talking to us through the score so you have to see them with fresh eyes. I tell singers not to listen to recordings but to study the score and then we can work on it together. You don’t want to be tied down by tradition – the way Corelli did it, or Callas or, in my case, Toscanini or anyone else. Work in communion with the composer. We have to discover the score day by day, even with something like Aida, which I’ve done many times before. We try to do what’s written.

I’ve also heard that you like to communicate through singing?

With the orchestra, yes. I prefer not to talk so I demonstrate through singing. I don’t like to waste time, mine or anyone else’s. It’s a shortcut. The orchestra gets to go home earlier and understand better. I’m not the first to do it. Muti used to do it, Toscanini did. You go straight to the result.

How is the work going in San Francisco?

Very well. I’m very proud to be there. I always think San Francisco and Covent Garden are very similar. The professionalism and kindness of the people. It’s an absolute privilege to work in both places. I’m very lucky.

Aida opens at the Royal Opera House on 27 April. For details of performances and to book, go to www.roh.org.uk